As politics poison churches, a nonprofit teaches deep listening

The topics were loaded: flags in the church sanctuary; separation of church and state.

Nine South Carolina United Methodist pastors with differing political views recently met online with a facilitator to learn a set of techniques for discussing such polarizing political differences.

The sessions were designed to teach them to listen actively and demonstrate understanding.

As each pastor spoke about his or her opinion on the topic, his colleagues reflected on what they were saying in a practice designed to help the pastor feel understood.

It was more difficult than many in the group thought.

A pastor, trying to restate a colleague’s opinion, recalled a small detail not relevant to the larger point. Another did what many pastors do: He added his own homiletic gloss to the argument. However, another pastor admitted that he stopped listening to the details of his fellow pastor’s position because he was already trying to formulate his own response.

Polarization is dividing American society, not only politically but socially, geographically, ideologically and religiously. Mistrust, contempt, even enmity are on the rise. United Methodists split over LGBTQ ordination and marriage. Jews are divided over their views on Israel. Evangelicals are torn over coronavirus restrictions, vaccines, critical race theory, or whether the 2020 election was stolen.

Resetting the Table, an 8-year-old organization dedicated to creating meaningful dialogue across political divides, is trying to engage clergy and congregations, among other groups, in more productive discussions.

The group is under no illusions that it can resolve conflicts or foster agreement. Their training sessions are not intended to produce consensus or even find common ground. Participants are not expected to walk away thinking differently about a problem.

Rather, the techniques they teach are meant to enable people with profound differences to see each other in all their humanity.

“Listening to those who disagree with us is part of what it means to hear God’s voice,” said Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, founding co-director of Resetting the Table. “We must investigate our differences with courage.”

The organization has so far trained some 43,000 people in a carefully structured process that allows participants to listen, talk and challenge each other with respect. Funded by Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw’s Hearthland Foundation, it works not only with clergy and congregations, but also with entertainment industry workers, journalists and care professionals. But their work among religious groups is especially critical because these communities are among the last places where people with different worldviews come together.

Weintraub has become an expert on disagreement. While completing his rabbinical degree at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he co-founded Encounter, a Jewish organization that takes American Jews on trips to Bethlehem, East Jerusalem and Ramallah to meet with Palestinians and better understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Resetting the Table, his new company, does much of its work in Jewish settings. But with a staff of 11 and a network of facilitators, it has expanded its training to include clergy from other, mostly Christian, religious traditions. (A short documentary about the group’s work in rural communities in Wisconsin and Iowa shows how the process works.)

The Rev. Robin Dease, pastor of St. Andrew by the Sea in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and former district superintendent of the state’s United Methodist Conference, said the tensions she sees in her own denomination led her to propose the two sessions between her colleagues of the clergy.

United Methodists are fragmenting, Dease said, and people are not engaging with each other.

“People leave abruptly without any conversation, without meeting to deepen the issue: theologically, spiritually, exegetically and socially. We’re not having the conversation,” Dease said.

Dease, who is also part of the denomination’s social justice arm, the General Board of Church and Society, had heard about Reset the Table and participated earlier this year in an interfaith training session for the clergy of the southeastern states. After concluding, he chose a group of fellow pastors (some liberal, some conservative) from his own denomination to deepen the practice.

An initial session last month asked participants to talk about formative life experiences. He then asked the clergy to complete a survey of their beliefs, which the facilitator used to gauge broad areas of disagreement. During the next session, people of different opinions were paired into smaller groups.

Table-setting techniques are based on a practice known as “transformative mediation.” Unlike traditional mediation, which aims to resolve disputes by reaching mutually acceptable solutions, transformative mediation seeks to equip people with the skills to see and understand the other person’s point of view so that they are more willing to relate respectfully.

The idea, said Eyal Rabinovitch, with Weintraub a founding co-executive director of Resetting the Table, is to disarm the destructive powers of conflict.

“One of the best ideas in the world of trauma therapy is that people are their most receptive selves when they are seen the way they want to be seen,” Rabinovitch said. “We want people to say, ‘Yes, that’s exactly me.’ That makes all the difference in producing receptivity. A lot of change can happen right now.”

When differences arise, participants are asked to slow down the conversation, stop their own reactions, and listen carefully. They are asked to look for “meaning indicators,” words or expressions that convey particular passions. They are then asked to relate what they heard the speaker say and to ask if their restatement is correct.

The training was powerful for an evangelical church in Lynchburg, Virginia, which signed up 15 members to participate in a training session in April. Mosaic, a small church that meets in a shopping mall, had experienced disagreements over pandemic closures. Some members left. Others harbored resentments over the church’s willingness to follow government-issued mandates that they saw as an infringement on their liberties.

“I was fascinated to learn that on some issues it was very easy for me to have a very fixed view and not have a generous interpretation of what the other individual believes,” said Ron Miller, a Mosaic Church elder who works as online dean for the School of Government of the University of Liberty. “The idea of ​​looking at the other side of the issue and interpreting it more generously is a game changer if we apply it as a daily discipline.”

Miller is now working with Resetting the Table to convene a training for Lynchburg clergy this fall. He believes that internships can also be useful for Liberty University employees.

Rabinovitch acknowledged that clergy with large public platforms and followers who depend on their extreme positions are unlikely to want to participate because doing so requires a degree of vulnerability. But they say most people yearn to communicate better.

Jeff Nitz, an elder at Mosaic Church, said the work could save society from a growing cycle of mutual distrust.

“It’s about reaching out to your neighbor,” he said. “We are not caricatures. We are real people. You can’t have that if you don’t listen to the other.”

Religion news service

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