You don’t really learn something until you practice it. In early March, Heidi De Jonge and I were asked to facilitate a restorative conversation at a church not our own. We had both previously taken the FaithCARE training course. Heidi had led several restorative events, and I had done one, but neither of us had ever applied our learning to a challenging conflict situation in another church.
The conflict was between the church council and a ministry employee whose contract had expired and was not continued, so that he had to look for other employment. The church was very happy with the ministry the employee had provided, but the church was shrinking, leading to a restructuring of its ministry that did not include the position. On the other hand, through his ministry the employee had become deeply embedded in the life of the congregation, and he had not been successful in obtaining another position. The combination of felt personal loss and anticipated financial insecurity had taken a toll on the employee’s health, to the point where he felt incapable of finishing his contract. Council had extended the contract by several months to give the employee time to find another position, so it felt it had been more than just in its dealings with the employee.
We asked both parties whether they would be open to a restorative conversation. At first the employee and his wife were reluctant, as they had had a bad experience with a restorative event some years before, but eventually they agreed. We also asked each of them to suggest someone who would support them during the restorative conversation. Council also agreed, though one member expressed skepticism about the need for the conversation.
Since it was clear from the outset that the contract between the parties would not be extended indefinitely, we decided early on that our conversation should not look into the events that led up to the present situation but should look for a way to move forward. Hence Heidi and I settled on the following version of the usual set of questions used in restorative practice:
- What are the key issues you are facing as you end your time together?
- Who is being affected by this separation, and how? How are you being affected?
- What is the hardest thing for you in this?
- What needs to be done to create a good ending?
- What are you personally willing to do to contribute to creating a good ending?
We wrote an invitation letter to all 19 participants, in which we included the five questions as well as the check-in question: “What is something you love about your congregation?” We then telephoned the three key participants (employee, his wife, and the chair of council) together, and divided the remaining 16 participants for individual calls. In total this took close to 10 hours. These calls revealed strongly opposing positions.
The restorative conversation started at 7:00 on a Monday evening. We had assigned seating so that the employee and his wife were flanked by those who were there to support them, and so that the chair of council faced them. We also announced a fixed order (not the seating order) in which people would be asked to speak. This order was chosen on the basis of our phone calls, making sure to mix the points of view we had heard, and making sure that the support participants spoke near the end. We reminded everyone, and ourselves, that we were not there to solve their problem but to help them do it themselves. We made it clear that we would avoid signs of encouragement as people spoke, and that we would even avoid making eye contact. After introductions and the check-in question we asked the first three questions. Once we had gone around we asked if anyone had something to add, popcorn-style (giving people the floor as they asked for it). We were somewhat flexible when some repeated themselves, though at one point we had to call a speaker back to the questions.
This all took a very long time with such a large group, but it was time well spent. It became clear to all that the effect the separation was having on the employee and his family was much deeper than most had thought; the conversation also revealed the structural potential for injustice in relying on limited contract positions; and the conversation revealed the genuine appreciation for the employee and his ministry, the loss that would be felt by all, and loving concern for the employee and his family.
We then asked the last two questions using the same order of speaking. This went much more quickly. There had been a lot of good listening by now, and it was becoming clear that a consensus was forming.
After the questions had been talked through we reached the Agreement phase. It was made clear that the meeting was not a council meeting, so it was a bit challenging to formulate points of agreement without making them sound like council decisions. It was even more challenging to get people to find a clear formulation of the consensus that was emerging. One of us managed the discussion (popcorn-style, using the talking piece) while the other recorded the suggestions on a whiteboard. Everyone was getting very tired at this point, and it was difficult to know how much we could help formulate the decisions without introducing bias. Eventually, though, we had four points of agreement which were then typed out and signed by everyone. By now it was well past 11:00 pm, but God had blessed our work. We ended the evening with a check-out question, a singing of the doxology, and donuts.
The effort was exhausting but also rewarding and exhilarating – so much so that as we tried to get out of an unfamiliar town on the road home we took two wrong turns because we talked through and missed the instructions given by our GPS. It was a wonderful learning experience for both of us, and all indications suggest that the evening went a very long way towards restoring a painful situation.