Grandfather, look at our brokenness.
We know that in all creation Only the human family
Has strayed from the Sacred Way.
We know that we are the ones who are divided
And we are the ones who must come back together
to walk in the Sacred Way.
Grandfather, Sacred One,
Teach us love, compassion, and honor,
that we may heal the earth and heal each other.
– Objibway people of Canada
Last week 160 local and associate pastors, deacons, and elders in the Iowa Conference participated in a two-day retreat that was focused on Peacemaking Circles. As the Commission on a Way Forward continues its work, our conference has made a commitment to sacred conversation around human sexuality in various settings.
Peacemaking Circles have been used in recent years in many contexts, including schools, workplaces, justice systems, neighborhoods, and social services, as a process for difficult and painful, yet respectful conversation. The origin of Peacemaking Circles goes back to the indigenous people of North America, who sat around a circle to listen to each other about issues that were important to everyone in the community.
A Peacemaking Circle is a structured process for building relationships, creating deep trust, decision-making, and conflict resolution in communities. Why a circle?
- A Peacemaking or Listening Circle creates a space where we can be together on an equal basis, apart from our usual ways of relating to each other.
- In a Circle, everyone can see one another, we are fully present to each other, and no one holds a more prominent position than another.
- A Peacemaking Circle embodies a theology of relationship and interconnectedness in the midst of serious differences.
- A Circle encourages everyone to risk sharing their “core self.”
- A Circle draws out both individual and collective wisdom in a safe environment.
I was deeply grateful to the eighteen people in my Peacemaking Circle, whose generosity of spirit permitted me to be a participant, not as an episcopal leader, but as a fellow listener and seeker of collective truth.
Four things need to happen in a Peacemaking Circle for participants to feel safe in expressing their authentic self. First, we created values, those ideals to which we commit ourselves as a group. In our circle, each person wrote a value on a piece of paper and placed it on the floor centerpiece in the middle of the circle. Those values were:
- Everyone’s opinion matters
- Respect (4x)
- Different perspectives
- Being seen and heard
- Unconditional positive regard
- Dignity/sacred worth
- All are God’s children and deserve to be treated that way
- Speaking truthfully with love and care.
Second, we formulated guidelines for our conversation, which were posted on the wall. These guidelines were agreements about how we would make the space safe so that everyone could speak their truth. Our guidelines, which were adopted by consensus, included:
- Don’t belittle
- Deep listening
- Awareness of body language
- “I” statements
- Be fully present
- Listen to the heart
- Honor silence
- Honor the moment
- No assumptions
- Double confidentiality
Third, we were introduced to the talking piece, an essential part of Peacemaking Circles. In a Circle, a “talking piece,” which can be any physical object, regulates conversation. After a question is posed, the talking piece is handed to a participant, who is then empowered to speak from the heart. No one may interrupt or ask questions. After that person is done, the talking piece is handed to the person next to them, who is now able to speak. Again, the other participants simply listen. No one is required to speak if they do not wish to.
Fourth, each session began with a Mindfulness Moment, a time of meditation and/or sacred reading that helped transition group members into the Circle process. The Little Book of Circle Processes by Kay Pranis is a very helpful introduction to Peacemaking Circles. Decisions are not always made in Peacemaking Circles, but when they are, they are made by consensus.
I can only speak for myself, but the ten hours that we spent in our Peacemaking/Listening Circles was amazingly powerful, unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The pace was unhurried, reflection was thoughtful, no decisions were made, and there was space for the full expression of emotions.
Circles are only effective when adequate time is taken at the beginning to build relationships and create trust. Before any discussion could take place about the presenting issue, we had to get to know each other. Some of the questions that were our circle included:
- What is your earliest recollection of being in a church community?
- Who was a mentor/guide for you in your faith journey, and what did you learn?
- Why do you keep showing up? (in a sacred profession that can be extremely demanding and draining as well as incredibly fulfilling)
- When did you first realize that life isn’t fair?
- What does safety look like?
- Why do you stop listening?
- When was a time that you witnessed injustice?
When we finally entered into the Circle process around human sexuality, I sensed that we were in a much better place to do the careful listening that is necessary to truly understand each other. As we engaged around human sexuality, there was more willingness to go deep, resulting in a rich and fruitful Circle. As I pondered the experience, I realized that I had come to know, appreciate, and love the people in my circle in a much deeper way than I know most of my other acquaintances.
Are we the ones who must come back together to walk in the Sacred Way? I suspect that our Peacemaking Circle transformed all of us in ways that God has yet to reveal.
This is a time when
Is split off from
Hardly at all.
But here and there
On this side of the horizon,
People meet in sacred circles
To form communities
And speak their hearts
That seek the same.
[i] Kay Pranis, The Little Book of Circle Processes; An New/Old Approach to Peacemaking, Good Books, Intercourse PA, 2005, p. 69.