This is a sample outline for Courageous Conversations that is not specific to an issue or a situation. Churches have conflicts about all kinds of issues — from the color of the carpet to the possibility of starting a new worship service. As John Paul Lederach observes, “Conflict is normal in human relationships, and conflict is a motor for change.”1 Instead of avoiding or fearing conflict, churches that handle conflict well can be learning organizations that promote healing and transformation.
The following is merely a sample. Feel free to adapt the time and other variables as needed for your particular context.
Setting for a Safe Environment:
Set up the room with a small circle of chairs (4-8).
Place Guidelines for the Conversation around the room in large print or on a projection screen (See Sample Guidelines for Courageous Conversations).
- Small circle of chairs
- Paper and pencil for each person
- Index cards or slips of paper
- Small crosses or some other markers to serve as talking sticks
- Printout or screen for displaying Guidelines
- Printout of prayers (See “Prayer Guide.”)
- Drinks and snacks
- Bell or chime for beginning and ending times of silence
- Microphone to enable all to hear the speaker(s) clearly
The following is based on a 120-minute timeframe. Adjust as needed. This sample lesson, in particular, could be done in a retreat setting covering several hours if needed.
Opening Prayer (3 minutes)
Overview (10 minutes)
Setting Aside Baggage* (10 minutes)
Sort Cards: Whole Group Variation* (60 minutes)
Break (5 minutes)
Large-Group Reflection (30 minutes)
Closing Prayer (2 minutes)
Begin with silence and/or the lighting of a candle to represent God’s presence. This time of silence is important to center yourselves and mark the space and time as unique. Have a copy of the prayer for everyone to follow along or participate in the prayer. (For examples, see the Courageous Conversations Prayer Guide)
Give an overview of the main topic of discussion. Point out and read the conversation guidelines. Reinforce that this space is a safe place for people to freely express their opinions and perspectives.
Setting Aside Baggage*
Form people into small groups, with a maximum of three people to a group. Allow each participant no more than two minutes to answer any or all of the following:
- What is keeping you from being fully present today?
- What I hope for today is...
- My greatest concern/fear regarding this is...
Remind the participants that this is a time of naming and listening, not for discussion – that will come later.
Sort Cards: Whole-Group Variation*
Individual Time (10 minutes)
Distribute paper and writing utensils. Participants are to write one idea per piece of paper. This can include, but is not limited to the following (you might need to define or give examples of each):
- Feelings (These might either be an idea people want heard by the group, a possible solution or situation that needs to be addressed)
As people finish, ask them to turn their papers in. Ask a small group of people to categorize the papers and display them for the group.
If you have more time, the group could do the categorizing as well. Additionally, participants can add more cards as new ideas arise upon seeing those displayed by the group.
Prioritization Time (15 minutes)
With either stickers or pen strokes, participants then mark which of the items displayed deserve more attention. (For example, you might give each participant five stickers to place on the ideas he or she feels the group should focus its attention.)
If the group is highly anxious, allow an additional step. In this step, participants turn over any cards that they feel strong disagreement about. The group could then spend some time discussing why there is strong disagreement about these particular issues. (A facilitator should be appointed to moderate this group discussion.)
Determine the issues that will be the focus of the remaining time.
Final votes could be cast during an informal/formal break. This will allow a mental break before jumping into the small-group time.
Small-Group Time (35 minutes)
With participants now in small groups, allow for focused conversation using some or all of the following (or similar) questions:
- What new information/perspective have you heard today?
- What are you most curious about regarding this issue?
- What is it in you (your assumptions, experiences, biases, etc.) that causes you to react so strongly regarding this issue?
- What seems scary regarding this issue?
- Where do you believe God is involved in this issue?
- What Bible stories of passages shape how we might view this problem?
Large-Group Reflection Time
This time is for the larger group to reflect on some of the statements that were made during The Sort Cards experience. The aim is to reflect on the perspectives heard from other participants.
This is the part of the exercise that will require the most from the facilitator. The facilitator should not voice any of his or her own opinions or comments, but encourage the freedom of various other perspectives. The facilitator’s role is also to clarify assumptions and issues for the group. Additionally, the facilitator will need to model calm when anxiety grows as the result of particular comments.
In the large group, the facilitator can use the following questions to move the group toward consensus and problem solving:
- What is one strength of someone else’s opinion that has challenged you or that you would affirm?
- What common values have surfaced?
- What do we seem to agree on?
- What actions could we agree to do from this conversation?
If possible, ask participants to use a microphone when they speak so that everyone can hear. Give a time limit for how long each person may speak. One way to emphasize attentive listening is to have participants state only what others have stated. This is intended to keep people from stating their own perspectives (and often pet agendas).
Before ending, allow any participant who would like to answer in one sentence, “One thing that I will take with me from this conversation is…”
End with silence and/or the lighting of a candle to represent God’s presence. Have a copy of the prayer for everyone to follow along or participate in the prayer. (For examples, see the Courageous Conversations Prayer Guide)
*For more detailed instructions about these models, consult The Little Book of Cool Tools for Hot Topics by Ron Kraybill and Evelyn Wright.
Teachable Points about Church Conflict
The following is a minimal representation of teachable points. Be aware there are many others that could be included. The aim of these outlines is more about listening and uncovering assumptions than hosting a debate or passing on information. As noted in the Introduction to the Sample Courageous Conversation Outlines, the point is not providing more information or arriving at a consensus.
Scripture passages of note (a minor sampling)
- Acts 15:1-21 — Conflict and disagreements are not new to the Christian faith. Conflict is a part of life within a community of others. When the first believers had disagreements, they made time for silence and for listening (15:12).
- Matthew 18:15-20 — Jesus advocates that we take our disagreements to each other and not hide behind immaturity. As well, Jesus encourages group discernment.
- 1 Corinthians 13:12 — None of us has perfect wisdom. Even the Apostle Paul advocated for humility in holding our opinions.
- James 1:19 — James encourages us to do what is often against our nature of being self-defensive – to listen first. We are better off getting curious, then getting mad.
- Ephesians 4:1-16 — Paul writes about the unity of the church being a gift. Paul also advocates that we live with “humility and gentleness…,” while also encouraging us to “speak the truth in love.”
The following resources are not an endorsement of any particular viewpoint. Rather these are some of many potential resources that could be of benefit for those looking for more information or in help to broaden perspectives.
- The Little Book of Cool Tools for Hot Topics: Group Tools to Facilitate Meetings When Things Are Hot by Ron Kraybill & Evelyn Wright
- The Little Book of Dialogue for Difficult Subjects: A Practical, Hands-On Guide by Lisa Schirch & David Campt