How to Have a Courageous Conversation in a Small Group or Sunday School Class
Most of us were taught as children to avoid talking about politics and religion. Lately, however, it has seemed impossible to avoid talking about either. The 2016 presidential election is over and has exposed how fractured, fearful, and divided we are as a nation. The reality for most small groups is that they are already talking religion, and many have found politics to be part of the conversation. How do we engage in healthy conversations that bring us closer together and closer to God in such a politically charged environment? Though often seen as a respite from the political nastiness, the church can serve as the best place for these contentious conversations.
Our culture has fallen seriously ill with confirmation bias, and we too easily surround ourselves with sources that only feed our opinions and biases. Often our biases are subconscious. Internet tracking software closely monitors what we click and view and feeds us more “news” in line with our beliefs.
It takes courage to enter into conversations when we know up front that we may be starting from places of disagreement. However, if we can be brave and enter those conversations, we often discover we have similar goals, just very different plans to achieve those goals. As leaders in the church, how do we plan and facilitate these courageous conversations?
First, you must establish a framework. A good framework should have a group covenant, a trusted facilitator, and conversation plan. The group covenant provides the ground rules for conversation and fosters a culture of respect and safety. There are several sample small group covenants available here, or you can create your own. Whichever covenant you choose, be sure to convey these key ideas: respect for each participant, a commitment to listening, and a willingness to learn.
Part of the human condition is a subconscious desire to confirm previously held beliefs. By definition, we learn only by encountering new thoughts and ideas. Learning, a key aspect of being a disciple, requires a willingness to closely examine (and even set aside) our assumptions and biases in order to more fully follow Christ. That doesn’t mean we simply accept what is shared. Rather, we may come to appreciate a different perspective or experience, whether we decide to incorporate those beliefs or not. As pastors appointed to the whole community, these experiences lead to a greater knowledge of the realities of racism, sexism, and poverty that exist in our communities. We learn because we engage in conversations with people who experience racism, sexism, and poverty.
The facilitator must be trusted by the group. The facilitator needs to be clear about his/her role when the group gathers. While the facilitator may have opinions about a topic, he/she must not be perceived as supporting one side or the other. Rather, the facilitator is there to ensure all sides are fairly represented and that the covenant is followed. The facilitator reminds group members about the covenant they have agreed to and remains calm, no matter how anxious others become.
A conversation plan is also essential. This may include large-group discussion, small-group time, prayer, and silence. Several sample conversation methods can be found here.
Do not overlook the importance of introductions in your plans. Be sure the group has time to get to know one another. It is important that each participant sees all other participants as human beings with hopes and fears…not as “the enemy.” There are numerous techniques for handling introductions. You will want to customize this relational time, depending on whether you have a one-time or an ongoing group.
Second, everyone should commit to deep, active listening. Too often, we think we are listening when we really are just waiting for our turn to speak. Deep listening requires that we take a posture of curiosity. When someone says something we don’t understand or that makes us angry, that is precisely the moment that might be key to our growth. It is a pivotal moment because it can lead to hostility and division, or it can lead to growth – both for the individual and for the group.
Before responding or seeking to be understood, individuals should “seek first to understand.”1 This means listening carefully and asking questions. Try to understand the other person’s position and underlying beliefs well enough that you can restate it comprehensively. Interestingly, this is the same advice we pastors often give in marriage counseling!
When these potentially divisive moments occur in your group, resist the temptation to debate. Go deeper and ask a question instead: “What makes you feel that way?” Or, “Can you help me understand why you think that?” Once the conversation has developed further, it may be helpful for the facilitator to restate the position that initiated the division. Better yet, the facilitator could ask someone from the “other side” to articulate the position. Third, create a courageous space. How your space is configured matters. A classroom with a podium up front implies power for whoever is at the podium. If possible, arrange seating in a circle or square so that everyone can make eye contact with everyone else. This seating arrangement conveys a sense of equality for everyone participating in the conversation.
Visuals are also important. Make two large reproductions of your group covenant on poster boards or adhesive flipchart sheets. Place these on opposing walls so that every participant can always see the covenant, no matter where he or she sits. This will help the facilitator keep everyone on track and will be a visible reminder to everyone about the “ground rules” for the conversation.
Similarly, use poster board or flipchart sheets to post a few Scriptures pertaining to unity in Christ. Two helpful Scripture passages are James 1:19-20 and Galatians 3:26-28. Even be willing to contextualize Galatians 3:28 by adding Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives.
As we search the Scriptures together, worship together, pray together, receive the sacraments together, and engage in honest dialogue with one another, we can uncover subconscious biases. Uncovering a subconscious bias can be an enlightening and welcoming experience for some. It may be a traumatic and chaotic experience for others. This is where creating courageous spaces for courageous conversations fosters an environment for growth. When adults can experience moments of vulnerability–where our assumptions may be exposed–that is the prime opportunity for real learning and discipleship.
I(Chris)vividly remember one such moment from thirty years ago. An African American co-worker was on a romantic date with his wife when he was pulled over and treated roughly by the police. A carjacking had recently occurred, and this person was pulled over because he was a black man driving a nice car. The police realized their mistake after a few minutes and apologized, but, needless to say, the date was ruined. Hearing that story helped me appreciate for the first time that everyone is not treated equally and fairly, in spite of our many laws. A false assumption died, but real growth occurred.
A Final Word
Talking politics in our partisan and divided country can be risky. Taking the time to be deliberate and intentional in creating the proper environment for conversation can go a long way toward setting the stage for learning and growth. This important work can bring healing to places of division. Small groups and Sunday school classes are ideal places for Courageous Conversations. Jesus prayed that his followers would be known for how they loved. May we all treat one another such that Jesus’ prayer is fulfilled.
1 Habit 5 in the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Steven Covey (Simon & Schuster, 2013)
Rev. Chris Barbieri, Deacon in the North Georgia Conference. Currently appointed as the Interim Pastor of St. Andrews UMC in Carrollton, Ga.
Rev. M. Scott Hughes, Director of Adult Discipleship, Discipleship Ministries.