While the great religious traditions teach the importance of compassion and reconciliation, what is often missing among the adherents of those traditions are practical ways of embodying compassion and striving for reconciliation. Restorative practices are increasingly being appropriated in local congregations as they offer effective mechanisms for compassionate communication and restoration of relationships.
Over the last 30 years, the principles and practices of Restorative Justice have infiltrated multiple institutions—most notably the criminal justice system and schools and universities across the world. When an offense has occurred, restorative practices address the harms that have occurred and the need for an offender to take responsibility for his or her behavior. Restorative practices are also concerned with the needs of those who have been harmed and the community or organization of which they are members. These needs and harms are discussed by participants in a circle process or “conferencing” session in which structured conversations (often using a talking piece) take place, and understandings or agreements are reached by the participants themselves.
In the last decade, many religious congregations have also appropriated the principles and practices of restorative justice. Even when no “offense” has taken place, the introduction of a talking piece and several simple ground rules can transform conversations about sensitive issues. In their book Transforming Church Conflict: Compassionate Leadership in Action, Hunsinger and Latini (2013) provide clear guidelines for creating “Compassionate Listening Circles” that incorporate restorative practices. As the authors note:
If universal needs represent qualities of life in the kingdom of God, then compassionate listening circles provide a concrete means for congregations to strive for God’s kingdom of peace. As members recognize the needs most alive in their own hearts, they might gain the insight that these are also the needs of those with whom they (perhaps vehemently) disagree. In this way, they might recognize anew their profoundly mutual involvement in the kingdom (p. 192).
What do restorative practices look like when implemented in a local congregation? Here are two examples based on the experiences of real congregations that have utilized restorative practices such as circle processes in recent years.
Temple Shalom offers evening classes for both children and adults, and recently one adult class decided to collectively read a book that proposed theological interpretations that challenged traditional orthodoxy. Each week the teacher would give a brief summary of the chapter assigned for that week, and then passed a talking piece around the circle of participants giving each participant the opportunity to comment or to silently pass on the talking piece to the next participant. The teacher reported that she had never experienced such rich perspectives in response to a book study, as it was clear each person felt that his or her contribution would be honored and not discounted by other participants.
The Placid Valley congregation has been impacted by conflict within its denomination that has focused on the ordination of LGBTQ individuals. Knowing that the congregation contained a spectrum of views of this question, the pastoral team resolved to schedule a series of congregational conversations organized by two experienced facilitators. The conversations focused on what participants loved and appreciated about the congregation as well as their views on the identified controversy. Each conversation took place in smaller circles of six to eight participants and used a circle process methodology with a talking piece. Participants in the conversations consistently remarked later on the “love and respect” they felt while in the circle.
While a restorative congregation will incorporate the use of restorative practices, it may also experience a cultural change at an even deeper level. While I have never witnessed a congregation that I would call “completely restorative,” I have been privileged to accompany (and attend) several congregations that I believe are committed to becoming “more restorative.” All three of these congregations shared the following traits:
- Leaders who communicated clearly that they would respect and listen to a variety of perspectives—not only those opinions with which they happened to fully agree.
- Structures and mechanisms which permitted conflict to be addressed before it blew up, including simple guidelines about “going first to the person with whom you disagree.”
- A congregational culture that saw disagreements and conflict as normal and potentially transformative–rather than something to be feared and avoided.
- A commitment to work in a redemptive and restorative way when a harm occurred in the context of the congregation—while being very clear about naming the harm and protecting future victims from that harm.
This combination—of leadership commitment to being restorative along with structures and culture that support that commitment—is rarely encountered in modern congregational life. I would estimate that about 10% of the congregations I’ve accompanied over the last 30 years are actively working to become more restorative. Yet the impact on members and the broader community of such a commitment are profound. Congregational members report an increased love and respect for each other and the faith community of which they are a part. Community members sense that something has changed within the local congregation, and the reputation of the congregation in its own community can shift dramatically.
Becoming a more restorative congregation is a journey, and like every journey it begins with a single step. Making the decision to become more restorative is the first step. For congregational leaders, I would particularly recommend chapter 10 of Hunsinger and Latini to assist in making that decision.
David Brubaker has consulted with organizations and congregations in the U.S. and a dozen other countries on organizational development and conflict transformation. He is the author of Promise and Peril, on managing change and conflict in congregations, and When the Center Does Not Hold, on leading in an age of polarization. David serves as Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Professions at Eastern Mennonite University and is a professor of organizational studies.