In a society inflated on independence and engorged on ego, we do not look kindly on regulations or discipline. Little thought is given to what can be learned and discerned through mutual submission and thus we all suffer. This is America. This is me.

Our overemphasis on individuality is clearly seen in our culture’s meager attempts at group meetings and decision making, whether in school settings, work conference rooms, book clubs or church bible studies. We sit down in a room full of others to discuss a particular topic or to make an important decision. But despite good intentions, folks often leave feeling disenchanted or apathetic, rather than productive or encouraged due to overly loquacious leaders, filter-less and frequently repetitive comments from a few and the silence of a fearful or disinterested majority. Ever been here?

I confess I have camped in all three spots, ineffective group facilitator, discussion dominating personality and hidden among the mass of the disenfranchised or unengaged; I am not above the fray. But as I prepare to teach a class along the lines of “Re-Visioning the Church” this Fall, here are some thoughts on how we can perhaps improve on ineffective interactions and shift the paradigm from individual to communal contribution.

***

Seasoned improvisational comedians are a joy to watch because aside from wielding uncannily quick wit, they demonstrate superb collaboration. Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock fame, was recently interviewed about her new memoir, Bossypants, and was asked what she learned during her time with the Chicago based improvisational comedy group Second City and at ImprovOlympic, a comedy theater and improv school a block from Wrigley Field.

Communal Discernment advice can be gleaned from theologians (St. Ignatius) and comedians (Tina Fey) alike

Her response was intriguing and insightful. She noted that when she would teach improv to new students, she would begin by asking “When do you enter a scene?”

“Well, when you have an idea,” the rookies would say.

“No,” she would reply. “When do you enter a scene?”

“When you think of something funny to say.”

“No,” would come the rebuke. “ The answer to ‘When do you enter a scene?’ is, ‘When someone needs you’. You are only to enter when someone needs you.”

Fey stated, “It’s this great mindset of contributing, but as a group.”

Contributing as a group requires that people enter the conversation when they are needed. Brilliant. But how do I know when I am needed? Surely, the arrogant or overconfident are likely to believe they are needed frequently and the quiet or those with low self-esteem will underestimate the value of their contributions and err on not speaking enough.

Enter the Conversation Covenant, to which I was first introduced in November 2009 during a New Monastic School for Conversion weekend in North Philadelphia. The folks at the Simple Way and Camden Houses did not shy away from asking us to enter this covenant of respect as a matter of first importance, believing that in order for conversations to be most fruitful and transformative, all persons must consciously make room for the Holy Spirit to move among the community.

Rather than attempt to reinvent the wheel, here are the guidelines of the Conversation Covenant, slightly modified, as written up recently by the New Monastic folks for use in their fourth P.A.P.A. Festival held just a couple weeks ago outside of Philly:

Conversation Covenant

1.          All persons must agree to the covenant of respect.

2.          We commit to respecting each person in the group, especially when we have different viewpoints. We will listen to what the Spirit is offering us through each other. When we are challenged by another’s perspective, let us lift up our confusion or concern to God, that we may achieve greater understanding.

3.          Let us speak the truth in our own heart. Let us not argue with each other. During appropriate times, may we engage in a mutual search for deeper understanding of the complex and multi-faceted faces of God.

4.          Let us make sure that each person is heard, that there is a balance of sharing among all participants. During discussions, let us not speak twice until every other person has had the chance to share.

5.          Let us allow a brief period of silence after someone has spoken before the next person speaks, that we may drink in the meaning of what each has offered.

6.          Step Up / Step Down: If you are a person who tends to share readily, it is your responsibility to be mindful and make room for others to speak. If you are a person who tends to be quieter, it is your responsibility to take opportunities to make your voice heard.

7.          Priority of voice: People of color and women will be given first priority in speaking or sharing.

8.          Let us allow someone to pass if they do not wish to share. After everyone has shared, let us make room for those who have passed to add their thoughts.

9.          Let us remember with gratitude that the Spirit of God is in each person in our circles.

The Step Up / Step Down guideline, number six above, is a beautiful expression of the interdependent nature of Shalom and challenged me throughout that first weekend as it continues to today. I frequently struggle to limit myself to only one comment in group settings until everyone has had a chance to share, but when I make the effort to try to step down, I listen to others’ contributions more attentively and value their comments to a greater extent. Even comments I disagree with allow opportunities for me to “make my enemy my teacher.” Limiting what I share also hopefully allows my own contribution to be more efficient and effective while forcing me to acknowledge that if God wishes to speak, He can do so through any and all of us, reminiscent of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

St. Ignatius, a 16th century Spanish theologian and founder of the Jesuits, believed communal discernment of God’s will could be assisted by asking a series of three questions. Following his lead, should you find yourself in a group setting with something to say, first ask yourself, “Does this need to be said?” If yes, the follow up question should be “Does this need to be said now?” If again in the affirmative, the final question is “Does this need to be said by me?” or as Tod Vogt of Mission Alive rephrases it, “Am I the one to say it?”

The discernment process outlined by Ignatius limits my own will and intervention in a conversation and fosters trust as individuals are brought to recognition that if God has something to say or to reveal, it will be said or revealed through someone in the discussion. We need everyone’s voice, not just the usual suspects. When a group is willing to step up and step down in this manner, relying on the Spirit to speak, we can feel confident that God’s voice can be heard and that His direction can be made clear.

Comments
  1. erfisher says:

    Beautiful expression of that which I have and continue to struggle with. Thanks for the post, brother!

  2. Thanks, brother. This was a much needed and thought provoking post. Have you done extensive reading in St. Ignatius? I enjoyed beginning (before I lost and rediscovered) my copy of Karl Rahner’s book on the work of Ignatius, called “Spiritual Exercises.” Your post brings me back in my mind where I wish to return with my eyes and my spirit.

    • Thank you brother. I was just thinking about you last night during a visit to see Wilton, who asked about you by the way, and so was pleasantly surprised to see your comment upon my return home. Unfortunately, my knowledge of St. Ignatius is limited, but I would like to become more acquainted with his Spiritual Exercises. Perhaps down the road we can have a book swap.

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