You must understand this, my beloved brothers and sisters: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for human anger does not produce God’s righteousness. James 1:19-20.
The Eastern PA Conference’s Camp & Retreat Centers may be ideal places for the Courageous Dialogues that began at Innabah Oct. 24 and continued at Pocono Plateau, in the North District, on Monday, Nov. 14. Their amiable, bucolic beauty, so open and distant from our busier, anxious population centers, offers what seems to be a viable space for grace.
And grace—the kind that followers of Christ cherish—seemed to be in ample supply at the initial dialogue. It began with song and scripture, and with gentle words of wisdom about attentive listening as the first act of love—listening not only to hear but to feel and to understand, if not always to agree.
Indeed, the primary goal of the series known as Courageous Dialogues is “authentic listening.” The Rev. Tim Anderman, pastor of West Grove UMC, recommended the encounters in a resolution that the 2022 Annual Conference approved.
“Human sexuality is one of the most complex dynamics we experience in life,” he explained. “Yet many people with various viewpoints act like they have it all figured out, and that it is easily defined, when it is not so easy to do. People often seek and settle for a ‘bumper sticker mentality’ to address some of the most complex issues we face.”
He described active listening as “essential to our faith because it models God’s listening to us in prayer.” And he described telling our stories as “vital in helping us claim our identities…in Christ.”
“The dialogues are designed to create sacred space where clergy and laity can share their stories with one another,” explained Anderman. “Our hope is to create the setting and fellowship for us to build trust, so that we can learn from each other. It can be a process we share in our church fellowships…as a template for working through other issues.”
Indeed, some participants came seeking such a template. The Rev. Sue Ketterer, pastor of Bethel Hill UMC in Lansdale, hosts “Where Are We United Methodists Headed?” dialogues among her church members on Sunday nights. They watch and then discuss brief videos offering counter viewpoints by the Rob Renfroe of the conservative Good News Magazine and the Rev. Adam Hamilton, centrist/progressive pastor of Church of the Resurrection UMC in Kansas. She came to Innabah to help lead worship and to learn about the dialogue process.
“It was not what I expected, but God wanted me there to share and to hear others’ heart stories,” she said.
The Rev. Maria Kollar, pastor of Ridley Park UMC, was glad for the post-pandemic, face-to-face fellowship; but she also hoped “to acquire skills that would enable me to begin such dialogues within my congregation. The gathering met and exceeded my expectations.
“While listening to the stories of my table group, and seeing them struggle to tell their stories, I experienced respect and compassion due to the courage required to be honest,” she said. “I am now emboldened to at least participate honestly when such conversations begin and allow them to mature into dialogue. I intend to share this experience from the pulpit as an example of God at work through the Holy Spirit, and to witness to how we each can embody God’s work when we are open and willing to hear, listen, and share.”
Sue Kiefner, CLM, lay pastor of Salem UMC in Springtown, appreciated the well-formed discussion questions but was surprised by some viewpoints she heard. “Still, I wish others who thought differently than I do were present so I could get a better understanding of their perspectives.”
“The Church has the potential to do so much good in the world, to share the love of Christ with so many people,” said the Rev. Andrew Foster III, East District Superintendent, in his opening meditation. “However…we need to hear their stories, understand their hurts, empathize with their anger, and then, when they have nothing else to say, that is when we speak our truth. It’s time to start using our ears before we use our words.”
The Rev. David Woolverton, who writes and teaches about conflict resolution in the church, provided “A Covenant for Our Difficult Conversations” that focuses on selflessness and rejects superiority. The Rev. Evelyn Kent Clark offered a closing meditation that also focused on the power and process of active listening.
The Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm, who worked with Anderman to organize the dialogues, shared core values to ensure courageous but safe conversations with authenticity and respect, not trying to “fix” people but instead hearing each other’s heart with outward-focused minds that can avoid “flight or fight” responses.
Members of EPA’s four districts can attend the dialogues closest to them or attend others if they wish. The first three dialogues are scheduled for weekdays. The next one will be on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023, at Gretna Glen Camp & Retreat Center in the West District. But weekend dialogues will be offered next spring.
The cost for each participant is $20 to pay for meals. But scholarships are available; and young adults under 30, whose participation is especially desirable, can attend for free. Learn more and register.