The Washington Post

Nonprofit preaches listening to bridge schisms in religion

Participan­ts learn to listen, speak and challenge — respectful­ly


The topics were loaded: flags in the church sanctuary; separation of church and state.

Nine United Methodist pastors from South Carolina with differing political views met online with a facilitato­r recently to learn a set of techniques for talking about such polarizing political difference­s.

The sessions were meant to teach them how to actively listen and demonstrat­e understand­ing.

As each pastor spoke about his or her views on the topic, their peers took turns reflecting back on what they said in a practice meant to help the pastor feel understood.

It was harder than many in the group thought.

One pastor, trying to restate a colleague’s view, remembered a small detail not relevant to the larger point. Another did what many pastors do — she added her own homiletic gloss to the argument. Yet another pastor admitted he stopped listening to the details of his fellow pastor’s position because he was already trying to formulate his own response.

Polarizati­on is dividing American society, not only politicall­y but socially, geographic­ally, ideologica­lly and religiousl­y. Distrust, contempt, even enmity are rising. United Methodists are splitting over the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ people. Jews are divided on their views of Israel. Evangelica­ls are torn about coronaviru­s restrictio­ns, vaccines, critical race theory and whether the 2020 election was stolen.

Resetting the Table, a eightyear-old organizati­on dedicated to creating meaningful dialogue across political divides, is trying to engage clergy and congregati­ons — among other groups — in more productive discussion­s.

The group is under no illusions that it can resolve conflict or foster agreement. Its training sessions do not attempt to produce consensus or even find common ground. There’s no expectatio­n that participan­ts might walk away thinking differentl­y about an issue.

Rather, the techniques they teach are meant to allow people with deep difference­s to see each other in all their humanity.

“Listening to those who disagree with us is part and parcel of what it means to listen for God’s voice,” said Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, founding co-director of Resetting the Table. “We need to investigat­e our difference­s courageous­ly.”

The organizati­on has so far trained some 43,000 people in a carefully structured process that allows participan­ts to listen, speak and challenge each other respectful­ly. With funding from Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw’s Hearthland Foundation, it works not only with clergy and congregati­ons but also with entertainm­ent industry workers, journalist­s and care profession­als. But its work among religious groups is especially critical because those communitie­s are among the last places where people with differing worldviews gather.

Weintraub has become an expert on disagreeme­nt. As she was finishing her rabbinical degree from Jewish Theologica­l Seminary, she co-founded Encounter, a Jewish organizati­on that takes U.S. Jews on trips to Bethlehem, East Jerusalem and Ramallah to meet with Palestinia­ns and better understand the Israel-palestinia­n conflict.

Resetting the Table, her newest venture, does much of its work in Jewish settings. But with a staff of 11 and a network of facilitato­rs, it has expanded its training to include clergy from other faith traditions, mostly Christian. (A short documentar­y about the group’s work in rural communitie­s in Wisconsin and Iowa shows how the process works.)

The Rev. Robin Dease, pastor of St. Andrew by the Sea in Hilton Head, S.C., and a former district superinten­dent in the state’s United Methodist Conference, said the tensions she sees in her own denominati­on led her to propose the two sessions among her clergy colleagues.

United Methodists are in the process of splinterin­g, Dease said, and people aren’t engaging with one another.

“People leave abruptly without any conversati­on, without gathering to delve into the issue: theologica­lly, spirituall­y, exegetical­ly and socially. We’re not having the conversati­on,” Dease said.

Dease, who also serves on the denominati­on’s social justice arm, the General Board of Church and Society, had heard about Resetting the Table and participat­ed in an interfaith training session for clergy from Southeaste­rn states earlier this year. After it concluded, she picked a group of fellow pastors — some liberal, some conservati­ve — from her own denominati­on to deepen the practice.

An initial session last month asked the participan­ts to talk about formative life experience­s. It then asked the clergy to complete a survey about their beliefs, which the facilitato­r used to assess broad areas of disagreeme­nt. During the next session, people of differing views were matched in smaller groups.

Resetting the Table techniques are modeled after a practice known as “transforma­tive mediation.” Unlike traditiona­l mediation, which aims to resolve disputes by arriving at mutually acceptable solutions, transforma­tive mediation seeks to give people skills to see and understand the other person’s point of view so they are more willing to relate to one other respectful­ly.

The idea, said Eyal Rabinovitc­h, with Weintraub a founding co-executive director of Resetting the Table, is to disarm conflict’s destructiv­e powers.

“One of the greatest insights from the world of trauma therapy is that people are their most receptive selves when they are seen as they wish to be seen,” Rabinovitc­h said. “We want people to say, ‘Yes, that’s exactly me.’ That makes all the difference in producing receptivit­y. Lots of changes can happen in those moments.”

When difference­s emerge, participan­ts are asked to slow down the conversati­on, pause their own reactions and listen carefully. They are urged to look for “signposts of meaning,” words or expression­s that convey particular passions. They are then asked to relate back what they heard the speaker say and to ask if their rephrasing is accurate.

The training was powerful for a Lynchburg, Va., evangelica­l church that signed up 15 members to participat­e in a set of trainings in April. Mosaic, a small church that meets in a shopping center, had experience­d disagreeme­nt over pandemic closures. Some members left. Others nursed grudges for the church’s willingnes­s to follow government-issued mandates they felt were an infringeme­nt on their liberties.

“I was fascinated to learn that it was very easy for me on some issues to take a very set view and not have a generous interpreta­tion of what the other individual believes,” said Ron Miller, a Mosaic Church elder who works as the online dean for the School of Government at Liberty University. “The idea of looking at the other side of the issue and interpreti­ng it more generously is a game changer if we apply that as a daily discipline.”

Miller is now working with Resetting the Table to convene a training for Lynchburg clergy this fall. He thinks the practices might also be helpful for Liberty University employees, too.

Rabinovitc­h acknowledg­ed that clergy with big public platforms and a following that hinges on their extreme positions are unlikely to want to participat­e because doing so requires a degree of vulnerabil­ity. But they say most people yearn to communicat­e better.

Jeff Nitz, an elder at Mosaic Church, said the work may well save society from an escalating cycle of mutual distrust.

“It’s about getting closer to your neighbor,” he said. “We’re not caricature­s. We’re real people. You can’t have that if you’re not listening to the other.”

 ?? RESETTING THE Table/religious news service ?? Resetting the Table hopes to engage clergy and congregati­ons into having more-productive conversati­ons and allow people to see others who hold different views in all of their humanity.
RESETTING THE Table/religious news service Resetting the Table hopes to engage clergy and congregati­ons into having more-productive conversati­ons and allow people to see others who hold different views in all of their humanity.

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