I’m thankful that ministries within the denomination are partnering with Sherman Street CRC to offer a Restorative Practices training November 8 to 9. These practices have been transformational for my life and ministry, so I thought I would share some of my experiences with you. I can’t recommend this enough. (To sign up for the Growing Restorative Churches training, happening in Grand Rapids, MI, November 8 to 9, click here!)
Restorative Practices (also known as restorative circles) are basically a structured way of having a conversation. Everyone who is involved in a community, or who is impacted by a conflict, sits in a circle, and each participant is asked the same questions. The use of a talking piece (any object that, when held, gives the holder the privilege of the floor) ensures that there are no interruptions or responses. The structure can seem rigid but it makes the conversation safe for the participants, and the safety allows people to speak honestly and listen closely.
Here are a few examples of the ways we have used this process in our church:
An Annoying Conflict Made Fruitful
My first conflict resolution circle came to me just two days after I had completed the training. A congregant told me how her feelings had been hurt at a recent evening event at the church. She told me she and her family were ready to leave the church over it.
My first response to these kinds of conflicts is often anger. I wish people would give others the benefit of the doubt more often. I wish that they would just work it out themselves. I find it irritating that they would threaten to leave so easily. But really, most of my anger was just because I didn’t know what to do. But this time when the congregant came to me, I knew exactly what to do. I called a circle. They all came. We had a conversation and it was amazing.
Normally these kinds of low-grade conflicts just fester under the surface. Maybe we convince the family to stay, but the resentments linger. Instead of that mess, I was amazed to see what came out of the circle. A new leader took ownership of her role. The group gained a new awareness of disability concerns, and all twelve participants committed to look-out for those who were new or might feel left out. And the family, whose lives had been full of experiences of rejection, heard over and over again, “We never meant to hurt you. We love you. We’re sorry.” The conversation brought healing, growth, and deepened community.
Middle-Schoolers Taking Ownership
We recently had some conflict between a couple of our middle-school students and a couple of the teachers. The students were talking a lot, and both the teachers and students were frustrated. So instead of Sunday School one morning, I led all the teachers and students in a restorative circle. We asked each person these questions:
What is good about being here?
What isn’t so good about being here?
How have you contributed to the problems?
What can we do to make things better?
In that conversation the students designed a ritual to begin each class to help them get out their jitters. They decided together how much they could swivel their chairs, and talked with each other about how they were impacted by each other’s misbehavior. They shared that they hadn’t understood the Bible readings and asked to use a different translation.
The teachers agreed to do class outside whenever they could, and to choose the activities in the curriculum that allowed the students to move. One of the more disruptive students volunteered to open the curtains each class so that he wouldn’t feel so confined, and he offered to help a teacher in a wheelchair get out the door when they did class outside.
They each signed the agreement and posted it on the wall of the class. The students asked if they could have regular circles to check in.
A Contentious Decision
Earlier this year our elders decided to take the step of adding a full-time youth pastor to our staff, but knew that it was a controversial decision. Some of the parents were not supportive.
We held four separate circles on the same evening: parents, leaders, middle-schoolers, and high-schoolers. We asked them what they wanted out of a youth-group, what their concerns were about hiring a full-time youth pastor, and what they wanted the job description to look like.
I led the discussion with the parents. In the opening question about their ideal youth-group we discovered that they shared a lot of the same vision. They all wanted their children to be connected to the rest of the church, to have meaningful inter-generational relationships, and they wanted deep discipleship rather than just entertainment. When they realized that they shared the same kind of vision for a youth group, the question of hiring a youth pastor became less contentious. Those who had been against the decision had been against it because they thought it meant their children would be siloed, playing silly games, but the conversation allowed them to see that youth-group didn’t have to look like that. Then they were able to tell us what they thought were the most important things for a new hire. I haven’t heard any push-back about this decision since.
In a time when divisions seem to be deepening in every direction, Restorative practices offer tools that bridge divides, bring genuine empathy and healing, and help communities to have difficult conversation without further fracturing.
I wonder, what might our church communities look like if we all used Restorative Practices regularly in our life together?