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In our culture, social isolation has become a very real issue. As technology becomes more advanced, our ability to connect with others is on the decline. Individuals today no longer have the same social networks that would have been common 20 years ago. Our verbal language has shifted as we have shortened our interactions to quick texts, some as simple as a smiley face or a thumbs up. What implications is this having on our churches? How are we seeing this manifest within our congregations? Are we truly able to connect with each other, to actively listen, to give space for the person that is in need of being heard?

On November 8th and 9th, a group of individuals from various churches within the CRCNA came together in the fellowship hall of Sherman Street CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan to learn a new way of being in community. Under the leadership of Anne Martin, Director of FaithCare, a division of Shalem Mental Health Network, over 20 people were trained in Restorative Practices in Faith Communities. This training has been developed by the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP). Restorative Practices have been developed for use in schools and in the criminal justice system. However, Restorative Practice has been expanded and has become a wonderful tool within the realm of workplaces, families and now the IIRP is developing a training for faith based communities.

What we were introduced to as a group was a new language, a new way of being in community with one another. To begin with, the space for conversation is shifted. Restorative conversations take place within a circle. This practice has its roots in the Indigenous culture. Circles bring everyone together as equals, all working towards the same goal of connecting and hearing each other. Also drawing from the Indigenous culture, the use of a talking piece is implemented. A talking piece could be anything, a ball, a toy, a stick - simply put, it is an item that represents that the person holding it has the floor. They are able to speak while the others in the circle listen. 

Having gathered together in the circle, we then learned the key questions that help move a discussion forward towards the goal of a positive outcome for all involved. Questions may include (as noted on the FaithCare webpage for Shalem Mental Health Network):

  • What happened?
  • What impact has the incident or issue had on you and others?
  • What is the hardest thing for you about this?
  • What do you think needs to happen to make things right?
  • What are you prepared to do to help make things right?

As we sat together in our circles for 2 days, the Restorative Practices model gave us all a new way of communicating. We learned how to give space, to listen and to offer ideas for growth. As we work together in the Safe Church Ministry, we are vigilant around abuse prevention and awareness, but we also recognize that when abuse has happened, we need to lean into the conversations in order for healing to happen.

One pastor already trained in Restorative Practices shared how she had implemented Restorative circles within her own church in situations outside of abuse issues: 

  • Grief circles - giving space for all those dealing with the death of a friend/family member to share about the impact the person had on their life brings healing
  • Youth circles - youth feel empowered when given the space to come together to discuss a challenge and work together for a solution

She challenged us to think of other ways that we could implement Restorative circles in our church life and in our family life.

As we walked through the training together, many in the room shared stories of how they had already started to implement the training in small ways in their lives just in the short time between the daytime training sessions within their home life. It was easy to see that those of us who had learned tools in the training  could use them right away in all areas of our life.

Within Safe Church Ministry, we are always working towards healing in the midst of our earthly brokenness. Restorative Practices has offered us another tool that we are excited to share within our Ministry.

To view a short video on Restorative Practices Is the Science of Relationships and Community, please click on this link

To read more about the impacts of social isolation, there is an interesting article by Allison Abrams in Psychology Today: Isolation Nation

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