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Last month, at the Classis Toronto meeting, we had a discussion about the Belhar Confession. As we were planning for this event there were a couple things we wanted from this discussion:

  • a safe place where everybody had the opportunity to share their opinions and feelings
  • a healthy and helpful discussion (not a debate about if it should be a fourth confession)

We struggled with how to make this happen. Usually our discussion is dominated by five to ten pastors (and maybe one experienced elder) who are comfortable expressing their thoughts. We wondered how to encourage those quiet elders to lend their wisdom to the discussion.

Our answer came from Steve Kabetu, Canadian Race Relations Coordinator, who had attended a workshop in the CRC Burlington Office on Restorative Justice. Restorative Justice is usually used when dealing with criminal justice and healing where there is conflict but there isn't any reason we can't use the principles in classis settings. So the two of us met with a Restorative Justice facilitator and planned our classis discussion.

In this discussion at the classis meeting, we sat in a large circle (there were about 50 of us) with no tables or anything in between the participants, and were led by a facilitator who introduced Restorative practices and encouraged us to answer three questions:

  • What do you think of the Belhar's themes of unity, justice and reconciliation?
  • How does the Belhar affect or impact you and your congregation?
  • What's been the hardest thing for you in the discussions of the Belhar?

It was a time of listening. If 50 people are each going to get a chance to talk you spend more time listening than you do talking! It was good to hear from everybody – including a pastor who was a minister in South Africa during the time the Belhar was written and a pastor who is now a missionary in Africa. We did not come out of this conversation with any grand insights or answers but it was a safe place for everyone to talk and it was helpful. There is more to be done and more discussions to be had around this topic, but what a great start!

There are a few things I would have done differently of course: if we are going to have such a large group I'd make sure there was a microphone available to pass around the circle and I would want to explore how we could use Restorative practices in smaller groups – 50 was a rather large number!

Despite the disadvantages this whole experience got me wondering – how can we use Restorative Practices in our regular classis discussions, like on the budget? We will be experimenting with this in the coming classis meetings. Has your classis had any conversations around Restorative Justice and Restorative practices?

For more on Restorative Justice see the Issues Page of the CRC Office of Social Justice


Like you said Elizabeth, Restorative Practices need to find its way into our churches.  Part of the disadvantage that you might have found with the process was that you had 50 people in the circle.  That's a large circle!  

I think this is something that can be used at council meetings, budget meetings, all through out the church!  I do think it is important to have someone that is trained in Restorative Practices to lead the circle so that it is done properly.  Questions need to be meditated on beforehand and accessible to all people involved in the circle.  

Thanks for sharing your experience!  Steve is a wise man! 

Thanks Jason - do you have any experience using this in council meetings or budget meetings etc?  I'd love about it if you have.

I have not used it in a council/budget meeting, but have done it with other meetings and in youth groups.  It has been a very powerful tool to use with people, as it allows everyone a time to talk and everyone a time to listen.  I think it would be ideal for council and budget meetings and would save a lot of heartache and time.  

Every congregational meeting we have is conducted in a circle seating arrangement.   This usually involves about 20 people.   It works well.   And it worked quite well on the one occasion when we had a very stressful special congregational meeting.  Even when people don't talk, you can better read their expressions and body language. 

Smaller groups does seem to be key - but how do you use these practices when you have a large group?  I don't want to loose out on the benefits of this type of thing just because we have a large group to deal with.

The larger the group, the smaller the  percentage of people will talk.   For larger groups, make sure you have mikes available throughout the room and people to bring the mikes to those who might want to say something.   Perhaps use chairs rather than pews... chairs are moveable.   And make sure people can move around, so have lots of aisles.    If possible even 50 or more people can be seated in a circle perhaps with double or triple rows of chairs. 


But the belhar is not a restorative justice issue, it is a paper issue of trying to adopt or sign something.   A legitimate restorative issue would be a question like, are certain neigborhoods going down the drain because of who is renting homes there, and how do we react?  or do we care more about the unknown in the foreign missions than we do about those who are different than us but who live nearby?   Do we spend more time ministering to those at our economic level than to those who are wealthier or poorer?   Have you been hurt by (and now distrust) a certain group of people?   Has your safe church policy created an attitude of mistrust, and what can we do about it?  Those kinds of things. 

I think it depends on what the topic/issue at hand is.  It is also possible to do a fishbowl circle (wiki article: ).  Like John said, the more people that are there the less people will talk, and then it might be helpful to have a couple of small ones happening.  It really depends on what you are trying to establish from the conversation.  While the Belhar is not a Restorative Justice issue, it can be dealt with in a restorative way.  In that sense, all topics/conversations/issues can be dealt with restorative practices.  

Thanks John and Jason, mikes are important - we discovered that when we didn't have them as the large group sat in a circle.  If I ever do something like this again we will make sure we have microphones.

The fishbowl conversation idea is interesting.  I wonder if/how it would work in a classis setting. 

While the Belhar is not necessarily a restorative justice issue, (although it deals with issues of justice), what I am trying to explore is how we can use restorative practices to discuss issues that are potentially divisive and controversial where all voices are heard and more listening happens than talking.

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