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Scenarios from 8-4 Interfaith Sub-Plenary Call

Below is a summary of a brainstorming call about a sub-plenary session scheduled to be held at NCDD Austin on Saturday, October 4th from 2:15 to 4:00 pm. Those of you who were on the call are strongly encouraged to use the comment box at the bottom of this page to share your reactions to the three scenarios outlined. Which scenario do you prefer? Are there elements of one scenario you would like to see incorporated into a different scenario? Is there something missing? Anyone else viewing this post is welcome to add their thoughts and ideas as well!

Present on the 8/4/08 call:

  • Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard
  • Sandy Heierbacher, NCDD Director
  • Maggie Herzig, Public Conversations Project- Co-Founder
  • Dave Joseph, Public Conversations Project – Programs
  • Diane Miller, Leads Central Texas Team
  • Tom Spencer, CEO of Austin Area Interreligious Ministries
  • Stephanie Ruloph, Conference Manager and Coordinator of Interfaith Sub-plenary

Some things we agreed on…

  • we don’t want yet another Hummus Dialogue (“gee – we all like hummus!”)
  • we don’t want a safe, contrived, self-congratulatory conversation that doesn’t get into any depth about the issues
  • we do want to encourage our speakers to tell stories, and to be honest about the challenges they have faced and where they need help
  • we want to develop some finely-tuned questions in order to focus the conversation
  • we may not be able to pull off a real dialogue on stage during the time allotted, and given the public setting
  • a moderator will be on stage with the panelists, helping the conversation along

Some decisions to be made…

  1. This is a panel for religious leaders. Do we want our featured speakers to strictly be leaders of churches, congregations, etc., or would we want to involve public leaders who are very religious? (Tom suggested a couple of people at the beginning of the call who fall into the second category.)
  2. Should we organize a panel onstage, a dialogue, or a more reflective/interactive panel or discussion? Our limited timeframe may not allow for much depth in a dialogue, yet a panel can be dry or self-congratulatory.
  3. Should we encourage attendees (in the second half of the session) to talk/brainstorm about how the D&D community/field can strengthen ties with faith communities? Or should we have them focus on what they, as individuals, can do?
  4. Should our speakers represent different Christian traditions, or multiple faiths?

Several things were brought up repeatedly during the call as things we should consider focusing on during the sub-plenary…

1. Understanding and resolving conflict within our faith communities
Most if not all faith traditions – even at the congregation level – are faced with conflict between their more progressive and more orthodox members (we can call this intragroup conflict). Issues like homosexuality (gay marriage, gay ministers, etc.) can divide faiths from within.

2. Strengthening the connections between faith communities and the D&D community
Faith communities need to have knowledge of D&D. They have a serious need for dialogue tools, and for those skilled in helping groups get to real dialogue. People need to be made more aware of the need for dialogue on the one hand, and the existence of the D&D community on the other. There is not much knowledge in the religious community about how to engage in quality, meaningful dialogue; and there is not much dialogue in the D&D community about religion and how to work within faith communities.

3. Are faith and dialogue at odds with each other?
Faith traditions tend to be absolute. How do you engage with someone who thinks/believes differently than you while maintaining some sense of integrity and identity? Believers and non-believers alike need to know they can talk to each other civilly and productively without setting aside their own convictions – and they need to know HOW to do this.

Here are some possible scenarios that address one or more of these three topics…

a. We organize a dialogue of leaders from various Christian traditions (Evangelical, Unitarian, Catholic, etc.), having them talk with each other on stage about how ideological disagreements in the Christian faith have led to a deep division in the faith. In the second segment of the session, we have the audience engage in small-group dialogue about their experiences with intrafaith conflict, and what strategies seem to work best in those settings. We could also ask them to talk about how the dialogue and deliberation community can do a better job making itself available to faith communities.

b. We organize a panel of leaders from various faith traditions (Evangelical Christian, Humanist, Jewish, etc.), and ask them each to share stories about the kinds of ideological conflicts and disagreements that have come up in their congregations, and the impact those conflicts have had on their communities. We ask them to share what they did to try to address those conflicts, and what, if anything, worked the best. During the second part of the session, we ask the audience to share in small groups what work (if any) they have done in faith communities – especially if they have helped with conflicts like those they just heard about. Then we have them brainstorm ways the D&D community can make itself more known and more available to faith communities.

c. We open with an interactive panel of leaders from various faith traditions (Evangelical Christian, Humanist, Jewish, etc.), having each of them talk about ideological conflicts and disagreements that have come up in their own faith communities. We then encourage them to have a conversation on stage about whether faith and dialogue are at odds with each other – or at least are perceived that way by their more absolute/traditional members. We have them discuss the reality that more traditional folks worry that dialogue can lead them to betray some of the core beliefs they view as central to their morality – and talk about ways to encourage dialogue that is safe for them (not about changing your own views but about learning about the beliefs of others – yet getting to a deeper level). In the second segment, we have audience members engage in dialogue about whether they have experienced people who are wary of dialogue because they see it as an attempt to change their beliefs/opinions/identity, and how they handle this. We ask them “how can we talk about, present, and facilitate dialogue so that it’s safer and more welcoming for people firmly rooted in traditional beliefs and values?”

d. We open with an interactive panel of leaders from various faith traditions (Evangelical Christian, Humanist, Jewish, etc.), and ask them each to share stories about the kinds of ideological conflicts and disagreements that have come up in their congregations, and the impact those conflicts have had on their communities. We ask them to share what they did to try to address those conflicts, and what, if anything, worked the best. We also ask them to have a brief conversation on stage about the challenge of encouraging dialogue among people who have more traditional/absolute beliefs. During the second part of the session, we have all of the panelists lead smaller conversations among attendees that focus on the faith community they represent. Attendees will have the opportunity to learn more about the special circumstances of a particular faith community, and to interact with the panelists. These smaller groups can brainstorm ways to bring D&D into these faith communities, and talk about best practices for working in such settings.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Greg Epstein says:

    I like scenario D the best and for the 2nd part of the program I would pair each panelist with an expert/leading professional in the D&D world for leading the "breakout" conversation. If option D gets eliminated I'll comment on the others but for now I feel this is definitely the strongest (& most of interest to me as a potential panelist). Thanks!

  2. Diane Miller says:

    I lean toward C and D because I'm really interested in this conversation about how to deal with differences within a faith tradition and how real dialogue can be threatening as it asks people to suspend their beliefs as assumptions long enough to truly understand where another person is coming from.

    As far as format, I think the key will be having people on the panel who "get" the issues and can speak in a compelling way, so I'm less concerned whether it's a inter-faith group or all from the same tradition.

    I like the idea of people going into small group discussion that includes the panelists. I know that format offers less time for each person to talk in the small group, but I think we should really tap these faith leaders and their expertise, so I like having them engaged in the small group discussion as well. And then maybe they can reflect together again as a panel on what came up in their small group (although not sure there's time for all of this!).

  3. Hi folks. I'm away at a 5 day workshop so this is a quick response in the form of suggested questions for a panel. It occurred to me that we might think about what questions could be answered by panelists that would be useful to the D and D community and then choose panelists representing different traditions who'd have something to say to those questions, ie people who've had some good experiences and have lessons to share. #3 below would get into the challenge of generating interest among some subsets of people. We could have some communication agreements in place to guard against grand pronouncements about whole groups of people (which could actually reinforce stereotypes).

    A first crack at a set of questions:

    1) Based on your experiences, what for you are the hallmarks of an interfaith dialogue that is worth your time and energy and what could happen that would lead you to feel it wasn’t worth your time?
    2) What important “moments of meeting” or other satisfying exchanges have you witnessed in an interfaith dialogue and how do you understand them, e.g., what was it in the planning, context, group, purposes, etc that supported a satisfying experience?
    3) Are there special challenges to interfaith dialogue, in your experience, and if so, how have you met those challenges?
    4) Any other suggestions for people who plan and facilitate interfaith dialogues?
    5) Any comments about what is similar or different about the challenges INTRA-faith dialogues?

    Possible format: Have each speaker respond to Q 1, 2 and 3 for 5 minutes then have them ask each other questions for a few minutes, then the moderator adds Q 3 and Q 4 to the mix of the conversation.

    Then small groups of 4-5 talk for 15-20 minutes to gather up some additional thoughts about the questions addressed by the panel members and also consider whether they have a question to address to a panel member.

    Then popcorn sharing of additional ideas (not group reports) and gather up questions. Speakers address questions after a bunch have been collected.

    Looking forward to hearing others' ideas!
    I'll be home Friday night but will check email again before then.

  4. Tom Spencer says:

    Based on the for options outlined above, I am leaning to "d" as well. Though, I wonder if some of the bigger name folks that we have talked about (like Matthew Dowd) would be interested in or "fit" with that topic.

    I know this is a conference for folks who are deliberations enthusiasts, but I wonder if we'd attract folks from a liberal and probably fairly secular crowd with a conversation about healing internal church divisions? One other option would be a panel discussion on the topic of "Why religious and secular Americans need to listen to one another."

  5. Stephanie says:

    I like the interactive panel of various faiths. "D"…with minor tweaks.

    When we ask the panelists the first round of questions, can we assume that they have conflicts? (I just want to make sure that we spend the majority of our time talking dialogue and impact in the communities and not about the details of specific conflicts that could consume attention)

    We could ask Maggie's question of: Q.3: Are there special challenges to interfaith dialogue…then Q.2: what satisfying exchanges have you witnessed…
    Q.3 & Q.2 prompts them to tell us what they did. What worked, what didn't work.

    Then I love the "D" option of small groups with the panelists. What I'd like to see here, though, is a report out. The scenario is: "brainstorm ways to bring D&D into these communities…" THEN a report out of what best practices were conspired in the small groups with panelist.

    I've got to feel that all this talk led to something that could be used. If we had a Recorder capturing all the best practices, then that could be used later.

    Then our master facilitator brings it to a close with maybe a final (30second) "aha" moment shared by each panelists.

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