How Can Circles Benefit Spiritual Communities?

About a month ago, a local church approached our team about how they could implement restorative practices in their community. They are a very diverse church with many English language learners who have recently moved to New Zealand from other countries. Especially because of these language and cultural barriers, it can be difficult for all 50+ members of the church to feel connected. Like any community, there is also sometimes conflict, and they were looking for tools to help them work through the issues that occasionally come up.

As a church committed to following the lived example of Jesus, they were also interested in the work of reconciliation and peacemaking, and wanted to be involved in that sacred work within their community.

They decided to do a four-week series on the theme of becoming a restorative church, and I was asked to come on week three to facilitate a circle experience. The idea was that we would give the community an experience of relationship-building circles, to strengthen their connections to each other and each member’s sense of belonging. Then, when issues come up in the future, there would already be familiarity and comfort with the circle process as a structure for holding those more difficult conversations.

I arrived an hour early to sit down with a group of five volunteer facilitators from the community who had been asked to take on the role because they were perceived as good listeners and natural, gentle leaders. I started by facilitating a circle with them, so that they could know what if feels like, and then we debriefed the experience and talked through the essential elements of facilitating and any questions they had. They had all been asked ahead of time to bring treasured objects to use as their talking pieces.

We also had four volunteer translators from the community, who were given the circle questions and an overview of the circle process ahead of time.

After the standard service, I gave a quick introduction to circles and then helped to divide the congregation into five circle groups, with a translator in each group that needed one. The facilitators then led their circles through the three rounds of questions (which you can see in the circle guide below).

I kept an eye on all five circles and then brought everyone back together at the end to talk about the experience. The community shared beautiful reflections about how it felt like a sacred space was created in the circle, like God was truly present. One newer member of the church said this was the first time he had really felt something in his heart since coming. The groups reflected on laughing and crying together and the beauty of being able to hear each other’s languages and connect with each other with the help of the translators.

Taking the time to connect with each other in a meaningful way is so life giving in a community. For me, circles are a place where the divine feels so tangible. If you are part of a spiritual community, offer to facilitate a circle process. You will be amazed by the outcome!

 

Circle Guide

  • Welcome
  • Purpose of the Connection Circle (to build connection and community, to get to know each other on a deeper level, to practice the circle structure)
  • Establish Group Rules
    • Please listen and speak with respect
    • Respect everyone’s privacy by not sharing what is said in the circle
    • Speak only when you have the talking piece and share time fairly
    • You may pass and we will come back to you
    • Practice patience
  • Introduce Talking Piece
    • Significance of object used
    • How it relates to the question
  • Question Round(s) (you may have time for 1, 2, or 3 rounds of questions)
    • Round 1: Please share your name and a story connected to your name (this could be what your name means, how your name was chosen, what you think of your name, or any other story related to your name).
    • Round 2: What do you feel grateful for this week?
    • Round 3: What experience in your life have you learned the most from? What did you learn?
  • Close the Circle
    • Thank everyone for participating
    • Reflection and tie it all together ending

fiverr image.jpg

How can the circle manage power differences between participants?

Type of process: Circle

Conference Participants:

  • 2 Students – Shane and Brian
  • Student Advocate – Elizabeth
  • Professor – Paul
  • 2 Facilitators

Referring agent: Student Advocate

Factual Synopsis: A dispute over the grading of an assignment between a professor and two students expanded into an interpersonal conflict and rumors that damaged the students’ reputations within the department with other professors and their peers.

Narrative:

Shane and Brian approached the Student Advocate only after the conflict with their professor, Paul, had already been going on for several months. The conflict began when a group assignment that Shane and Brian had completed, which Paul had previously said was sufficient, was suddenly called into question by other students in the class who were building off Shane and Brian’s work in their own assignment. Paul decided the work was not acceptable and gave Shane and Brian only a day to re-do the assignment. They pulled two all-nighters re-doing the work, but still received a bad grade. In an email to the class, Paul expressed his disappointment with Shane and Brian’s work, which led to division and hard feelings in the class and embarrassment for Shane and Brian. Paul also informally shared what happened with other professors in the department. In another class, a professor told Shane that he wouldn’t get away with what he had done in Paul’s class there. The two students felt that their reputation in the small department was ruined and also felt that the grade was unfair and worried that it would negatively impact their ability to get into the Masters’ program. They prepared a lengthy report, detailing each incident in the ongoing conflict, and brought their complaint to the Student Advocate, who referred them to Restorative Justice.

Paul is a professor who really cares about his students and is passionate about his subject and creating an engaging and relevant learning environment for his students. He is also often disorganized and overwhelmed. When the co-facilitator and I met with Paul during the pre-conference, he regretted that there had been conflict over the assignment and his short fuse in the midst of a stressful class, but he did not seem to see the full impact of what had happened on Shane and Brian and their reputation, or how organization and clarity issues had contributed to the conflict.

Conflicts between students and faculty can be difficult because of the power difference that exists between a professor and a student. Often, the traditional education model only exacerbates this hierarchy. This difference in power can make it difficult for students to feel free to share their true experience and feelings in an incident of harm. In responding restoratively, it is important to be intentional about equalizing that power difference. That is largely accomplished through the circle process itself. Sitting on an equal plane, the use of the talking piece, equal time to speak, and equal respect and attention from all participating parties (modeled by the facilitator) all contribute to the equalizing experience. The ground rules and the facilitator’s confidence also contribute to the circle feeling like a safe space to share honestly. During the restorative circle meeting, the students and the professor had the opportunity to share their experience and hear from one another. They gained a better understanding of the other’s experience and Paul apologized for the stress and personal hardship caused to Shane and Brian.

Among the outcomes agreed upon were that the assignment would be re-graded by an outside professor, that Paul would look the structure of his class and assignments to identify areas of improvement regarding deadlines, clarity and balance of work, and that Paul will raise at the next department faculty meeting that the matter with Shane and Brian has been resolved and there are no hard feelings. He also planned to express to the faculty that there is a need in the department for a system and a culture that encourages prompt face-to-face resolution of conflict.

In the feedback questionnaire following the circle, Shane reported that he was surprised by the opportunity to understand the different perspectives of everyone involved and explained that now there is no longer repressed feelings and built up stress.

Below, you will find a general overview of the circle process the co-facilitator and I designed to respond to this issue. In any conflict, there is only so much you can do to anticipate what circle questions will be needed beforehand. As facilitator, you have to be ready to add another question round, or even suspend the structure of the circle, depending on what is needed to adequately surface impacts and needs and facilitate understanding. In this circle, I added question number three about misunderstandings in the moment because it felt like something the participants needed a chance to name.

Circle Guide

Welcome: Thank you all for being here and for taking the time to have this conversation. Explain the structure of the circle and the focus on impacts and repairs.

Ground Rules:

  • Listen and speak with respect
  • Respect confidentiality
  • Only one person will speak at a time
  • Any additional ground rules? Can we all agree to those ground rules?

Introduce Talking Piece

Round 1: What are your hopes for this meeting?

We are here to talk about a conflict around feedback and grading of an assignment that has also had an ongoing impact on feelings of comfort and ability to work together.

It is a long history, so there will be some different perspective on exactly how everything happened. We can all experience the same thing and have a different story (in the same way that today we will all experience this conversation but will leave with 6 slightly different stories). So today what we are focusing on is how each person has been affected, because impacts are always true to the individual and it is difficult for us to know exactly how another person was affected without hearing it from them. We will also be focusing on finding a way to repair the harm that has occurred and to move forward in a positive way.

Round 2: Speaking from your own personal perspective, how have you been affected? This can include personally, professionally, etc.

Round 3: In what ways have you felt misunderstood by the other person in this conflict?

Round 4: What is the main issue for you moving forward?

We are about to change gears now to talk about what needs to be done to make things right moving forward, but before I ask that, we want to ask a question that gets to the root of why you all work and study together.

Round 5: What is the thing you love most about landscape architecture?

In recognition that shared passion/path, how can we repair the harm from this incident so that you can work together?

Round 6: What needs to happen to put things right?

Talking piece is suspended and co-facilitator will guide this conversation until an agreement is reached. 

Round 7: Chance for a final word.

Close

Peace in the Soil

I recently heard Siddhartha Mukherjee speak on an episode of Ted Radio Hour titled Rethinking Medicine. In his talk, Mukherjee notes that the prevailing medical approach (in the western medicine tradition) to this point has been to “have disease, take pill, kill something.” Mukherjee traces the prevalence of this approach to the antibiotic revolution, which fueled a perception of medical treatment as being primarily about administering pills that would seek out and destroy an illness.

In this “search and destroy” approach, the question being asked is, “What can I take to kill my illness?” This approach has led to advancements, but it is also a very limiting question that does not consider the body as a holistic system. The question Mukherjee says we should be asking is, “What is the environment that is allowing the illness to grow? What is it about the body and the environment as a holistic system that needs to be healed?” He uses the metaphor of soil; healthy soil grows seeds of health, unhealthy soil grows seeds of illness. In the next phase of medicine, we must shift our thinking from killing the illness, to treating the soil so that health, and not illness, thrives.

What Mukherjee is talking about is perceptual shift, a new metaphor. Instead of talking about “killing” something, we should be talking about “growing” something.

There are clear parallels in this proposed perceptual shift in the medical field to the peacemaking field. One must only consider the approach the US has taken to terrorism to see our fixation on finding and destroying the sprouting seeds of violence, while ignoring the soil that is allowing them to take root and flourish. In our violent attempts to uproot the manifestations of terrorism we see, we do nothing to heal the soil, to improve relations, goodwill or understanding, so that seeds of peace will grow. Instead, we often only harm more people, and further fuel the growth of terrorism.

Even beyond the use of the military or other violent attempts to get rid of violent people or ideas, other approaches to peace building also often fall into the perceptual framework of looking for the one “magic pill” that will fix the problem. We look for the new policy or compromise or formal apology that will lead to the cessation of violence. But peace isn’t just the absence of violence (like health isn’t just the absence of illness). Violence cannot just be cut out or destroyed. Peace is about the cultivation of spaces that generate peace. Peace is about the soil.

We can employ a similar metaphor when thinking about crime and the people who commit crimes. How can we change the soil that gives rise to criminal behavior?

There are a few obvious unmet needs that lead people to commit crimes such as food, shelter, safety, health, education and opportunity. In a holistic approach to addressing criminality, we have to find ways as a society to first meet these needs. The first ingredient to peace soil is ensuring a good livelihood for all.

Beyond meeting those basic needs though, there is also something deeper at work in peace soil. When we proactively support the growth of peace, it involves generating experiences of connection and belonging that fuel empathy and kindness.

In my research, one of my central questions is “How does the restorative justice process create a transformational experience for participants?” In the restorative justice field, a lot of research has been done to show that restorative justice works, that it shifts emotions and relationships from enmity towards reconciliation and reduces recidivism. Less work has been done to understand how the process functions to make those positive outcomes possible.

I am drawing on Victor Turner’s theory of ritual in order to understand the transformative capacity of restorative justice. Turner describes a ritual phase called liminality. Liminality is an in-between state, where normal social roles and rules are suspended and participant experience absolute equality. Out of liminality, communitas, or a revelation of our inherent connection, arises. This realization that we are all connected leads to an impulse towards human kindness and greater empathy. These phases and feature of a transformative ritual are all present in a successful restorative justice process. The experience of liminality and communitas are the soil for the growth of peace between participants.

Often, following an experience of restorative justice, participants or facilitators are left with a craving to be in that sort of space again, a space where there is equality, open communication, and a deep feeling of connection. Circles, which are a restorative practices often used to build and strengthen community, can provide an experience of being in that liminal space again. The proactive use of circles can increase feelings of belonging, empathy, quality of communication, and ability to handle conflict in a community.

Returning now to the big question: what are the essential ingredients to peace soil? What is the fertilizer that helps peace seeds grow? I think that experiences of liminality have a large role to play. When we have an opportunity to enter an intentional space together, to put aside our differences and our social roles and rules of interaction, to speak honestly and openly, to share vulnerability and listen with compassion, and to reconnect with our deep state of connection to one another, that experience is the crucial nutrient in the soil that grows peace. Restorative practices create spaces for that experience to unfold.

Koru_artwork

The koru is a spiral shape based on the shape of a new unfurling silver fern. It is a Māori symbol for new life, growth, strength and peace.