2016 Annual Conference will include Circle Process
November 30, 2015
As part of the 2016 Annual Conference session members will gather around the table – actually many tables – to engage in Circle Process.
Circle Process is “a way of talking about a topic – often a difficult topic – in which everybody’s voice gets heard. People can speak without worrying about someone challenging or coming back at them when they’re talking,” said Rev. Barbara Lemmel, coordinator of the Conference Parish Consultants and member of the team planning the Circle Process.
Rev. Yoo-Yun Cho-Chang, pastor at Woburn United Methodist Church in Massachusetts, is also on the Circle Process team. She said it may be easier to
understand what Circle Process is by talking about what it’s not.
“It’s not about trying to have better discussion. It’s not about debate,” she said. “It’s not about coming to any conclusion or making a decision.” But rather, Rev. Cho-Chang said, it is an opportunity to “hear each other’s stories.”
Along with Rev. Cho-Chang and Rev. Lemmel, team members are: Tom Bentum, Sue Davenport, Jim McPhee, Rene Perez, Tom Porter, and Beverly Stenmark.
Many members have expressed a desire for more time to be in Holy Conferencing and to be in dialog with each other. The Circle Process is scheduled to take place from 2-4 p.m. on Thursday, June 16. The topic, which has not yet been determined, will be announced in advance.
Here’s how it works: Annual Conference members will be assigned to tables, and each table will have a trained facilitator.
Each person at the table will be
given the opportunity to speak to a particular question or topic, in turn. A “talking stick” – it can be any object – is passed around the circle. Only the person with the object is allowed to speak, and others are not allowed to interrupt or respond until the object comes to them. The facilitator is there to keep the process moving and ensure the boundaries are respected. There may be time to go around the circle more than once.
“It’s always interesting to find out why people believe what they do; why is this important to them; why they take this stand,” Rev. Lemmel said.
While, as both Rev. Lemmel and Rev. Cho-Chang make clear, Circle Process is not a discussion, it is an opportunity to get to know people and build trust.
Giving members an opportunity, early on in the session, to really speak their minds and be heard by folks they may not know well, Rev. Lemmel said, can build a connection and trust between folks.
During the course of the Annual Conference, members who participate in Circle Process together “may bump into those people and they will know who they are and something about their heart,” she said. “That kind of communication builds more trust and more connection between Conference members.”
Defining the expected outcome or goal of the Circle Process, is more challenging, said Rev. Cho-Chang.
“We’re always so accustomed to having an outcome or result – (here) we don’t have a specific result, nobody defines that,” she said. “We’re trying to work with a very different paradigm here. The goal is not to come to any one conclusion or decision-making; the goal is to provide a space and time where we can truly hear one another’s story with respect – without any intention or effort to change anyone else’s mind; you only speak for yourself.”
“Being around the table – the spirit of God is present. By being authentically together, that creates a space for the Spirit to be present and to speak to us.”
– Rev. Yoo-Yun Cho-Chang talking about Circle Process
“The goal is in the process,” Rev. Cho-Chang said. “The outcome, we trust to the Spirit. … If we authentically listen to each other’s stories and to God – it’s not just us – then the Holy Spirit will guide us and we can really listen to each other. Then it will take us to where God wants to take us.”
“God is in all of that,” Rev. Lemmel said. “When we really share our deepest beliefs and hopes and fears, God will work through that to make us a better body of Christ.”
Rev. Lemmel talked about an experience with Circle Process in the Troy Conference in 2007 when members used Circle Process to talk about human sexuality. The process, in that case, was followed by a vote on legislation pertaining to human sexuality; there was no debate on the floor.
“The overall votes didn’t change,” she said, “but because people had done Circle Process many folks said afterward: ‘It’s never felt like this before. I had a chance to be heard and express myself. I have a better understanding of my brothers and sisters in the Conference.’”
“It was a powerful, positive experience,” she said. “That’s some of why we’re trying to bring it to this Annual Conference.”
Rev. Cho-Chang brought the idea to the Conference after her initial experience with Circle Process at a meeting with the Boards of Ordained Ministry in the Northeastern Jurisdiction. (Click the link in the box at right to hear Rev. Cho-Chang talk about that experience.)
Both Rev. Lemmel and Rev. Cho-Chang said there is not really any preparation required for Circle Process, but they do ask folks to pray. Team members have committed to spending a couple of minutes praying for the process each Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
Rev. Lemmel also urges folks to “come with an open mind.”
“This is not about compelling anybody to do or think or vote anything,” she said, adding that all that is needed is “a willingness to hear their brothers and sisters; not change what they’re hearing, just hear it. It’s a chance to express themselves and be heard.”
The team, which will meet again in January, is continuing to work out logistical details and arrange for training Circle Process facilitators. Watch the Conference news for updates as the process moves forward.