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Planning a Dialogue Within a Parish Setting

Our experience is that doing a dialogue within a parish can be more challenging than planning dialogues with other groups.  There are several reasons for this.  In many parishes the “hot issues” which divide parishioners often have personal dimensions.  For example, issues about religious education, liturgical practice, or the roles of the laity, are not distant and theoretical, but deeply felt and concrete.  They often touch parents’ concerns about their children and pastor’s commitments to certain policies. If the parish is truly polarized, what is needed may be conflict resolution, help with administrative procedures, or healing and reconciliation, rather than dialogue.

Another important factor is that, in a parish, the polarization occurs within a network of ongoing relationships in a community.  Parishioners may not want to risk addressing a conflict directly because they want to have a peaceful future together.  Others are simply reluctant to introduce conflict into parish life, which they see as a "safe space" and source of comfort.  Some will withdraw rather than confront issues.  This is particularly true if they don't believe they will be "heard" or if they perceive great risks in speaking out. 

One of the struggles the church faces is what someone called "horizontal excommunication," i.e., the position that anyone holding a particular view is automatically outside the bounds of the church and therefore not able to be a faithful participatant in a dialogue.  If one is unable to suspend that judgment, even within the confines of dialogue, dialogue will not be possible.  We have to accept that there are people of good will in all groups who simply cannot accept the legitimacy of dialogue. 

Nonetheless, a well-planned dialogue with clear ground rules and an astute facilitator can minimize these risks and, in fact, enhance the life of the community. Parish dialogues can be successful if the following points are taken into consideration:

  • The “issue” being discussed is clear. Some common “input” in the form of an article, a book, or a film, can help to focus a dialogue. A statement of the question and the “sides” before beginning the dialogue can be helpful. People of different views should participate in focusing the subject of the dialogue.
  • The participants agree to the expected outcome of the dialogue—greater mutual understanding, building of relationships, clarification of perspectives.
  • Participants agree to abide by the principles of dialogue.
  • Dialogue is not a decision-making activity. However, it can be a prelude to decision-making and those decisions can be enhanced by the fruits of a dialogue.
  • The pastor and parish staff participate in the dialogue. When the pastor and parish staff do not participate in the dialogue, they miss the relationship-building, creative thinking, and insight that the dialogue can provide and the participants feel that their contributions may be fruitless.
  • The pastor and staff participate as equals in the dialogue. All recognize that the pastor has unique authority within the parish, but for a dialogue to reach its full potential, the pastor needs to “level the playing field” as much as possible by being an equal within the group.
  • In a true dialogue, no one is asked to give up his or her deeply held convictions. Each one is asked to share those convictions as honestly as possible.
  • A facilitator guides the conversation.