Conversation rooms help to build a strong convention bridgeby Laurie Oswald Robinson for The Mennonite
Since a bridge is classified by how the forces of tension, compression and bending are distributed throughout its structure, then the Conversation Room discussions at Pittsburgh 2011 helped to build a strong church-wide convention.
Seven structured discussions focused on the church in relationship to immigration, abortion, Phoenix 2013, Israel/Palestine, the role of teaching positions/dialogue-discernment, human sexuality and sexual orientation. And though all of these – along with two formal open discussions – sparked energy, conviction and passion, the discussions centered on sexuality and sexual orientation drew the larger crowds.
On Thursday evening, more than 300 participants packed out the Conversation Room. David Brubaker, Harrisonburg, Va., one of several Conversation Room facilitators during the convention, helped participants to cross swirling waters. The process used guidelines of respectful sharing and safe listening to help the church respond to differing views on sexual orientation in the life of faith.
And what many participants discovered is that the “bridge” of the process held up beneath the weight.
“I thought the Conversation Room facilitated a great process and had real value,” said Joe Troyer, the youth pastor at Hartville (Ohio) Mennonite Church in Ohio who attended Thursday’s discussion. “It provided a space where we could tall about something very difficult without being too guarded.
“The discussion allowed people to share from their hearts in a way they haven’t been able to do before. I think that’s because we all listened to each other and tried to understand, our diverse views, rather than getting locked into a point-counter point discussion.”
It was this respecting atmosphere of the room that meant the most to Anna Beth Roeschley, of Hyattsville Mennonite Church in Washington, D.C., and a part of the Pink Menno movement – an advocacy group for people of all sexual orientations.
The group was asked to hold its activities off campus because it promotes a view not sanctioned by Mennonite Church USA. But many of its members served as adult delegates and volunteers, attended seminars and worship sessions, participated in informal hymn sings in the convention halls and joined Conversation Room discussions.
“I was surprised by the structure and vibe of the room, said Roeschley after participating in Tuesday morning’s discussion on human sexuality, which also drew a large crowd of about 170 participants. “It was better and much safer than I anticipated.
“It was a powerful experience for me to talk with others who have very different views from myself on sexuality. It was really good for me to listen to what they had to say.”
Church leaders, including Ed Diller, moderator of Mennonite Church USA, and Richard Thomas, moderator-elect, believe the Conversation Room process is integral to the deeply-held Anabaptist value of community discernment. And it models where the church is headed in light of the Pittsburgh Experiment in the adult delegate sessions, where no resolutions were brought forth but table discussions and open microphone time was key.
“I think the Conversation room was a wonderful addition to our convention,” Diller said. “From the reports we are hearing about the Conversation Room, participants by and large felt the process modeled habits of good conversation and good listening and helped the church to move toward responding rather than reacting to issues.”
Thomas added, “The feedback we are receiving from many adult delegates after their sessions is that they deeply appreciated the time given to healthy conversation that did not have as its goal a final resolution.
“Our delegate session process, as well as the Conversation Room, were a convergence of practice that is helping us walk out our value of growing in our capacity for community discernment, so that together we can better hear the voice of God.”
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