A Different Way of Talking


[1] “For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”[i]

[2] The Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms” has real-life import when it comes to churches engaging in public issues. Because Lutherans believe that God’s realm meets the earthly realm, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has a history of helping the faithful make connections between who we are both as God’s people and as American citizens. We are experiencing a time of hyper-partisan political rhetoric that is tearing at the fabric of personal and public discourse and compromising relationships among family members, friends, and those with whom we worship and serve in the church. This article offers a platform called deliberative dialogue by which the church can be a safe space for talking about public issues through challenging yet respectful conversation.

[3] As contemporary American Christians who wish to take the gospel into the world, we find divisiveness and despair throughout the country from Orlando to El Paso, Dayton to Gilroy. The opioid epidemic, gun violence, poor water quality, education inequity, and poverty affect the health of the nation; yet, this is precisely where the church can offer good news. There is a way to engage in public conversations and deliberations about these issues that builds up rather than tears down. In his catechisms, Luther provided families with a curriculum to stimulate conversation among parents and their children. Luther speaks to the Fifth Commandment, “We should fear and love God, and so we should not endanger our neighbor’s life, nor cause him any harm, but help and befriend him in every necessity of life.”[ii] George Forell speaks to Luther noting that “Christian liberty is not a human achievement but a gift of God’s grace…. an empowering gift because it enables the recipient to be freed from self‑concern, the obsession with his or her own interest, for the real needs of others.”[iii]

[4] The ELCA and its predecessor bodies have a history of speaking to difficult issues through social statements and messages.  Through synod assembly resolutions forwarded to denominational leaders, ours is a grassroots process that calls for the church to offer wisdom through its teaching documents which are developed by lay people and pastors wrestling with issues of common concern. The irony, however, is that what begins as a “ground-up” request for the church’s teaching somehow is perceived as a “top-down,” hierarchical or authoritarian church policy. How do Lutherans actually use these teaching documents?

[5] Roger Willer has spoken to the comprehensive nature of the church’s teaching documents as they touch on a wide variety of social concerns but has suggested that one of the gaps is an adequate political ethic to address “the nature of citizenship and civic duty.”[iv] While the church’s moral teaching “does not bind the conscience of members, it does represent a ‘go to’ ethic when discerning issues of social ethics.”[v] Willer introduces the term, “responsibility ethics”[vi] to illustrate that human beings respond to moral dilemmas not out of an ethic of duty or virtue but through dialogue and wrestling with a fundamental ethical question, “What should we do?”

[6] At an ELCA-Episcopal Advocacy Convening event some years ago I conducted a workshop on deliberative dialogue and asked church leaders how local congregations used formal church resolutions and social statements and messages. The common answer was simply, “We don’t know.” Anecdotal information suggests that some congregation leaders resist using statements for fear of antagonizing church members with political issues.  Still others find the carefully developed materials daunting, even esoteric. The church has provided some study guides though they are didactic in nature. They are designed for learners. Study group leaders adopt a scholastic approach by teaching students. While these are important educational resources, there is room for a different way to engage the faithful in dialogue.

[7] The Charles F. Kettering Foundation, Dayton, Ohio, considered by many practitioners as the cradle for deliberative dialogue, for over 35 years has pursued its core research question: “What does it take for democracy to work as it should?”[vii]  “Democracy requires responsible citizens to make sound choices about their future; communities of citizens acting together to address common problems; and institutions with public legitimacy that contribute to strengthening society.”[viii] The church can be numbered as an institution with public legitimacy in so far as it raises up disciples and congregations to carry out their ministries in partnership with God.  In With the People: Making Democracy Work As it Should, David Mathews speaks to Lincoln’s ideal of a government of, by, and for the people,” and argues that we should build a case “that would have institutions working with citizens, and not just for them.”[ix] Consequently, a key element in this work, both secular and sacred, is a deliberative process that enables people to work together and with institutions.

[8] In Romans, Paul says that we should “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”[x] However, church leaders describe the discernment process with a variety of responses. Discernment is more often referred to as a spiritual posture or attitude rather than a specific practice. Deliberative dialogue is an approach that helps people focus on an issue of public interest by valuing their wisdom, curiosity, and respect for the way others think about the issue. Similar to discernment, dialogue employs an ethic of “with”[xi] in providing for an exchange of ideas and the opportunity to deepen understanding while people struggle with an issue’s nuances and complexity.  

[9] As a lifelong Lutheran, retired ELCA pastor, and university religion and politics instructor, my life journey has brought me to northeastern Florida where I have been able to connect my Christian faith with interest in citizenship and local democracy by practicing and teaching a method of communication called deliberative dialogue. I had the opportunity to receive training at the Kettering Foundation and then apply the practice in the university community where I taught toward the end of my fulltime ministry career. I wish I had learned of this form of civil discourse years ago!

[10] Once I retired, my pastor invited me to create a civil discourse series for parish members, and for the past three years we have deliberated a host of issues. A forum on End of Life: What Should We Do For Those Who are Dying? resulted in a deeply moving and candid conversation. The opioid epidemic was the subject of another forum where a young man, barely a year into substance abuse recovery, and a mother of a fifty-year-old daughter in rehabilitation were able to share their stories with others while the group talked about the church’s role relative to the opioid crisis.

[11] In the deliberative dialogue process, conveners and neutral moderators bring small groups of people together to share their perspectives – ethical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual – with the expectation that listening to different views will help groups discern common ground and make choices that can subsequently be shared with community decision-makers. In Christian communities, this kind of communal discernment aligns with biblical and church teachings regarding listening, respecting, sharing stories, and attuning to the movement of God’s Spirit within the Body of Christ. It asks the faithful to prayerfully consult their sacred texts, discern divine wisdom, and discuss personal perspectives in order to arrive at collective decisions. Valued as an ongoing process, communal discernment honors the Apostle Paul’s proclamation that all Christians are a part of the Body of Christ and all have a role in its formation.

[12] In Jacksonville, Florida, deliberative dialogue has relevance for the church as it relates to its secular neighbors as well. Named the Cathedral District by city planners, the area is home to five historic churches. Over the past 40 years, the efforts of congregations to serve the poor and homeless have resulted in the creation of a number of charitable organizations to feed, clothe, and assist people. While many have benefitted from these ministries, the neighborhood has not flourished. Church buildings, nonprofit entities, and surface parking have swallowed up space in the 36-square-block neighborhood. Subsequently, the population stagnated at 1,400 residents with few commercial establishments resulting in a lackluster environment of abandoned buildings, poor tax revenue, and undeveloped property. In 2017, St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral resolved to address the district’s challenges by creating Cathedral District Jax, Inc. (CDJ), a nonprofit organization dedicated to overseeing the re-development of the neighborhood. CDJ hired a consulting firm and after meeting with a select group of stakeholders, a three-scenario neighborhood development plan was developed. Subsequently, CDJ used deliberative dialogue forums to engage people who live, work, and worship in the district.

[13] The dialogue guide, Cathedral District: Creating A Vibrant Neighborhood in the Urban Core, offered three distinctive approaches. The first focused on parking issues; the second, walking and pedestrian safety; and the third, advocated fostering citizen willpower. A 50-unit townhouse development hosted one forum and members of all five historic churches attended another. While CDJ wanted the parking issue addressed, participants advocated for improved walking with tree-lined streets and improved lighting. People also supported community building through fostering relationships among residents and church members, holding social events, and possibly an annual festival. Some expressed concerns about the tension between feeling that their safety was compromised by street people and the moral responsibility for caring for the disadvantaged. The CDJ board reviewed a final forum report and subsequently decided to hire a part-time Community Development staff person. This is just one example of how faith-based conversations using a deliberative dialogue format can shape community development.

[14] So how can a congregation plan and carry out a deliberative dialogue? In preparing for a forum, a small group determines the issue to be deliberated in response to the wider community’s concern. Naming and framing a dialogue resource requires gathering and categorizing peoples’ concerns, and writing a resource which will help guide the dialogue. The Kettering Foundation and its partner organization, the National Issues Forums Institute, have published issue guides on over 40 different topics that can easily be adapted for church use. Another important pre-forum step is to convene people who care deeply about the issue, bring different perspectives, and reflect the community’s diversity by age, gender, and race. This is easier said than done. Deliberative practitioners report difficulty attracting non-college-educated men, people from rural communities, and those who self-identify as conservative. Some may perceive deliberation as a liberal construct and an occasion for passing judgment on conservatives. However, faith communities weekly convene people who reflect the nation’s diversity and have the capacity to help people talk across differences.

[15] Neutral moderators are essential for productive forums. People who are good communicators with a willingness to be passionately impartial can learn moderation skills necessary for deliberation. Scribes who record participants’ comments and time keepers complement moderators. After welcoming participants, praying, and introducing the issue to be deliberated, the first task for the moderator is to review guidelines or a covenant for how participants will conduct themselves in the session, for the way we speak to each other is an ethical activity. Respect others. Speak truthfully for oneself. Disagree out of curiosity and not anger. Listen to understand. Consider the subject matter fairly. All these are principles derive from the earliest democracies and are consistent with biblical ethics of neighbor-care. In faith-based settings, depending on God’s Spirit is another important practice. Seeking prayerful support for the forum’s guidelines is an important first step in the process.

[16] A forum continues with an opportunity for people to share their “personal stake” by responding to “from-the-heart” questions: What makes this issue real for you? What brought you here? Why are you concerned? Moderators encourage people to provide brief answers, one or two sentences, resulting in the group understanding a sense of what one another values. The forum proceeds with moderators giving the group equal time, perhaps twenty minutes, to dialogue about each of the issue’s three distinctive approaches. Within each approach are four or five examples of actions that could be done and corresponding tradeoffs. Participants may offer additional ideas. People “weigh in” by sharing their thoughts while the moderator endeavors to surface respectful disagreement, as well as possible areas for agreement. In the final segment of the forum, a moderator asks if any common values surfaced. As well, participants are encouraged to identify tensions that require more conversation and specific “next steps” to pursue. Post-forum questionnaires are often used to anonymously gather additional information from participants.

[17] Spending some time debriefing with the participants about the forum experience is helpful. Many people find the deliberative process refreshing. “We actually disagreed without shouting at one another.” “I felt that my opinion was valued.” “After hearing others’ ideas, I am re-considering my position.” “I appreciate the opportunity to explore the gray areas and nuances of the issue.” The areas of agreement or unresolved tensions offer some direction for additional dialogue or toward developing a plan for action. It is important to realize that deliberative dialogue is a meaningful way to begin addressing a crucial issue. Two hours of dialogue will not result in a strategy or action plan, nor will it achieve consensus. Deliberation is about listening to what people value and working through the complexities of an issue or problem. It is an interaction devoted to what Martin Marty describes as “building cultures of trust”[xii] in the public sphere. “Through self-reflection, conversation, many kinds of cultural interactions, and yes, argument, elements of the public learn the face of the other and can interpret the voice of the other.”[xiii] More fundamentally, the goal of a faith-based forum combines strengthening democratic attitudes and working with others through the spirit of God’s grace. This has the potential to not only strengthen a congregation’s ability to work through other difficult issues in the future, but to serve as a model for what constructive civil discourse can look like.

[18] Despite the good intentions and often positive results that come about through deliberative dialogue, our Kettering research exchange noted that many churches have an initial stumbling block for even considering dialogue in the first place. That stumbling block is lack of clarity about whether or not churches should even broach issues of public concern.  So, a Kettering Foundation research group developed an issue guide called The Church’s Role in a Divided Society as a resource for congregation members to consider their role as Christian citizens in engaging in discussions about the public good.  To quote the introduction:

Churches are wrestling with how to live out their faith in an increasingly divided American culture. Research indicates that partisan politics is affecting congregations in how we interact, worship, and fellowship with each other; how clergy preach their sermons; and how (or if) we engage in the public square.  In American society where the institutions of church and state remain separate, the reality that political discourse impacts religious communities cannot be denied. People bring their whole lives – good, bad, and troubled – to their church. This issue guide raises the question: “What should the church do to help congregants navigate the current state of political discourse in America?[xiv]

The guide offers three options for deliberation. 1) The Church as Refuge, where the primary focus of the church should be on Christian nurture and faith formation through worship and education, and a place that provides sanctuary from the culture wars; 2) The Church as Mediator, in which the  church plays a role in helping the faithful navigate the political fray by teaching listening skills where we respect differences of opinion, attune ourselves to the voiceless and marginalized, host community dialogues, and become agents of reconciliation in our communities; and 3) The Church as Prophetic Voice, an approach that encourages the church to be engaged in the public square, to proclaim God’s truth, pursue justice, and speak on behalf of the voiceless. Within each option there are, as mentioned above, actions and drawbacks for forum participants to deliberate. A post-forum questionnaire is available to capture individual’s views on their forum experience.

[19] One scholar describes communal discernment as “the capacity to resolve a problem by creating a solution from its members’ own resources of grace and nature.”[xv] I might say that deliberative dialogue as a form of discernment is “grace in motion.” Deliberation offers participants a respectful environment to engage in civil discourse, a time to share what they value and care deeply about, and work together as partners with God to discover faithful first steps toward addressing important issues. In this way, the church, as an institution of public legitimacy can help its members speak on behalf of Christ’s Gospel in the public square.




[i] 1 Corinthians 3: 9.


[ii] Luther, Martin, Luther’s Little Instruction Book (the Small Catechism of Martin Luther). (Champaign, Illinois and Boulder, Colorado: Project Gutenberg and NetLibrary, 1994) 1.


[iii] George Forell, “Luther and Christian Liberty.” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, (2002) https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/990 (accessed June 14, 2019).


[iv] Roger Willer, “Community of Moral Deliberation and an Emerging Responsibility Ethic.” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, (2014) https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/56 (accessed June 10, 2019).


[v] Ibid.


[vi] Ibid.


[vii] Kettering Foundation, (2019) https://www.kettering.org/about (accessed July 27, 2019) .


[viii] David Mathews, “The Ecology of Democracy,” Kettering Foundation Core Insights, (2019) https://www.kettering.org/core-insights/core-insights (accessed July 24, 2019).



[ix] David Mathews , With The People: Making Democracy Work as It Should, (Dayton, Kettering Foundation, 2019) 5.


[x] Romans, 12:2


[xi] David Mathews , With The People: Making Democracy Work as It Should, (Dayton, Kettering Foundation, 2019) 5.


[xii] Martin Marty, Building Cultures of Trust, (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans, 2010) 142.


[xiii] Ibid.


[xiv] R. Gregg Kaufman, The Church’s Role in a Divided Society, (Dayton: Kettering Foundation, 2019) 1.


[xv] Ladislas Ordsy, “Toward a Theological Evaluation of Communal Discernment.” Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits, Vol. V, No. 5 (October ,1973) 184.

R. Gregg Kaufman

Rev. R. Gregg Kaufman is a retired ELCA pastor and Georgia College faculty member. He is a Research Associate with the Kettering Foundation and is available through The Deliberative Voice website.