For Congregational Discussion: The Ethics of Dialogue and Debate

[1] The Journal of Lutheran Ethics hopes to provide reading material to stimulate thinking and conversation among academics, clergy, and laity. To this end, this new section will be included in each issue of JLE in order to encourage constructive discussion within congregations about the topics discussed in JLE.  Consider using this section in formal adult education classes or in informal small group discussions.


[2] The October/November issue of JLE is dedicated to the topic of discussion itself and asks questions about the ethics involved in social and political dialogue within a church setting.  The following quotes and questions might be used to generate discussion about the emotions and reasons surrounding congregation members’ opinions about the possibility of social and political discussion within the church.


Quotes to Consider and Discuss:


[3] “When the church – and preaching – refuses to admonish, proscribe, and criticize corruption, negligence, or abuse of power by the state, it reneges on one of its major functions as an instrument of God in the world. That function is to provide prophetic critique on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed.”  Leah Schade.  At what times have you been proud of your congregation’s speech and activism for the marginalized and oppressed?  At what times have you wished your congregation spoke louder or in a very different way about a social issue?  How might a congregation decide what its specific stance will be on a specific social issue?


[4]  “Remembering our baptism, we can risk conflict because we know we belong to the family of God in Christ.” Amy Carr and Christine Helmer.  Amy Carr related an experience about conflict that arose in her church at an annual meeting vote concerning signing a resolution about domestic violence. Have you ever had a similar experience of conflict in a church meeting?  In what ways do baptism and communion provide you with the strength necessary to risk conflict in your family of God in Christ?


[5] “Presumption tempts us to presume that our own being in the right is sufficient for righteousness; presumptuous self-righteousness cares more about a personal identity of being in the right than it does about being in right relationship with those with whom we disagree.”  Carr and Helmer.   How do you, personally, balance your view about the rightness of a specific position with your desire to be in right relationship with those with whom you disagree?  What theological touchstones help you when you disagree with another in your beloved community?


A Practice to Try:  Deliberative Dialogue. 


[6] “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.” Gregg Kaufmann.


[7] The practice described by Gregg Kaufmann is one that many congregations and classrooms have found to be an effective way to discuss difficult issues.   Consider engaging in a dialogue about the very possibility of deliberative dialogue.

* Gather a small group (10-15 people) willing to discuss. After a brief introduction, each member should listen as Members to each other, the moderator can read aloud the first question.


What experiences have you had that have led you to trust or distrust having a conversation about social or political issues with members of your church?


*Give the group members a few minutes to think privately before answering.  Allow each member of the group to share his or her answer without interruption before going to the next question. Some groups find it helpful to have a timer set for 2 minutes for each person’s talk. After each person has shared someone can read the second question.


*Given what you have said and what you have heard what are specific rules or guidelines that you need to make you feel safe in having a conversation on social and political issues with members of your church community?


*After each member has spoken to this question, consider whether the group has found a place of agreement about making conversation safe or if there is a tension between what people need.   If there is tension, name the tension and as the final question ask the members to share their responses to the following: Why is having conversations about political and social issues with fellow members of the church worth or not worth the risk?   If there is agreement about how to make a safe space for dialogue, ask the members of the group to honor those rules and to spend a few minutes thinking about the last question before answering.  What values do you hold that inform your political ideas and/or activities that you believe come from your religious faith?  In other words, how do you see your political and social views as connected to your religion?


*After each person has shared allow time for people to comment on what they learned about themselves or each other on this topic.

Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth

Jennifer Hockenbery serves as Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics .  She is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Humanities at St Norbert College. She attends Grace Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI.