Joe Ramsay and Allan Reeve are big fans of talking. Not just casual dialogue, but focused dialogue that explores specific issues. For the last year, these two United Church ministers have been leading “Sacred Conversations” in Ottawa and in the Bay of Quinte Conference. These “conversations that matter” involve both lay and clergy members, allowing participants to get to know each other better and explore complex issues in a structured, respectful environment.

“One of the big advantages of the program is that it deepens relationships within congregations,” said Allan, who is part-time ministry personnel for a pastoral charge near Peterborough, Ontario, as well as being involved with Bedford House, a centre for faith-based social action. He noted that some participants told him, after the Sacred Conversations, that they learned new things about people they’d shared pews with for years.

Joe Ramsay at a Sacred Conversations workshop
Joe Ramsay at a Sacred Conversations workshop.
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Sacred Conversations

Joe, who heads up his own management consulting company, explained that certain types of thinking work better with different sizes of groups. Great ideas, or eureka moments, often come to individuals when they are alone, while a small group can effectively do strategic thinking about a narrow topic.

To tackle a bigger issue, such as poverty or how to connect to the broader community, he said it is best is to bring a large number of people together to talk about their experiences, the issue and possible solutions.

“We are talking about people being authentically engaged in dialogue, with all voices being heard,” he said. “That is at the heart of Sacred Conversations.”

“Not just one direction comes out of these conversations,” added Allan. “The process encourages experimenting, as participants try to break some new ground.”

EDGE, a network within the United Church that fosters ministry renewal and growth, supports these Sacred Conversations, and funding is given through the Embracing the Spirit program.

Joe says he and Allan are using a three-step process to involve more people in these practices. The first step is to host regional training events where people learn to use specific practices that allow meaningful conversations to happen, such as the circle way or the world café. The second phase emerges when those who have been trained choose to apply the practices in their own context. Joe and Allan help host conversations at the local level, often with several congregations, or between a congregation and the surrounding neighbourhood.

In the third phase, specific projects or programs emerge, and Allan and Joe act as coaches to help congregations and communities experiment with new missional initiatives.

Joe said he would like to see EDGE become more involved in Sacred Conversations for a longer term, supporting the coaching processes and “helping people develop a project, where they learn how to engage the stakeholders. “Change moves at the speed of relationship,” is a motto they’ve picked up from other Art of Hosting practitioners.

If something doesn’t work, they also need to know when to try something else. “These are experiments that aren’t failsafe, but are safe to fail,” he explained.

“This whole thing is challenging,” said Allan. “The process is highly experiential, and relationship-based. We don’t have predetermined agendas or outcomes, so people need to experience the process to fully understand it.

Allan Reeve (right) at a Sacred Conversations workshop.
Allan Reeve (right) at a Sacred Conversations workshop.
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Sacred Conversations

While some congregations have used this process as a way to reach out to the wider community, both Allan and Joe cautioned that Sacred Conversations should not be seen simply as a way to build a church’s membership.

“Going into this with a hope of getting more members is not an honest use of the process,” said Allan. “On the flipside, however, using these practices you will develop deeper relationships within your community, and those relationships tend to be what creates new church members.”

“Our heart and our processes are not focused on the well-being of the institution for its own sake,” added Joe. “We instead focus on the well-being of the human beings that make up that institution.”

He added that the process is meant to deepen the relationships among the people that already have some reason for being together.

“We want people to have conversations that matter, that are important. We have faith that meaningful conversations will bring forward good things.”

“When you reach out into the community and develop relationships that lead to programs, projects and initiatives, you create a healthier congregation,” agreed Allan. “After all, you are working with the Spirit, and where God’s energy is already on the move.”

Joe added that the importance of conversations is part of our biblical story. After all, “Jesus did not create programs — he created disciples and engaged in conversation with all who had ears to hear.”

For more information about Sacred Conversations, contact Joe at joe [at] joeramsay.com or Allan at reeve.allan [at] gmail.com.

—Paul Russell, Communications Coordinator with the Office of the Moderator and General Secretary.

New and diverse approaches to ministry are constantly cropping up across The United Church of Canada, and Embracing the Spirit wants to hear about them. If you are involved with a group that has found an innovative way to approach church, let us know, by filling in the Tell Us Your Story form, found at the bottom of the Spur Innovation page.