Updated: Nov 6, 2021
How to stay in conversation on the journey through disagreement & misunderstanding.
I am exploring (again) a call to vocational ministry, and have recently taken some time exploring various seminaries (theological graduate schools) of the Episcopal church. Reading around on the website for the Seminary of the Southwest, I came upon one of the most inspiring documents I’ve ever seen: their Conversation Covenant.
Covenant is a biblical term, an idea from the Ancient Near East: it is an agreement that binds two parties in a relationship, and this Conversation Covenant binds all the members (faculty, staff, and students) of this seminary to a specific set of agreements about how they will participate in conversation during their time together. The essential agreement is that they will indeed participate in conversation with one another. Rather than avoiding, dismissing, dominating, gossiping, attacking, judging—so many of the strategies we humans fall back on because actual conversation gets hard—each member promises to stay engaged, to listen, be honest, be fair.
The covenant begins with the idea that those who agree to it are members of a community of inquiry, like any school or university; and because no one knows everything, and everyone’s spiritual and intellectual journey will be different, we are bound to disagree from time to time. We are also bound to misunderstand one another sometimes. We might even change our minds!
“Avoiding the issues around which passion and disagreement reside might well be an easier path, but commitment to remaining in conversation with one another despite our differences is part of our calling...”
The Conversation Covenant opens with certain principles of shared understanding. It begins by affirming the shared human dignity of the participants, their freedom "to explore different ideas and beliefs as well as to grow and change" their views, the inevitability of partial understanding and mistakes, and "that we do not have to agree" in order to care about one another and live in community.
It then moves to a longer statement of shared goals, a commitment to "strive to approach conversation with a willingness to listen and learn, acknowledging the value of opposing views." Community members pledge:
to engage ideas without attacking or dismissing those that hold them;
to acknowledge the limited perspective of our own experience and opinions, and be open to the possibility of our views changing;
to consider the possibility that their views might be mistaken;
to challenge one another and accept challenge, while seeking neither to give offense nor take offense too readily;
to serve reconciliation by sharing when they have been offended;
"to acknowledge stereotypes, ask for clarification in order to avoid misunderstandings, and make room for complexity.”
As I move into ecumenical/interfaith university campus ministry, holding space for challenging conversations (as those around religion, ethics, and spirituality can be) will be much on my mind. When I read this Conversation Covenant, my immediate response was—I want to memorize this, live by it, and bring it into every place I ever live and work! That might have been a little over-the-top, but I think it is reasonable to strive toward embodying these principles of humility, integrity, and generosity in listening and sharing. I hope to bring these into my new work as a campus minister—and I hope you will join me, wherever you are, in engaging with others in your community in a way that is life-giving and God-honoring.