Creating a safe space for dialogue

I spent part of the day yesterday reading a report from Search Institute called With Their Own Voice: A Global Exploration of How Today’s Young People Experience and Think About Spiritual Development. Among the many insights and questions this report raised, one stood out: How do we create safe space for the dialogue?

As the authors write,

These findings suggest that young people have open conversations about spiritual development rarely, at best. When they do occur, these conversations can be rich and meaningful. The question is whether leaders are equipped to help young people negotiate these questions in healthy, empowering, and respectful ways.

As it happens, this week I also received an email from Chris Edwards, the Youth Minister at Christ Church Greenwich. He’s been using the Confirm not Conform program – and has added to it in a wonderful way.

“We started inviting students in our confirmation class to write down any questions they have about their faith, God, the Christian tradition, or Scripture on little pieces of scrap paper and drop them in a jar after class. The questions were so fantastic (and so many) that we were inspired to start a weekly podcast called ‘Scrap Paper Theology’ to attempt to address them. So, that is all to say - thank you for helping us facilitate teaching and discussion with our young people in a way that really deepens their understanding and allows them to claim our common faith as their own!”

Heavens to Betsy, thank you, Chris! The podcasts are terrific.

Of course, youth aren’t the only ones who need a safe space for dialogue. Adults may need it even more, as they may feel more pressure of expectation to have figured this all out already.

One of the things we do in the CnC for Adults program is make it clear that questions are welcome! We set up two large sheets of paper and post them on the wall, one saying “Chaos” and the other “Creation.” Participants are given Post-it Notes and are invited to write their questions and post them on the Chaos wall. As questions get answered during the course of the program, the Post-its get moved from Chaos over to Creation. Not all the questions get answered by the program facilitator. Being a provider of answers is not what’s most important. It’s great is when participants find the answers for themselves.

But not all the questions get answered – and that’s OK. And if we don’t find any answers, I find great comfort in this advice from Rainer Maria Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet:

I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

What other suggestions do you have for creating safe space for dialogue? What have you done? What has worked – and what hasn’t? How have you found ways to live the questions, and encourage others to do so? And what has made you feel safe as you lived them?