We Need More Listening In The Church. Here’s One Way To Do It.
Updated: Feb 4, 2020
I have attended several “listening sessions” about the abuse crisis over the past six months, and I have certainly learned a lot from hearing the wide diversity of comments expressed at these events. If your parish doesn’t know how to begin addressing the clergy abuse and cover up crisis, hosting a listening session that offers people an opportunity to share their thoughts, feelings, and concerns can be a good first step to opening up a dialogue.
Back in October, when God was first starting to stir up this mission in my heart, I attended a listening session hosted by Archbishop Listecki and other archdiocesan leaders. I appreciated the format of that session, and the same format was used again at the listening session organized by the central city parishes of Milwaukee, which took place at St. Martin de Porres parish on February 28. I am working on a post with all of my notes from that listening session, but first, I thought it might be helpful to share the basic format of this session.
Side note: When I was still working in parish ministry last fall, I helped plan and facilitate a series of listening sessions that took more of an “open mic” format - just allowing people to take turns sharing their comments in front of a group of parishioners, staff, and clergy who gathered in the church after mass. There was certainly value in those listening sessions, but I have found these more structured dialogues even more fruitful.
Anyway, here’s what they did for the St. Martin de Porres session:
“On Thursday, Feb. 28th, a Listening Session will be held for Milwaukee's central city parishes to talk about the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Please mark the date and plan to attend. The event will take place at 6:30 PM in "The Great Room" of St. Martin de Porres Parish on the corner of 2nd and Burleigh. It is an opportunity for people to speak of how this issue has 1) impacted their lives and their faith, 2) to find support through the stories and experiences of others, and 3) to better understand the depth of this issue in the Catholic Church. Please pray for the success of this night and of all who have been hurt by sexual abuse in our Catholic Church.”
Listening Session Format
6:30 Introduction by Meeting Facilitator
Guidelines for Conversation
6:50 Individual Table Discussion
What thoughts, feelings, and questions do you have about clergy sexual abuse and the mishandling of cases?
Do you have concerns or questions about the Milwaukee archdiocese or parishes?
What can the Church do to promote justice, healing, and trust? What might this look like?
7:30 Ten Minute Break
7:40 Full Group Reporting of the Individual Tables’ Discussions
In the interest of time, share one issue that received the greatest amount of discussion, energy, or concern at your table
8:15 Facilitator Closes the Evening
Opportunity for additional comments (“I wouldn’t want to leave here tonight without saying…”)
Closing Comments by Bishop Jeff Haines
Notes On This Format
All participants were seated at round tables, with six or seven people per table. Each table had a volunteer assigned to facilitate the conversation and take notes on the comments. There were many priests in attendance, who sat at the tables to serve as “listeners.” A brief welcome and opening prayer were offered with the whole group before we dove into conversation at our tables.
After quick introductions around the table, the table facilitator posed each of the three discussion questions to the group, making sure everyone had a chance to share their perspective. The facilitator took notes on the key points of the conversation. These notes were to be submitted to the organizers of the listening session and compiled into a single document summarizing the event.
Each table chose a representative to share a key point or two from the conversation with the large group. After these comments, additional time was offered for anyone to stand up and make a closing comment in response to the prompt “I wouldn’t want to leave here tonight without saying…”
Comment cards were also provided at each table, with a heading (“Your comments are important. Feel free to fill this card out, if you wish, and submit it to Fr. Mike Bertram or Michael Adams. Thank you for your comments.”) and blank space to respond to the prompt (“A point I would like to make is….”).
Bishop Haines was invited to offer a few closing comments, and then the evening concluded with a thank you to participants and closing prayer.
Why This Format Works
A balance between small group and large group sharing is very helpful. The table conversations allow people time and space to express their thoughts and feelings in a more intimate setting. Offering the opportunity for sharing with the larger group is also essential for a feeling of true community in the room.
The presence of a facilitator at each table makes conversation go more smoothly and helps keep the group on track. Having priests sitting at the tables as “listeners” provides a powerful statement of their openness to really listen to the voices of lay people.
If a bishop, pastor, or other person seen as representative of the hierarchy can set the right tone in closing comments, this helps people know that their voices are heard and honored by church leaders. Simply thanking people for their participation, apologizing to them on behalf of the Church, and letting them know that they were heard is enough.
Obviously, opening and closing with heartfelt prayer is essential to establishing the context and mood for the evening!
Limitations of this Format
There is always more to say than time will allow! At the listening sessions I have attended, most of the time has been devoted to the honest outpouring of thoughts and feelings. People are desperate to feel heard, and for many, this event is the first opportunity they have had to speak openly about their feelings of anger, hurt, and betrayal. The open expression of negative emotions is good and healthy, and it just doesn’t seem possible, in the context of a single evening, to move beyond those feelings to a conversation about concrete action. Very little of the discussion will be centered on the third question (“What can the Church do to promote justice, healing, and trust?”), but at a certain point, we do need to move beyond conversation into concrete action.
In a format where no factual information is offered, it’s easy for misunderstandings to be echoed and amplified, and there is no space to answer questions, provide clarification, or address misconceptions. There is a great need for the laity to become better informed about these issues, and this listening session format does nothing to address that need.
If no clear next steps are offered, it can be easy to see a listening session as a single event designed to express feelings but not lead to any real change. Listening is just one piece of the transformation needed in our Church. (Practically speaking, if I were facilitating a listening session, I would pass around an optional email sign-up at each table, so that follow-up information and invitations could be offered to those who have already showed an interest in engaging with this issue.)
Lay people benefit from hearing the perspective of their priests outside of homilies and bulletin reflections. In this format, clergy are present primarily as “listeners,” which eliminates the opportunity for the laity to hear their honest, unscripted reflections about how this abuse crisis has affected them.
Keeping in mind these limitations, I still believe that a facilitated listening session is a great first step for any parish (or even better, group of parishes) that wants to address the abuse crisis in a thoughtful way. If your parish is thinking about hosting a listening session of some kind, I would be happy to offer my support.
Lord, help your people to both listen and speak with open minds and open hearts.
May those who love you seek truth and speak truth.