Getting Serious about Institutional Listening

If you’re interested in religious education, service learning, or experiential education, you owe it to yourself to read Wayne Meisel’s suggestions on the questions that need to guide emerging religious leaders in their studies. His questions do a commendable job of integrating academics, service, and justice. But I would add another set of questions to his list: What are the questions we ask those outside of our faith communities?

Much of the training emerging religious leaders receive in seminary is built on telling their own story. The somewhat cliché ice breaker that most students receive when they arrive on campus is “What brought you here?” Indeed, the first question on Meisel’s list is “What social justice issue(s) brought you to seminary?” But perhaps we need to ask, “Whose stories brought you here?” It’s possible that an issue captured your attention, but I bet that what captivated you about that issue wasn’t what you discovered in statistics or charts but what you learned in a conversation or a story.

We can only speak truth to power if we learn to listen first. There is long, and frankly embarrassing, history of faith communities taking on well-intentioned but misguided projects that they assumed other people needed. And while I think Meisel is right that faith, justice, and service need to be integrated in seminary education, they can only thrive in an environment that takes listening seriously.

Even in seminary curriculums, courses that focus on listening skills are often written off as “soft” classes. Though students in Clinical Pastoral Education units spend most of their time counseling residents and patients, the most talked-about part of the experience is often working out their own stories and personal histories. What would our curriculums look like if we put the same emphasis on learning other people’s stories as we do writing our own? My guess is that service learning wouldn’t need to be affixed to curriculum but would grow organically from it.

When we talk about outreach, the first thing we extend shouldn’t be a hand. It should be an ear. Critical listening shouldn’t be an attempt to “bring people in” but should strive to give voice to those we don’t hear in our communities and allow us to see ourselves as others see us. One great example of non-judgmental listening is one ELCA synod’s “Nones Listening Panel.” Instead of debating why people are leaving the church, the synod invited six self-identified “Nones” to a panel conversation in which they could talk about their experience in communities of faith or lack thereof. No sales pitch, no pushing back on others’ experiences, just a space for people to talk about their experience with this one faith community.

I think Meisel is right on in the questions he poses about faith, service, and justice. But the questions we ask should not only be directed at ourselves, our colleagues, and our institutions but also towards those with whom we have no connection. In the spirit of his article, here are five more questions that students in seminaries and divinity schools should be asking the people around them, even those with no faith tradition.

  1. Did you grow up in a religious or faith community? What values were important in your family unit?
  2. What is your impression of the faith communities in your community now? Do you have any engagement with them? Why or why not?
  3. What values and issues are important to you? How do you engage the world around you?
  4. What issues or topics would you like to see faith communities deal with? What issues do you think they should stay away from?
  5. What questions do you wish religious leaders asked you?

Photo credit: flickr user Rev Stan

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