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Restorative Circles Help Churches Navigate Conflict


The pastor and a worship leader had experienced a falling out. Everyone in the congregation seemed to be taking sides. Tension was palpable on Sunday mornings. Trust had been lost.

For a congregation facing internal conflict, it can be difficult to navigate toward a unifying resolution. But with guidance from the Restorative Congregations Initiative, over 60 members of this congregation participated in a restorative circle, an inclusive conflict mediation tool.

The pastor and worship leader, along with others near the center of the conflict, were given the floor to express what had occurred from their perspective and to say what they were thinking and feeling at the time. Then people in the circle had the opportunity to share how the conflict had affected them.

“When we entered, we weren’t sure if we could continue as a church,” said one participant. But at the conclusion, he said, “Now our church can be here for our children.”

Four Christian Reformed congregations spanning the United States and Canada have begun to use restorative practices as a tool for resolving conflict. Two retired prison chaplains, John deVries Jr. and John Lamsma, who were commissioned by the denomination after a 2005 synodical study report on Restorative Justice, spearhead the Restorative Congregations Initiative.

The most visible practice is a restorative circle. A circle always involves the people at the center of a conflict, often includes an outside mediator, and can include anywhere from a few closely affected people to an entire congregation. Circles are used for conflict resolution but can also be useful for developing group consensus when making difficult decisions.

The values of a circle include accountability to one another, respect for every participant, and truth-telling, all of which embody restorative practices.

“All circles have had positive results,” reported Lamsma.

Lamsma and DeVries hope that more congregations within the denomination can receive training to engage in this restorative practice.

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