School Forum: Step 1. Principles of Engagement
Step 1. Principles of Engagement
This initial step focuses on laying the groundwork for community conversations about faith and science. The goal is for school and/or community leaders to commit to some basic principles of engagement that will frame their future discussions about faith and science.
Behind questions surrounding what we believe about faith and science issues are other questions:
- What do we believe about who we are and how we must treat one another as we discuss these issues?
- What kind of interaction about faith and science is consistent with being a Christian community?
If we do not answer these kinds of questions first, there is a risk that our discussions of faith and science will be driven more by fear and mistrust than by faith.
As an initial step in planning for community interaction, meet with school leadership and other relevant leaders, for instance, leaders from churches connected with your school or from parent groups. Consider beginning the meeting with prayer and with some reflection together on a New Testament passage that focuses on relationships within the church community, such as 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 13:8-10, or 3 John 1:5-11.
Introduce the idea of creating a communal forum to explore the role of learning about faith and science questions in the school community, and to create opportunities for learning while minimizing fears and hostilities. Make clear that the goal of this initial conversation is not to arrive at particular positions on faith and science questions, but rather to discuss the kind of conversation the community should have around these questions (the FASTly essays may serve as helpful resources).
Before engaging actual faith and science issues, it is valuable to gain shared clarity on what the basis for engagement should be. The hope is to secure agreement on something comparable to the principles of engagement below. These are provided as a sample; your group may want to modify them or find their own wording. It is important that the ground rules at which you arrive are owned by the group, as group members may need to articulate and defend them to others later. The following sample principles of engagement are provided as a handout in Principles of Engagement and as presentation slides in Principles of Engagement.
Sample Principles of Engagement
- We are called to pursue truth by engaging difficult problems. Christian faith leads us to believe that truth exists and is to be valued more than comfort, winning points over others, or any false sense of unity achieved by ignoring or silencing divergent opinions. The truth is not fragile or in need of our protection, and it will survive our realizations that we have been mistaken. We need not fear new information, but can trust that allowing the expression of different perspectives within a framework of shared faith can bring to us a deepened understanding. Because the truth matters, our conversations will be worth having, even if we don’t end up arriving at solutions or resolving our differences immediately.
- We are called to practice loving God and neighbor. Arriving at correct answers without love leaves us as clashing gongs and resounding cymbals. Having conversations with people who hold different views is a spiritual practice that provides the opportunity for the community to develop Christian virtues such as humility, patience, forbearance, courage, and love. A conversation not marked by these virtues will, in the end, not be a Christian conversation. Conversations about difficult issues are to be seen as opportunities to grow into being the kind of people Jesus wants us to be.
- We are called to bear witness together as the body of Christ. Statements of truth achieved at the expense of hostility toward other members of the body of Christ harm Christian witness. We are called to seek truth together, and that means that while finding true answers matters, the ways in which we grow or fail to grow, and how we treat one another along the way, also matter. This does not mean that we may not disagree. Disagreements can be seen as a gift to help strengthen unity as we seek to find fellowship amid our disagreements. We can discuss difficult issues and disagreements with one another, because we already belong to one another in faith.
Allow space for discussion of how your particular school and community leaders would like to word any of these principles differently. Once there is agreement about the nature of the interactions that are to be sought, discussion can progress to other practical questions, such as:
- How much time is the school willing to commit to community conversations about faith and science in the interests of shared learning and truth-seeking? Consider the format that will be most accessible and achievable in your context. Should this be a series of evening events, shorter one-hour meetings, book groups, or one or a series of whole-day workshops?
- What are the financial implications of that commitment? Consider compensating those who lead forum events (e.g., with stipends, extra personal days, gift cards), since this will require time and energy beyond normal school responsibilities. Consider the role that gathering around food might play in the kinds of conversations that will happen.
- What is the current level of trust in school leadership among the wider school community? Will the current trust level enable you to sustain conversations about contentious topics?
- Do you want to develop a single, larger-scale event with an open invitation to the community, or a series of small group opportunities involving perhaps 10-12 participants? The former may foster broad engagement, but the latter may offer more opportunities for listening well to one another and learning together, while possibly being less easily derailed by a vocal few. Even if you decide on a larger event, building small group interactions into the event may prove valuable.
- Who is best equipped to lead such community conversations? Consider not just expertise on the topic, but also ability to facilitate a group conversation graciously, pastorally, and effectively, even when conflict arises. The forum leader should be skilled in the art of facilitating discussion (asking probing initial and follow-up questions, receiving comments without premature judgment, graciously curbing overly assertive participants, pointing out connections between participant comments, summarizing key arguments, drawing implications, etc.). He or she should also have a good understanding of the cultural dynamics of the wider school community.
- What would be a good topic or sequence of topics? Should more contentious issues be preceded by easier, more confidence-building themes?
- Is there a physical location for the event that will be more or less welcoming, or generate more or less tension among participants?
It may be helpful to look together at the activity A Good Debate, which explores with students the difference between a debate being good because of who won, and a debate being good because of the Christian virtues that characterize it.