Point counter point, dogma counter dogma, authentic counter authentic. That is the perception of the religion debate. That is the historic recall – two protagonists on a stage, often the national and international stages, sometimes accompanied by their choirs. This perception persists from media content to public policy formation.
There have also, always been the villagers. Deeply religious, their faith cyclically challenged and renewed, their practices shifting and adapted. They faithfully attend worship and an array of communal gatherings – provide their offerings to their god through their religion based rituals and institutions. On occasion they engaged the protagonists and choirs with the challenge of an alternative voice who might survive to then take a place on the stage engaging in the public debate.
Advances in the religion and political realms, significantly in the last several hundred years, have given greater voice to the villagers and a growing number of leaders who have been able to galvanize and sustain a dialogue reflecting a widening range of beliefs and practices. All the while, the spotlight has remained on the protagonists, in spite of the wide ranging increase in the number and diversity of the voices of the villagers and their clergy. The media and politicized perception of point counter point persists. There has been no context from which to reset the perception of the landscape. Less point counter point, dogma counter dogma. The discord held the spotlight, as dialogue languished in the shadows.
I have shared in the reshaped landscape formed and sustained by a 10 year Dialogue composed of 31 Dialogues. This is a Dialogue which has given voice to the vast clergy leadership and brought to the fore the decades of unheard conversations and fleeting dialogues that made these 10 years increasingly vibrant. Reframed, the religion sector extends the conversation about the nature of religion and religion in society, to the surrounding public square.
In year 10, this Dialogue has not languished. It has flourished. Sustained by a defined structure which extends beyond the village and city to a place in the spotlight on the national, even international, stage. It reflects a capacity that is increasingly being capitalized upon in other regions by clergy and by the leaders of the other community sectors. It is increasingly a stage occupied by the ensemble and resistant to the intrusion of protagonist.
440 clergy share in this regional ensemble, which encompasses the Peninsula south of San Francisco and north of San Jose – about one million residents, 600 square miles, 27 cities and 32 school districts, one county and a portion of another. These clergy are not all on stage at the same time. The whole team does not “take the field in every inning.” They are in the company. They maintain their roles in the Dialogue while they guide separate congregations or civic institutions.
A decade of 31 Dialogues, three per year, result in a sustained progression of discourse. This systemic design of that progression has captured the diversity and richness of individual and shared voices. Involvement is statistically significant, illuminating the percent of participating numbers and the diversity of each Dialogue group and the longitudinal overview. The Dialogues are the underpinning “ritual” by which the conversation in villages reach the scope of the city, the region, the state and the nation. It also links colleagues, who, time and again, respond when called upon to take their place to fulfill a needed role on the stage of the larger community.
The launch of a new paradigm: The initial and subsequent gatherings were achieved because they were defined as gatherings of and for all clergy – a discourse to frame relationships and honor all voices. It achieved a level of success which surpassed previous convenings of clergy defined by “what we have in common” or “coming together as advocates for a specific cause or project.” The success and value provided by those contingents is extensive, but did not include the capacity to engage all clergy and the totality of the region’s congregations they serve. Raising a banner emblazoned with a distinctive vocabulary or symbol has historically attracted those who are drawn to associate under that banner, be it a theology, philosophy or community project.
The banner raised to gather the Peninsula clergy was the common calling embodied in their profession. They share the passion and the tasks of those who serve their congregants and their respective faith communities. Clergy departed from the first Dialogue “Clergy Leadership, In the Congregation and in the Community,” conscious that there was no single agenda, no head table and no array of speakers. In this and the subsequent Dialogues, the clergy were the agenda and the speakers. All clergy sat at roundtables of 6, assigned by the greatest possible diversity of their denomination, demographic, geography – conversing about who clergy are as individuals, in congregations, and in the community. Throughout the clergy Dialogues were alternated with Clergy/Civic Leader Dialogues.
The first Dialogue was convened by the regional community foundation, to test the capacity to gather all clergy. The formation of a clergy regional network came as an initiative of the assembled clergy. A steering committee met for six months to design a process to extend this Dialogue encounter to sustain the uniqueness of that experience and the comprehensive relationships. A core element of the design was three Regional Dialogues a year: fall, winter and spring. This was later revised, a Regional Dialogue being replaced with an Area Dialogue in each of four delineated geographic areas over a week in the winter.
The Dialogue supported the advance of Regional Clergy Engagement and with it came a design of the landscape of the Religion Sector. This design, combined with the role of the civic leaders in the Dialogues, resulted in the framework for the long sought functional relationships between the religion sector’s core institution, the congregation, and the civic sectors of the society.
What resulted was the identification of a common religion sector vocabulary, a shared familiarity with the unique role of all religion sector institutions, and an informed understanding of the relationship between the institutions of religion and those of the civic sectors. This furthered the richness of the Dialogues and expanded exchanges among clergy and between clergy and civic leaders. The Dialogue, at all its levels, created a sense of clergy as community partners with the professionals of the other sectors: government, education, non-profits and business.
Common and consistent clarity on these basics resulted in an alignment which provided for “appropriate and efficient” collaboration on key critical community concerns: health, education, community service, disaster response and energy/environment. Partnerships expanded the level of conversation on specific aspects of these critical concerns: more students successfully graduating, improving systems of disaster response following Katrina, decreasing obesity and diabetes, systematically linking the generosity of congregants with the needs of community service providers.
Through Dialogue, clergy gained mutual professional and civic investment with increased levels of knowledge and newly understood benefits of “clergy social capital.” They initiated sustained projects linking congregations with critical communal concerns. Of all the sectors, congregations are the predominate constituent based institution in the community. Each project drew on the collective investment by the clergy which extended the aggregate engagement by the region’s clergy, congregations and congregants.
There was also the newly acknowledged parallel “civic sectors’ leaders religion sector social capital.”
This Dialogue driven environment achieved, for the 21st century village, modes of wide-ranging leadership and constituent engagement, inclusive of each community’s diversity of denomination, demographic and geography.
The 31 Dialogue Topics: Clergy Dialogues and Clergy and Civic Leader Dialogues
Rabbi Jay Miller RELIGION SECTOR 3.0
1.0 On the Town Square 2.0 Walls of Separation
3.0 Alignment: Among Congregations – Within Society