A Phenomenology of Conversation: A Guide to Ministry

 Dr. W. Craig Gilliam cgilliam@justpeaceumc.org JustPeace Staff Collective“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

– Howard Thurman

Your great mistake is to act the drama/ as if you were alone.  As if life were a progressive and cunning crime/with no witness to the tiny hidden transgressions.  To feel abandoned is to deny/the intimacy of your surroundings.  Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into/the conversation. . .

~~David Whyte

  When congregations invite us into their world to help them rediscover their way when they have been jarred from their paths while experiencing some loss, grief, hurt, sadness, stuck-ness, conflict or pain, the questions we ask to each are similar.  Who are the people, what are the stories they carry that want to be told or need to be told–happy stories, sad stories or glad stories; what are the conversations emerging, and how do we help to create the space for those stories to happen?  Where is the generative conversation trying to be spoken? Where is the “quickening yeast”?  Where are the sunflowers and the hummingbirds? Conflict transformation and ministry in general are about conversations and relationships.  Ministry in general and our work in conflict transformation in particular is not as much about conflict, fixing problems or the next program for a congregation. At a deeper level, it is about the phenomenology of conversation.  We enter the community and conversation through the portal of a present unknowing, a different ear, a perceptive eye, an imagination refusing to come too early to a conclusion.  In other words, we pay attention and walk with  and alongside people into and through those conversations they are having within themselves, with God, and with others around them. Our role is to pay attention with a kind of fierce attentiveness to those conversations and why they are so difficult and what is happening along the way. We listen into the given system, context and culture for what are some of the variables that are impacting the conversation and making it difficult.  Also, we are listening for the variables that can help a congregation move through the conversation in a vibrant, discerning, honest, responsible way. As we listen to the conversations and stories, additional questions that often emerge are:   What is the dominant narrative and is it helping or hindering the community and individuals in it? Are their alternative narratives not being heard or told?

Neither conflict transformation nor ministry in general is about the consultant, facilitator, guardian or minister being the fix-it person or savior.  They are not about quick fixes or magic wands.  They are about commitment, patience, integrity and diligence to hold the space, respect the stories, love the people, honor the spirit and timing, listen into the conversation, connect with their humanity and watch for God, whose middle name is Surprise!–this third other who is trying to emerge. This work and ministry is about listening to and being present with both the spoken and unspoken, the light and the shadow, the visible and invisible, the conscious influences and unconscious impacts and engaging those respectfully, with honor and dignity. When we enter congregations, watching the relationships and listening to the conversations, we are also asking, how do we prepare the space for the conversation that needs to happen and create a container that can possibly hold the heat if and when it is released?  This has to do with the people present, the place and our way of being in it with openness and attentiveness.  Sometimes we refer to this way of being as an I-Thou way. Ministry is contextual, thus, no two situations are exactly alike; one size does not fit all.  Imitators do not work as well, nor do cookie cutter approaches.  Maintaining alertness, attentiveness and openness to the uniqueness of each person and the novelty of every situation in the midst of familiarity adds to the challenge of hearing the nuances. As the poet, David Whyte says, “Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.” Helping the community or individuals re-frame and de-blame the conversation, to connect, converse and belong to Self and other is at the heart of the labyrinth of relationships, lost paths and unknown destinations. Once we enter the community through their invitation and our agreement, step by step, breath by breath, word by word, sentence by sentence, story by story, engagement by engagement, with intentionality, we invite, we pay attention, we challenge, we encourage, we converse, we affirm, we gently nudge, we walk alongside and hold a soft candle so they and we can find the next step that will lead on a path deeper into soulful relationships and meaningful ministry and growth.  We are aware of their shadows and difficulties as well as our own and are companions to the vulnerabilities as well as the triumphs. Sometimes congregations or groups of people with whom we minister are ready and transformation and healing happen quickly.  Sometimes it takes time, and we celebrate the small changes.  Sometimes, they say “no, we have had enough of the process.”  For even the people who say “no more,” we try to honor, believing that they, too, have had seeds planted that will grow in their own due season.  They, too, have a reason and wisdom.  Instead of creating labels or a narrative of blame, we remind ourselves that no one needs to be forced or coerced to go where they are not open to travel.

In this past year’s journey, I have come to believe that much of our ministry is about the phenomenology of conversation. Our ministry is not only about conflict transformation but about inviting, creating and holding space for emerging conversations toward ministry; deep, active listening not so much advising, coaching and sounding wise; being able to hold ‘not-knowing’ and the courageous questions calmly, non-anxiously;  not so much about disconnect as connection; not so much about a narrative of blame as an invitation to responsibility; not as much about the chaff as it is about the wheat and the positive growth and deep roots that are happening.  We are about the many wellsprings of conversations, wisdom and insights emerging. We pray that this New Year will hold for you some rich conversations, deep journeys, wonderful wheat and a harvest of responsible relationships that allow you to know belonging and deep communion.  It really is about relationships and the conversation.  What are the conversations you need to be attentive to this New Year?

Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation!


A real conversation always contains an invitation. You are inviting another person to reveal herself or himself to you, to tell you who they are or what they want.

~~David Whyte

Being true to yourself really means being true to all the complexities of the human spirit.

~~Rita Dove


Recognizing Our Need for Help and Conversation

As individuals and communities, we grow well only with a continuous succession of extended hands.  Through those difficult thresholds of life, we cannot go it alone without robust vulnerability. The overwhelming need for help in an individual human life and a communities’ life never changes.  Without help, we cannot pass through the door that bars us from the next dispensation of our life; we cannot give birth. To know the necessity of help, to know how to look for it, how to ask for it, and how to give it is one of the most important transformative dynamics that allows us to give birth in our communities and individual selves again and again.  The way forward is in-between and among us realized through responsible conversation.  Thus, as ministers, we offer help as midwives to the mysterious wonder of incarnation, the invisible possibilities becoming visible through us as individuals and the communities to which we belong. W. Craig Gilliam          

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