Australian Diocese Uses Circle Processes

“Experiments with Restorative Circles During Pandemic Times”

by Michael Wood

The Anglican Diocese of Perth, Western Australia, has been experimenting in recent years with various forms of restorative circles and conferencing in order to establish, grow, maintain and repair relationships. The most recent example was at the end of 2020. After a year of Covid disruption, most clergy were feeling utterly exhausted. Our Archbishop, Kay Goldsworthy, decided to host an afternoon of Listening Circles for 90 clergy, followed by a Eucharist and socializing.  

To prepare, we carefully selected nine clergy who we believed had a good feel for leading conversations. We then ran an “Introduction to Facilitating a Listening Circle” workshop with them. These nine participants then became facilitators for the larger meeting.  The four focus questions, for the two-hour Listening Circles, were:

  • What have you noticed or learned about yourself and your leadership this year?
  • What have you found energizing and life-giving? 
  • What’s been difficult? 
  • Where and how have you seen God at work?

Although we did not collect formal surveys to assess participant reactions, it was clear that participants had engaged deeply and seriously with each other; many reflected that they enjoyed the experience and found it valuable in connecting with their colleagues through this model.

In the midst of something like Covid where people have been living with existential threat, uncertainty, and massive disruption, there are no easy solutions or techniques for making people feel better. In situations like this, it is important for people to know that they are not alone and that others are experiencing similar things. It is also important that people can speak without being bombarded with well-meaning advice (like Job’s friends), and have restorative, healing spaces to hear and be heard.

Other examples of our use of restorative circles and conferences have involved:

  • developing trust and shared understanding on priorities and future direction for a church community
  • exploring stories and strongly held beliefs related to human sexuality
  • talking about clergy wellbeing 
  • working through conflicts over perceived lack of transparency in expending funds
  • naming griefs and losses surrounding the closure of churches and the redevelopment and sale of church properties
  • discussing leadership transitions after a long period of incumbency
  • reflecting on different viewpoints in a church and local community related to the environment, farming and mining 
  • collaborative development of a church-sponsored community garden 
  • dealing with conflict and harm between students in a university chaplaincy
  • resetting relationships and priorities in a staff team 

This year at our Synod, updates to the Clergy Discipline Statutes will introduce Restorative Practices as a preferred approach for dealing with conflict and harm in churches (in non child-related matters). Building Restorative Practices into church statutes will be a ‘first’ in Australia. This has become possible because of our ongoing experience and increasing confidence in using restorative circles in a wide range of other contexts. 

Michael Wood is an Anglican Priest in the Diocese of Perth, Western Australia.  He has been leading the development of Restorative Practices in the diocese and in his work at the University of Western Australia. Michael is a Restorative Conference facilitator and member of the Australian Association for Restorative Justice. He is currently working on a book for Christians on ‘Practicing Peace’. He can be contacted via https://www.michaeljohnwood.com/contact

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