Insights from Tumor Conference

A few weeks ago, the clergy of the Episcopal Church in East Tennessee gathered for a day of discussing Christian formation. Our conversation was facilitated by the Rev. Steve Sexton, Director of Pastoral Care at the UT Medical Center in Knoxville, and he led us through the day with kindness and humor.

From his work in medical chaplaincy, Steve brought us one of the best guidelines for church dialogue I’ve ever seen. It’s the facilitation guide for what he called “tumor conference,” a regular gathering to trouble shoot particularly difficult medical cases with the full range of specialized staff.

This translates beautifully into the work of churches and communities navigating tough conversations that I wanted to share my summary of the tumor conference principles here.

  • Every voice matters. From the seasoned expert to the newest intern, everyone’s perspective is needed for the group to be strongest.
  • There’s a common objective. One case (or question, or topic, or issue) is deemed the focus for the gathering, and all are working and advising on that common goal.
  • Confidentiality—what happens in this conversation stays in this conversation.
  • And the space to speak freely. In our listening and honoring of every voice, this is an environment to name what needs to be named and share honestly.
  • Stay open to critique, to challenge, and disagreement. At the end of the day, we remain colleagues. Respectful challenge in the context of a trusted relationship helps us to be excellent, to grow, and to think more deeply.
  • Look at the problem from all the disciplines. Different stories, expertise, and skills in every community can offer us creative and multifaceted engagement with a task, problem, or question.
  • Find a consensus. Articulate the composite wisdom of the room into a clear picture.
  • But when it’s all said and done, the “surgeon” (or pastor, facilitator, whomever brought the issue, task, or question) decides how the wisdom of the day and the strategy will be applied.

Aren’t these excellent? I see some of them in play in my facilitation as well as the staff I’m currently working with, but this is such a great vision for community process that needs more attention. What’s your “tumor conference”? Where can you use these ideas?

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