The Listening Project

David Shiner

My experience with the Listening Project began in early 1998. At that time, Lake Forest Friends Meeting was struggling with the issue of same-gender marriage under care of the meeting. While we had no members or attenders in that category, we knew that this issue had proven difficult for many Quaker meetings and hoped to prepare ourselves for the situation when it arose. We tried a number of means to address the issue: worship-sharing sessions, large group discussions, small group discussions, circulation of information and opinions, exchanges of letters and emails, and the like. None of these approaches seemed to bring the meeting community closer to clearness.

Around this time, several of us learned that other monthly meetings within Illinois Yearly Meeting had either undertaken or were planning to undertake the Listening Project, some of them on the very issue with which we were struggling. We contacted them for information and to get a sense of their experience. Their responses encouraged us to propose the Listening Project to Lake Forest Friends, a proposal subsequently approved by the Monthly Meeting.

Before reflecting on the experience of Lake Forest Friends, I will enumerate and briefly explain the steps involved in the Listening Project. They are as follows:

1. Define the scope of the project. The Listening Project should address a particular issue; if its scope is too general it will not prove very helpful. This is not to say that a wide range of questions should not be asked, only that the main focus should be on a particular issue or related set of issues.

2. Enlist the Meeting community. If the Monthly Meeting or other relevant group does not consider the proposed project worthwhile, carrying it out will be difficult and might even prove counterproductive. If a number of Friends have already expressed willingness to serve as "listeners" (that is, to undertake the work involved in the Listening Project), the Meeting is more likely to feel positively about the project than if there is no such core group.

3. Construct a questionnaire. The heart of the Listening Project is the individual interview, and the interview is based on a questionnaire, so the importance of constructing a suitable questionnaire can hardly be overstated. The group that drafts the questionnaire (probably 4 is about the right number - if there are fewer some important points are likely to be missed, while if there are more the process of constructing the questionnaire might test even the patience of Quakers) needs to prayerfully consider the needs of their Meeting with respect to the issue in question. Most Friends who have utilized the Listening Project have found it helpful to begin with broad questions which lead eventually to the particular focus their meeting wished to address, but which also consider that focus within the broader context of their faith as Quakers. (A copy of the questionnaire used by Lake Forest Friends Meeting is appended at the end of this article to give one idea of how this can be done.)

It is vital that the questions allow for a range of responses, that none of them imply that one response is more "right" than another. A question such as "Could you find it in your heart to welcome a same-gender couple into marriage under the care of our meeting?" will probably sound fine to a person who favors this action, but biased to one who does not.

4. Train the listeners. Once those who are willing to serve as listeners have made themselves known, an experienced trainer should train them. If this is impracticable, the volunteer listeners should carefully study any materials they can find on the Listening Project and discuss them as a group.

Once the listeners have been trained, they should begin the interview process by interviewing each other; all prospective listeners should be interviewed before interviews are undertaken on anyone else. During this phase, each person should take at least one turn as "interviewer" and another as "recorder" (see #6 below). This will give everyone involved the necessary experience to begin the process of interviewing other members and attenders. It will also highlight any problems with the questionnaire that should be corrected before those interviews begin. It is important that everyone involved agrees on the process in order to obtain a consistency of results.

5. Organize the interviews. One Friend should take primary responsibility for overseeing the Listening Project process. This includes collecting the completed questionnaires, making sure that everyone who would like to be involved gets scheduled for an interview, and keeping in regular communication with all the listeners to assure that there are no glitches. If the listeners are organized into "teams" the process is likely to go more smoothly than if they are not, but that is not necessary. Sometimes the coordination of schedules requires that listeners who have not previously worked together on the Listening Project get together to handle a particular interview(s).

6. Schedule and conduct the interviews. Once a Friend has agreed to be interviewed, two listeners schedule a time to meet with her or him at a location selected by the Friend to be interviewed (for simplicity's sake, I will refer to this person as the "interviewee"). One member of the listening team (the "interviewer") reads the questions from the questionnaire; the other member (the "recorder") notes the responses.

The Friends conducting the interview should be careful not to express any opinion about anything the interviewee says; their primary task is non-judgmental listening. When all the questions on the questionnaire have been asked and responded to, the recorder reads what he or she has written and asks the interviewee whether it accurately reflects that Friend's views. The interviewee is welcome to change anything at that time. Once the interviewee is satisfied with what has been written, the interview is concluded.

It is imperative that each interview be both individual and confidential. It is essential that all participants have complete freedom to speak their minds and hearts. If any Friend says that he or she would like to be interviewed with their partner or parent or whomever present, they need to be told that that's not how the process works. It's fine to interview more than one person in a family on a single visit; however, they should be interviewed sequentially and in full confidence.

7. Collect the interview sheets. Most groups who undertake the Listening Project guarantee confidentiality by having each questionnaire consist of a cover sheet on which the identity of the interviewee noted by the scribe (see appended questionnaire). When each interview is completed, the cover sheet is sent to one Friend for safekeeping while the questionnaire responses are sent to another. That means that there is a record of everyone who has been interviewed and a separate record of the responses, but that the two records cannot be compared to find out who said what.

8. Write a report. This is the step that Friends are initially likely to consider the most important, since it tells the meeting what the "results" are. In practice, however, it is usually the least important aspect of the process. The Listening Project is firstly a pastoral tool and only secondarily a survey undertaken for the purpose of fostering decision-making. However, there is some importance in having Friends understand how their fellow worshippers feel about the issue at hand, so any organization undertaking the Listening Project should plan to have someone(s) write a report summarizing the results.

As mentioned earlier, Lake Forest Friends Meeting decided to undertake the Listening Project in order to address the issue of same-gender marriage under the care of the Meeting (#'s 1 & 2 above). We then needed to find a trainer and construct a questionnaire. Two of our members had served as "outside" listeners when the Project was undertaken by Northside (Chicago) Meeting a year earlier, but neither of them felt led to serve as trainer for the rest of the prospective interviewers at Lake Forest. Accordingly we decided to invite an experienced trainer to help us, and Tom Stabnicke of Northside generously offered his services.

Our training began before we drafted our questionnaire (#'s 3 & 4). This worked out well, because the experience of those who (like Tom) have previously drafted a questionnaire can be quite valuable. The main focus of Tom's visits, though, was to explain and demonstrate the Listening Project process while imparting the wisdom of his experience in administering it. It was he who explained to us that the main purpose of the Project is as a pastoral tool, a fact we would quickly verify for ourselves.

The training of the listeners and drafting of the questionnaire took a couple of months, after which the listeners began the process of interviewing each other. This also took awhile, since there were 11 of us, but our time was well spent. Responding to the questions helped us understand the situation that other interviewees would be in, and the process of being heard non-judgmentally by our fellow worshippers was both powerful and affirming. Each of us also gained experience as interviewer and as recorder, which turned out to be more of a learning experience than most of us had anticipated. In fact, serving as listeners in this project was one of the most gratifying spiritual experiences in the lives of many of us, myself included.

The process of interviewing each other led us to draft a brief statement concerning the purpose of the Listening Project, which was printed on the cover sheet of the questionnaire (appended). This ensured a certain degree of consistency in what we told each interviewee as well as in what we asked them. In order to maximize the number of responses without prolonging the process indefinitely, we decided to budget a full year for the interview portion of the Project.

During the period when listeners were interviewing each other, we were also telling the rest of the meeting what we were planning and welcoming their participation. We made announcements every First Day; we posted information on the Meeting House bulletin board; we sent personal letters to every member and attender. While we tried not to pressure anyone, we made clear that we were dealing with a difficult issue and that we hoped that most Friends would participate in this method of addressing it.

I took primary responsibility for organizing the interviews and listeners (#5), but they mostly organized themselves. Those Friends who wanted to be interviewed could make their request of any of the listeners; those who were asked would usually take responsibility for scheduling the interview and finding another listener with whom to conduct it (#6). Once the interview was complete, the recorder would mail the response sheets to my wife and me and the cover sheets with the names of the Friends who had been interviewed to another interviewer (#7). By the end of the year, almost 50 members and attenders had been interviewed. Since Lake Forest averages 35-40 adult members on First Day, we felt that that was a good response.

My wife and I, who conducted a number of the interviews, were also authorized to draft the final report (#8). This took several months, partly because we were in the process of moving to England for the year but partly because we needed time to consider the appropriate format for the report. A Listening Project questionnaire is not an opinion poll and does not easily lend itself to easy summation. On the other hand, it can be important for a Meeting community to know whether a particular position is held by a majority of its members or only a few. We eventually decided on a narrative format in which we tried to express succinctly the range of responses to each question. We occasionally quoted a particular statement that seemed typical of some cluster of responses. Otherwise, we wrote in such a manner as to express the findings of the Listening Project as matter-of-factly and non-judgmentally as we could. We then showed our draft to two or three Friends for comments before delivering the final report to the meeting community.

As mentioned earlier, the Listening Project was a success at Lake Forest Friends Meeting with respect to numerical participation. More importantly, it was a success in the eyes of the meeting community. Many Friends told their listeners how valuable the process was for them. Even the minority who didn't feel they got much out of it considered the process to be a benefit to the Meeting community. As the Presiding Clerk wrote us after a Meeting-wide discussion of the final report, "Everyone felt that the process…was a bonding one and well worth the effort of everyone, whether or not we were able to establish consensus on the 'marriage of same gender under care of the Meeting' issue."

It has now been several years since Lake Forest Friends Meeting undertook the Listening Project. We have yet to resolve the issue of same-gender marriage under care of the Meeting, and we still have no members or attenders who have asked about this. However, we believe that the Listening Project has rendered the prospect of dealing with that issue less daunting. It has also brought us closer as a Meeting community, for we have learned that our fellow worshippers are more than willing to hear "the still small voice" in each of us.

Lake Forest Listening Project

It is the goal of the Lake Forest Listening Project to address the issues of sexuality, commitment and marriage, with a particular focus on same gender unions. We will do so in a manner that is sensitive, compassionate and respectful of people with varying ideas and beliefs. In so doing, we will make every effort to:

· Provide a safe place in which each member and attender can be heard with care and consideration and without judgment, as well as a sense for each person that he or she is being heard;

· Provide an opportunity for each member and attender to consider his or her perspective in the light of well-considered queries;

· Deepen our sense of community through expanding communication and compassion;

· Affirm our commitment to set the Meeting on a path of respectful and active listening.


Name of person interviewed:

Name of Interviewer:

Name of Recorder:

Date of Interview:

Lake Forest Friends Listening Project Questionnaire

1. What do you like best about being a Quaker?

2. What Quaker beliefs and testimonies speak most directly to you?

3. How do you interpret "that of God in everyone"?

4. Have there been issues in the Meeting that have been hard for you or have made you feel not a part of the Meeting?

5. Do you think sexual orientation is chosen or inborn? How does this inform your thinking?

6. How have your personal religious and spiritual experiences shaped your view of homosexuality and the place of gay and lesbian people in the worshipping community?

The following Minute was reaffirmed by the Meeting in February 1997:

We prize loving relationships more according to the measure of tenderness, caring and responsibility they show than the sex of the individual participants and, in doing so, regard homosexual and heterosexual relationships in the same Light.

7. How does the Minute speak to you personally? Is there any part of the Minute that you do not agree with?

8. Does the Meeting offer a welcoming atmosphere to people of all sexual orientations?

9. What do you believe is the purpose of marriage?

10. What does it mean for a Friends Meeting to take marriage under its care?

11. Considering your thoughts on marriage, what do you think about committed gay or lesbian couples marrying?

12. How important is it to you that our Meeting reach unity on the issue of same gender marriage under the care of the Meeting?

13. How would you feel about our Meeting actively pursuing legal recognition of same gender marriages?

14. Is it important to you that the Meeting help members, attenders and young people who have concerns about sexuality?

15. What other concerns do you have about commitment, sexuality and marriage that we have not yet discussed?

16. Has the experience of the Listening Project affected you personally? In what way?