Deep listening dinners at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago

Fourth Presbyterian Church’s “Deep Listening Dinners” focus on strengthening relationships, developing conversational skills and practicing handling differences in a respectful manner.

With Teri McDowell Ott and Nanette Sawyer

Fourth Presbyterian Church’s “Deep Listening Dinners” focus on strengthening relationships, developing conversational skills and practicing handling differences in a respectful manner.

In her role as associate pastor for discipleship and small group ministry, Nanette Sawyer introduced the dinner program in 2017 in the hope that the church could do something to help bridge the deep divisions in our society. Initially, the program invited 10 people to meet in a host’s home for three dinners. Now, groups of more than 50 participants are invited to dinner at tables of six in Fourth’s fellowship hall.

Teri: Nanette, thanks for joining me today to talk about your deep listening dinners at Fourth Presbyterian. Can you share more about what inspired this dinner program?

Nanette: In 2017, dinner programs were starting to happen all over: Speak Down Barriers, The People’s Supper, Jefferson Dinners. In Louisville, there was also a large outdoor potluck dinner called “The Big Table” where people sat at tables for eight and used a conversation game to initiate storytelling. These ideas gave me hope. Also, for me, sitting down together at dinner is humanizing.

Teri: How do you structure the dinner or get people talking?

Nanette: We do an introduction where we set the tone for the evening and review table etiquette. We give tips on how to be a deep listener and how to keep the conversation going. We emphasize that we’re not here to change each other’s minds; we’re interested in understanding the stories of real struggles, real fears, real hopes and dreams that have shaped who we are. We have cards on each place setting with some of these tips for deep listening and reminding everyone of the table etiquette.

In the introduction, I invite people to be courageous, to tell the truth about their life, who they are, what they’ve experienced, and how they feel. I encourage participants to be curious about the other people at their table.

This orientation has a powerful impact. The tenor of the conversations at the tables is deeper and different from conversations that don’t begin with these invitations to have courage and curiosity.

Teri: Did you recruit for the dinner? Or did you just invite anyone who wanted to come?

Nanette: This has evolved. In the beginning, we were very thoughtful about inviting diverse peoples and asking them to commit to a series of three dinners. The original intention was to bridge differences, and I also had the idea that we might expand into interfaith dinners and multicultural neighbors’ dinners that reached outside the church.

In 2017 and 2018, we just had one or two dinner cohorts of 10 meet for three dinners. By the fall of 2019, we expanded to four cohorts. We introduced training for the hosts so we could offer more cohorts. At that time, we were still making personal invitations to people to be in the dinner groups.

Now, as we try to rebuild community after the height of the pandemic, the focus has shifted into reconnecting with others and deepening fellowship but is still rooted in the sharing of personal stories. At the beginning of 2023, we had 114 people in 13 dinner cohorts in different locations. Each cohort met just for two dinners, making it a little easier to get commitments from participants, because three dinners is a big commitment.

These expanded efforts in 2023 included broad publicity, letting people know we were doing these deep-listening dinners and inviting anyone interested to participate. When people expressed interest, we sent them a participant profile, and we asked them to tell us about their demographics, just to help us organize diverse dinner groups. We told them the other guests wouldn’t see the demographic information — everyone represents who they are in their own words. On the participant profile form, we asked identity questions, like occupational background, marital status, gender identity. We asked if they identify as LGBTQIA, and about race and ethnicity and age group. We weren’t sure if people would be comfortable filling out forms like this, but because we were working with a few hundred people, some of whom we didn’t really know, the information helped us to build diverse dinner groups.

Teri: Were you asking people if they identified as Republican or Democrat?

Nanette: We didn’t ask that. But I do have a vision for having a red-blue dinner at some point. In that case, we would advertise ahead of time that we’re going to talk about politics. And we would provide training for hosts on maintaining a courageous and curious tone throughout the dinners. We would ask people to come with a commitment to listening deeply.

Teri: What’s the feedback been like from the dinners? What’s changed because of them?

Nanette: I would say that people are getting to know more people, and they’re developing listening and conversational skills. Ours is a large church and people are feeling isolated in many ways since the pandemic. But the concept of deep-listening dinners is spreading throughout the church, and more people are coming, including some who originally said they didn’t want to sign up because they “weren’t sure about the deep-listening thing.” But they’ve learned that a lot of people are bonding and experiencing kindness, warmth and connection. So more people want to take part.

Teri: What are your hopes for the dinners in the future?

Nanette: This year, as we try to reweave the fabric of our community, we’ve been hosting dinners with themes like “Home,” “Generations: Mentoring and Legacy,” and “Holiday Traditions.” I still hope that with a greater understanding of the deep-listening dinners and growing positive regard for them, we could get back to hosting dinners with more challenging topics. For example, one of the early dinner topics was “Being Christian in a Divided Society.” At those dinners, we discussed relationships in our lives that have been fractured by the divisiveness in our society, and how our faith might help us navigate or even heal some of the strain and tension with people we love, let alone neighbors or strangers. In those dinners, we began to talk about race and racism, for example.

Teri: You’re trying to build a foundation of trust and respect through these initial dinners, and then you can level up to the challenging topics.

Nanette: Yes. The foundation includes trust, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and conversational skills. And it includes a commitment to listening deeply.

Teri: I imagine you might have a deep-listening dinner 2.0 for people to attend who have already participated in the first dinners.

Nanette: Yes, that’s a great way to think about it. But the hosts would really need to be skillful and probably need extra training — maybe role-playing to practice how to handle strong emotions that come out when we talk about difficult topics.

Teri: What have you learned from this project that you think would be beneficial to the larger church or our readers?

Nanette: In the beginning, I was so controlling of the dinner cohorts. It was illuminating for me to see that 50 people could come together, sit randomly at tables of six, have a deep and meaningful conversation and walk away saying, “Wow, I feel seen and known.” After the tone for the dinner was set through the welcome and the introduction to the table etiquette, I learned to trust the humanity of people.

Teri: That’s a great lesson — that you don’t have to manufacture these connections. You can trust people to come together and have meaningful interactions with just a little bit of structure.

Nanette: Yes. There were a couple of tables where two people who knew each other kind of dominated the conversation. We got that feedback and we’re trying to help our table hosts strategize about things like that. But it’s going to be a little messy, regardless. It’s never going to be perfect.

Teri: Because that’s church. Church is messy. If somebody wanted to try this at their church, what advice would you give them?

Nanette: To meditate on love before the dinner, as a leader, as someone trying to coordinate the dinner and host people. Envision the outcome, the connections, the respect. And try to keep the conversational prompts, the questions, specific and grounded in personal story. That’s really important. That’s what takes the conversation deeper. For example, the discussion starters for the dinner about the theme of “Home” were: “Where have you called home and where are you finding it now? What places have and continue to be most meaningful in your life?” We rarely tell stories to each other about where we find meaning in our lives. These dinners provide an opportunity to share more deeply, to reflect, and to be known.