Twenty Years of Roundtable Worship

Last Sunday was the twentieth anniversary of the Roundtable Worship Gathering at First United Methodist Church in Waynesville, North Carolina. Whether by dogged perseverance, habit, or the winds of the Spirit, a small group has circled regularly in a worship gathering around a table with bread and drink, prayer and song, conversation and words of re-commitment that feed our souls.

Our first gathering in roundtable format took place on February 16, 2003, just when the US was beating the war drums to invade Iraq to destroy its “weapons of mass destruction.” Sylvia and I had been cultivating this kind of worship for over a decade in other settings in Atlanta and Boston.

By the end of the 1990s this emerging worship form was clearly embedded in the circle conversations of the restorative justice movement, especially with the JustPeace Center of the United Methodist Church. Its primary focus was and continues to be the work of reconciliation.

In early 2003 we met with our friend Mel Harbin, a retired pastor and administrator, who enthusiastically supported the formation of this kind of worship. Ken Johnson, another retired pastor, soon joined us and Roundtable Worship began to gather, at first twice monthly before settling into its monthly schedule, with a break in June and July.

At this date there have been around 225 gatherings. In the early years the liturgy evolved rapidly before settling into its present form, though that form and its particular elements slowly change through annual retreats or consensus-building around particular changes.

Occasionally, we have exported this form to nearby Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, one time for their Vespers Service, other times for Lake Junaluska Interfaith Peace Conferences. It has also been introduced to the youth group at our church.

Men and women gathered around a round table

In 2009 I worked with the group to put together “A Reflective Guide” to Roundtable Worship, which you can find on this website. Churches as far away as Cape Town, South Africa, as well as in the US have been in communication with us about Roundtable Worship, adapting it to their local situations.

Over the years the focus of conversations has roamed widely, from the warfare at its beginning to issues of sex and gender discrimination, immigration, racism, gun violence, eco-justice, cultural despair, faithful hope, visions of the beloved community, and basic theological and ethical questions.

Sometimes we have placed inspiring and provocative art works at the center of our conversation. These conversations gave rise to an ongoing Reconciling Conversations Group at First UMC to foster conversation and action around difficult issues such as those of sexuality, gun violence, and racism.

No one church initiative can produce miraculous changes in the society around us. What has been at work here is a gradual reshaping of the congregational culture in which decisions arise out of the conversation of the people rather than directives from “on high.” It is these leavening circles of reconciling conversation that can, I think, produce enduring changes while also manifesting in their very process the just community for which we long.

Many people have participated in our gatherings over the years. Some have moved on to other locations. Others we remember as they have passed on to God’s wider love. In particular we remember Mel Harbin and Ken Johnson, who were there at the beginning. We also remember with deep affection Jane Young, Wannie Hardin, and Janie Dowdy, whose spirit still informs our worship together.

May all these saints rejoice as we yearn for the realization of God’s beloved community. Let me know what seeds of circle conversation might be doing in your own situation.