More than Talk

Robert Sarly ‘67 has adapted organizational-dialogue techniques to help churches in crisis.

Jan 1, 2005

Robert Sarly was a pariah. Once a pillar of his church in Wellesley Hills, MA, he found that people suddenly avoided him. Those he had worked with for years wouldn’t even make eye contact. It was all to do with a building. The church was raising money to build an addition, and Sarly was charged with defining its purpose. He wanted to examine future programs that would justify its existence, but everyone else wanted to focus on the architecture. Neither side would listen to the other. “It was clearly a communication breakdown,” he recalls.

At about the same time, he had a midlife crisis. As a successful financial consultant at one of the top five financial-services firms in the country, he had attained security and stature, but he faced the question that most 40-somethings eventually confront: is this all there is? He began reading books exploring spirituality but also the writings of Peter Senge, SM ‘78, PhD ‘78, a senior lecturer in the Sloan School of Management. Senge and his colleague Bill Isaacs had established the Organizational Learning Center at MIT, where business leaders learned a management style based on collaboration with employees. The program emphasized structured dialogue, in which participants learned to set aside their own agendas and listen carefully to others. Sarly thought this could help solve the problem in his church, so he returned to MIT to learn the dialogic techniques that are at the heart of Senge and Isaacs’s method.

The techniques did help restore his relationship with the church community, but they also opened his life in a new direction. He now volunteers as a consultant with congregations in crisis; he has already helped 50 churches, as near as New England and as far away as Alabama and Wyoming. He also teaches others to become dialogue facilitators through workshops at Miriam’s Well, a retreat center in New York state.

Sitting in his office on a brilliant October morning, Sarly explains how he applies the principles of dialogue in churches that are in conflict. First, he gathers the lay leaders for a weekend retreat, where he helps them explore their differences in a nonjudgmental setting. “The truth is multifaceted,” Sarly explains. “We all have a narrow perspective of it.” The trick, he says, is to get people to suspend their versions of the truth and to listen to those of others. Sarly calls this sacred listening, the first step to conflict resolution. He pairs participants and asks them to tell each other the stories of their lives. Afterward, each person retells the story of his or her partner to the reassembled group. Sarly says that the exercise honors the person whose story is being told and causes the storyteller to strain to get the story right. The idea is to get people to see the importance of suspending judgment, so that when it comes time to talk about divisive subjects, they will be more likely to listen than to attack. “The principle,” says Sarly, “is we are equally vulnerable to one another, so if I say that I screwed up or I don’t know how to do something, you don’t try to fix me or laugh at me or criticize me, and it’s reciprocal.” Through the process, participants learn to ask for help in understanding different opinions, to respectfully disagree, and to advocate for change.

Sarly has used his seemingly nebulous approach to attain concrete results. Four years ago, after Oregon passed a law permitting physician-assisted suicide, some in Massachusetts were interested in following suit. The board of the Massachusetts Council of Churches decided it needed to take a position on the issue, but each denomination held a different view. Sarly, who is a member of the council’s board, facilitated a dialogue. “At first, everyone was set against everyone else,” he recalls. After several meetings, one clergy member who had been working with hospice patients offered his experience. Sarly recalls the priest saying, “If in caring for someone who is terminally ill, we go to alleviate their pain, and the by-product of that happens to be death, God will forgive us.” That perspective offered the path to a resolution: the council does not support physician-assisted suicide, but it does support the management of pain.

The process that Sarly has been using in an effort to change the world has, inevitably, changed him as well. Where he used to be “reticent, withdrawn, and suspicious of strangers,” he says, now he can “get some meaningful enjoyment out of being with strangers.” He’s also once again a pillar of his church community. By learning to listen and dedicating a part of his life to helping others do the same, Robert Sarly has found joy, a new direction, and a deeper level of meaning in his life.