Institute on Non-Violent Action for Church Reform (2012)

Institute on Nonviolent Action for Church Reform

Prayer, resilience and the sheer energy of participants all helped in developing and implementing an extraordinary 14-week webinar unpacking a model for nonviolent resistance as a template for changing the institutional Church. Based on the research and voluminous writings of Dr. Gene Sharp at Boston’s Einstein Institute, the process piqued our interest because, in part, it was the model for the Arab Spring and dozens of other applications of the shift “from dictatorship to democracy” through the affirmation of “people power” in the face of autocratic systems. ACC put out an invitation announcing this effort in the Spring of 2012 and had quick responses from a diverse cadre of individuals interested in learning and applying Sharp’s approach. No group has applied his theory to the domain of church reform.

The Spirit called forth a couple dozen individuals from US, Mexico, Canada and the Netherlands to join with a core ACC leadership team to pilot this Institute for Nonviolent Action for Church Reform, aka Changing Power Relationships. Following a series of 7 bi-weekly live webinars, all complemented with extensive readings and online discussion forums, participants came together for an intense 3-day meeting in Washington DC the weekend before Thanksgiving, 2012.

We began on Friday evening when we met face-to-face for the first time and then viewed the hour-long film about Sharp and his work, titled How to Start a Revolution. Grounded in prayer and scripture we then began a discernment process to frame a goal/mission for the group. By Saturday afternoon we had a working statement: To replace monarchical institutional structures with a gospel community whose governance is egalitarian, inclusive, diverse and democratic.

We moved on to discuss how to accomplish this goal and what actions we wanted to undertake. After brainstorming many possibilities, we divided them into five broad categories: Education, Networking, National Action, Financial Actions and Legal Actions. Sub-committees were formed for the first three, with financial and legal being put “on hold” until later. Our Saturday afternoon ended with an inspiring liturgy in the beautiful chapel at the soon-to-close Washington Theological Union. Saturday evening brought further discussion of strategy and logistics and agreement that each sub-committee will submit a report to the Institute by January 15, 2013. These reports will suggest further specific actions.

On Sunday morning we invigorated ourselves with prayer and a group reading of Joan Chittister’s column in that week’s NCR (The Future of the Church: Discernment or Intimidation? 11/16/12). There was strong consensus that the timing and the message were clearly Spirit-inspired. And we drafted a set of Core Values that attempt to frame the continued unfolding of the American Catholic Council.

We concluded by circling back to Gene Sharp’s method to dovetail our deliberations with his principles, spending some time thinking about how this pilot program might be modified and adapted for greater dissemination to a larger national audience. Most of all, we reminded ourselves that each of us is a “root” of the “grassroots” and that we each need to promote nonviolence and positive change in the Church through our lived example in our local communities. We will be doing all of this in the coming year, so stay tuned!

Original Prospectus, Published Spring 2012

Changing Power Relationships

A project of the American Catholic Council (Fall, 2012)

Overview: The Institute on Nonviolent Action & Reform of the Institutional Catholic Church, hereafter referred to as the NVA Institute,  is a pilot program sponsored by the American Catholic Council. It will engage a limited number of qualified applicants in study and dialogue around theories of nonviolent action, strategic planning and action steps to employ these strategies in changing the institutional Catholic Church.  The works of Dr. Gene Sharp (Senior Scholar at The Albert Einstein Institution in Boston, MA) will form the basis of the curriculum, with additional resources as indicated by the course designers. Though the Institute will require commitment to intellectual rigor and the discipline of preparing for each session, it is not an academic exercise nor is it a  presentation of Gospel nonviolence.  The focus is not theological but rather practical, political and strategic.

Format & Structure of the Institute: The Institute will be delivered largely online and will consist of both synchronous (7 bi-weekly live webinars per the schedule below, when all participants are online at the same time) as well as a-synchronous activities (when participants share in online discussion boards and other learning activities in-between the 7 bi-weekly live sessions, but at times convenient to each participant’s schedule). The course is scheduled to begin in mid-August and will culminate with an in-person conference when all participants are expected to gather in Washington, DC, the weekend of Nov. 16-18.  An introductory teleconference will precede the seven weeks. That teleconference will provide an orientation and overview of the Institute, opportunity for participants to share expectations, as well as provide a technical tutorial on how to use the online interactive process.

Rationale and Methodology: Nonviolent action is intended for the many.  It is this communitarian aspect that will be challengig in terms of the virtual nature of an online learning process.  We therefore suggest that the participants might consider creating a small group of like-minded friends with whom they can share the insights garnered from their readings and learning experiences as a participant in the Institute.   There will be three primary activities involved in the course:

  1. Assigned readings from Dr. Sharp’s writings, which will be made available online for downloading,  are the bedrock of the course.  As an approach to these readings, we will provide for each of the seven sessions, summaries of each reading, as well as keywords and ideas. These summaries are not intended to take the place of the readings, but rather to provide “sign posts” as the participant delves into the readings;
  2. Prompting questions and/or comments intended to help the reader reflect on the material and start applying it to real-life situations.  The biweekly webinars will provide an opportunity to the participants to share ideas,  ask questions and comment on the materials and activities in which they have become involved. These questions will also stimulate online discussion boards.
  3. The third “activity” will be the “products” expected from each participant for the duration of the course.  For each session,  each participant will be asked to chose a situation in her/his parish, diocese, or another hierarchical church-related instance that s/he feels strongly needs to change.  The “homework” will be to indicate how the insights and ideas from the readings of each of the sessions could be applied to bring about the desired change.

You will find that the readings are reiterative and incremental.  As you become better acquainted with the understanding and distribution of power and the gift of self liberation, then the sources of power, the methods and dynamics of nonviolent action, the mechanisms of change, the levels of strategy, and your “model for action” will become more focused and more exciting.

Because our faith is relational, we built-in an opportunity to physically meet with all “students” in the Institute by gathering in real time and space to collectively create a Grand Strategy. Our hope is that that this Grand Strategy will challenge the aspect(s) of the hierarchical Church that participants will have collaboratively found to be most in need of change and within their capacity as the nonviolent struggle group.

Criteria for Participation: Participation in this initial offering of the Institute will be limited to 25 participants. All candidates must submit an online application and should satisfy the following material, relational, spiritual and intellectual criteria:

Material/Functional Criteria: 
1. Be able to commit to the regimen of reading assignments and participation in all components of the Institute, with few exceptions if any; (See Schedule Below)
2. Satisfy the nominal financial commitment described below, i.e. $250, all inclusive, including lodging/meals at the closing conference (exclusive of personal travel costs to Wash DC);
3. Have regular access to a computer with microphone, speakers and high speed internet access;

Relational Criteria:
1. Have some grounding in the Church Reform movement, and play some role in local or national leadership in the movement;
2. Possess a willingness and desire to work collaboratively with others, including a capacity to engage with others in dialogue and critical reflection;
3. Be willing to share his/her learnings with others in one’s circle of influence, particularly toward the prospective implementation of forthcoming action steps that may come out of the Institute;

Intellectual Criteria:
1.  Be grounded in the pastoral and ecclesiological vision of Vatican II;
2. Hold general acceptance to ACC’s Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities;
3. Possess a desire to learn new theories and practices that can guide the reform movement;

Spiritual Criteria:
1. Possess “Courage of Heart” and willingness to making a difference in our Church, including a willingness to risk punitive action on the part of the hierarchy;
2. Have a “Passion for Church Reform” and a vision for the reforms needed in alignment with the Catholic Bill of Rights and Responsibilities;
3. Be committed to the spiritual life and seek ways to integrate the experience of the Institute within one’s spiritual journey;

The Application Process:
Interested persons are strongly encouraged to read a short primer text by Dr. Gene Sharp: (Click Here to read “From Dictatorship to Democracy).  This short booklet (about an hour’s read) captures foundational principles that undergird the Institute and provides  a good overview of the subject matter that will be unpacked over the course of the Institute.

Applications are due no later than midnight (EST) on Wednesday, May 30, 2012.  Notification of acceptance or deferral will be given by Friday, June 15, 2012.  If you have questions, please contact Sheila Peiffer at



1-Hour Orientation Teleconference:  August 13th or 14th (Monday or Tuesday) 7:30-8:30pm (Eastern); Participants will be provided the call-in number one week in advance. Participants can choose the time that best suits their schedule for this telephone conference call (either Monday or Tuesday Evening).  Participants should be at their computer at the time of the call, as this telephone session will include a technology tutorial. During this call, participants will also be instructed how to create their online profile on the Institute’s “Blackboard” website and will be assigned the initial readings, both of which should be completed prior to the first live webinar (Session #1) the following Monday, August 20th.

7 Bi-Weekly Live On-Line Sessions (Webinars), all on Monday Evenings, with exception of Session #2:
Session #1: Monday, August 20, 7:30-9pm Eastern;
Session #2: TUESDAY, September 4, 7:30-9pm Eastern (moved from Monday to avoid Labor Day);
Session #3: Monday, September 17, 7:30-9pm Eastern;
Session #4: Monday, October 1, 7:30-9pm Eastern;
Session #5: Monday, October 15, 7:30-9m Eastern;
Session #6: Monday, October 29, 7:30-9pm Eastern;
Session #7: Monday, November 12, 7:30-9pm Eastern;

Homework/Assignments in-between the 7 Sessions:  At the end of each Session, participants will be given reading assignments due for the next session, as well as several prompting questions/learning activities to reflect upon and to post related responses to the Institute’s online discussion boards. These assignments should be done in the ensuing next two weeks, and prior to the next live session. It is very important that participants be committed to the reading regimen of the institute, which is expected to be approximately 100 pages for each session. These readings, most of which comprise the writings of Dr. Gene Sharp, will be available for downloading from the Institute’s website. There are no required books to purchase, though participants may choose to purchase hard copies of reading materials through the Einstein Institution Website. The complete list of readings will be available at least 30 days prior to the Institute.

Closing Face-To-Face Conference Nov. 16-18: The NVA Institute will conclude with a conference in the facilities of Washington Theological Union.  Through prayer, reflection, discussion and deliberation, we will use the knowledge gained over the prior fourteen weeks to formulate an action plan (Grand Strategy) for the future.  Our study of nonviolent action theory and practice will be combined with other strategic analyses to generate templates for actions to change the church in order to make it more just, inclusive, collegial and compassionate.  This retreat is integral to the NVA Institute.
  Friday, November 16, 2012 (4:00 PM) through Sunday, November 18, 2012  (1:00 PM)
  Washington Theological Union,  6896 Laurel Street, NW • Washington, DC 20012

Cost to Participate in the Institute:  $250, includes the cost to attend the closing conference in Washington DC, including 6 meals, and 2 nights lodging with shared room as well as administrative costs and technical services for the online delivery of the Institute.  Private rooms at the closing conference may be available at an additional cost. Participants are responsible for their own arrangements and travel costs to the closing conference in Washington DC.  Following confirmation of one’s acceptance into the Institute, participants are asked to pay a deposit of $125, payable by August 1, 2012. The remaining balance of $125 is due by October 1st. We note that there is no cost to access the readings by Dr. Sharp, as they are in the public domain and made available to us gratis, compliments of the Einstein Institution.

Expectations for Attendance & Regular Participation: Participants will be expected to commit to the work and schedule of the Institute. Though participation in all 7 live sessions is expected, we understand that circumstances may in unusual circumstances require someone from missing a session. This should not happen more than once, if at all.  The group process in these sessions is critical to the learning experience and the desired outcomes. The Weekend Conference is where it all comes together, so it is critically important to the process. No one should apply who knowingly in advance is not able to attend that closing conference.

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