From "What the World Needs to Know About Interfaith Dialogue" by Richard M. Landau. Reprinted with permission of the author.
There's more to successful interfaith dialogue than simply choosing the common ground or right topics. You will need some methods and processes in place that ensure your meetings work well for all parties. So, the group members arrive for their first meeting. Now what? In advance of their arrival, you will want to consider the logistics of the meeting place. You want to set a tone that makes everyone feel comfortable immediately.
Rules For Making A Favorable First Impression
1. Location: What does your setting say about your meeting? Ideally, you should choose a setting that is public and is not identified exclusively with any of the religious groups involved. You can understand that Jews and Muslims might not feel entirely at ease in the sanctuary of a Roman Catholic Church. You don't want the meeting place distracting any of your participants or raising fears that they have been lured into being part of a group to which they do not wish to belong.
2. Room setup: Your seating arrangement should be a horseshoe or circle which will signal those attending that they are all equal partners. Try to avoid creating an altar-like head table at which your key people are located. After all, you want to reinforce the notion that all parties are coming together as equals.
3. Tone: You set the tone by making everyone feel comfortable. You do this in your choice of refreshments, remembering that many eschew alcohol and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will not partake of hot beverages like coffee and tea. Greet each person individually. Allow no one to be left completely alone.
How To Open Your First Meeting
1. Introduce yourself: Begin by introducing yourself as the convenor.
2. The opening prayer: Ask for an opening prayer which is all-inclusive or choose a range of prayers from all different traditions. In other words, you don't want to open with a single prayer that ends in Jesus' name, amen. You don't want a prayer that is centred around the notion of a single almighty or you may offend the Jains and Buddhists in your midst. Yet, if you remove these, you can end up with a bland, feel good, psychobabble opening prayer. If you choose to open with just one prayer, try something like this:
We are gathered here together as friends. All of us in the continuous search to live lives that benefit our fellow human beings. Some of us prompted by our undying faith in God, others in our lifelong commitment to perfecting ourselves and the world--all of us committed to fostering greater understanding between the religions and beliefs. All of us want to contribute to peace and justice among all beings. Bless our affairs and our deliberations as we seek to find the true path that joins us all. Banish from our consultations any hint of selfishness or rigidity. Grant us insight, wisdom and understanding. Create among us love, fellowship and harmony so that our unity is reflected in the world, today and for all time.
3. Select the leadership: After the introductions are made and each person tells why he or she has come to the meeting, you will need to choose an interim chair and then agree upon a proposed agenda. It is important that the group have an opportunity to choose its own leadership. You will want to take whatever measures are necessary so that no one feels they "own" the group.
4. Have an agenda ready: There's absolutely nothing wrong with the convenor(s) bringing a proposed agenda. In fact, it's a good idea to have a selection of different ideas and a context for the initial meeting. However, attempts to steer the group to a specific agenda are likely to meet with failure.