Partnership with Colossian Forum paves way for campus conversation about sexuality


Graphic by Juliana Knot

In times of conflict, specifically in the midst of the CRC’s human sexuality report, Calvin is committed to fostering a safe space for discussion.

Calvin’s administration has called in the spiritual cavalry to prepare campus for conversation across differences in the wake of Synod 2022’s expected action on the human sexuality report.

Calvin is partnering with the Colossian Forum,  a Grand Rapids-based organization which focuses on Christian conflict transformation.  The Forum, founded in 2011, offers training programs for church groups on a variety of topics, including sexuality, origins and politics. The programs are grounded in the spirit of Colossians 1:17: “He [God] is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” 

“The mission,” according to Kristi Potter, director of the January Series and CF board member, “is to help Christians act like Christ in times of conflict.”

Calvin is the program’s first higher-education partner on this level. The Forum’s existing curricula are being collaboratively adapted for use in a higher education setting.

Partnership kickoff and timeline

A series of small groups of faculty and staff will begin meeting in the spring. They will focus on discussions of sexuality and politics. Each small group that participates in the program will have multiple perspectives represented. Ten people are currently being trained to lead those discussions. 

 According to Visser, the plan is to eventually also include students in CF programming. The Board of Trustees will also be participating, with an introduction to the Way being offered at their October meeting and an option to participate in small groups throughout the winter. 

The partnership is spearheaded by collaboration between Calvin President Michael Le Roy, Calvin Provost Noah Toly, Visser, CF President Michael Gulker, and CF consultant/project manager Joe Liechty, according to Visser.

Each discussion meeting of the small groups will move through five phases — Start, Unity, Prayer, Engage, Godward — and participants are encouraged to lean into discomfort. Session facilitators are trained to guide and manage difficult conversations. “The structure intentionally calls participants to keep God at center,” associate professor of education Debra Paxton-Buursma told Chimes. Paxton-Buursma co-taught a Calvin Academy for Lifelong Learning course on the Colossian Way after getting involved in the program through her church.

Discussions hosted by program facilitators aim to delve deep into divisive topics, but to ultimately focus on bringing people together, emphasizing what Christians all have in common, according to Paxton-Buursma.

A house divided

“The year-long partnership between CF and Calvin was forged to help us engage fraught questions, including those that have arisen as the Christian Reformed Church engages the Human Sexuality report,” Calvin President Michael Le Roy wrote in the email, “Our hope is that all who work at Calvin can grow in our capacity to disagree, not only with depth and rigor, but also with patience, generosity, wonder, and love.”

The Human Sexuality Report has brought tensions over sexuality to the surface within the denomination. According to Potter, the Forum has been doing a lot of work with Christian Reformed churches and with the denomination in recent years.

“The Christian Reformed Church was and has been struggling with how to navigate the tensions surrounding human sexuality within the church,” Calvin sexuality series director Kelsey Colburn said. 

Tensions exist on campus, too. “We were feeling the stress [of division] here at Calvin … the stress of different people professing their faith in Jesus but coming to different conclusions,” Potter told Chimes.

 Although the report covers a wider variety of sexuality issues than CF’s program does, the program will open doors for other conversations as well. “The curricuum will help people in engage in conversation on the topic of same-sex attraction and by doing so, folks will gain experience in creating and sustaining a loving community that engages a host of difficult issues,” Paxton-Buursma said. 

 Forward from here

The Colossian Forum calls sticky cultural issues like sexuality and origins “wicked” problems, by which they mean problems that aren’t going to be solved any time soon. The goal of the program, then, isn’t to come to a consensus.

Colburn said she hopes that what the Calvin community takes away from the Colossian Forum partnership is that “we can all walk toward each other with the needs of the least of these — the most marginalized — the ones who feel like they don’t belong or don’t have a voice … at the center of our conversation.”

Ultimately, according to Visser, Calvin hopes to achieve “a new organizational paradigm for conflict transformation.”