The Importance of Discourse with Dr. J. Derek McNeil

In a time when divisions seem to define us, can we still foster meaningful conversations capable of driving real change?

In anticipation of the upcoming virtual summit, “Seattle School Connect 2023: Discourse,” we’re exploring the intricacies and challenges of engaging in discourse with Dr. J. Derek McNeil, President and Provost of The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology.

Discourse isn’t simply having a conversation; it’s a transformative dialogue that can impact and change us. In this episode hosted by Rachael Clinton Chen, Derek McNeil walks us through some of the challenges we face in a world filled with polarization, trauma, the influence of technology, and much more. He also delineates some of the essential elements necessary for authentic discourse to thrive, emphasizing the creation of intentional and sacred spaces where curiosity and empathetic understanding can truly flourish.

We hope you’ll join us for Seattle School Connect 2023: Discourse, a free virtual summit kicking off this fall. This series is designed to engage in challenging discussions in order to enhance our capacity to serve God and neighbor through transforming relationships.

The inaugural event hosted by The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology is centered around the art of discourse, focusing on pertinent cultural topics. With a lineup of 6 live conversations, we aim to explore the practice of constructive conversations while embodying values of humility and hospitality. By engaging in these discussions, attendees will gain insights into bridging gaps, confronting personal assumptions, and building relationships grounded in empathy and growth.

Registration is free and open to all. Learn more at


About Our Guest:

Dr. J. Derek McNeil is the President and Provost of The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. Since joining the leadership team at The Seattle School in 2010 as Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. McNeil has been integral to the school’s achievement of regional accreditation, the reimagining of our common curriculum, and securing millions in grant funding.

Dr. McNeil has a PhD in Counseling Psychology from Northwestern University and an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary. Prior to his tenure at The Seattle School, Dr. McNeil served as faculty in the PsyD program at Wheaton College Graduate School for over 15 years.

Dr. McNeil has worked as a clinician in private practice, a diversity advisor, an organizational consultant, and an administrator. His research, writing, and speaking have focused on issues of ethnic and racial socialization, the role of forgiveness in peacemaking, the identity development of African-American males, leadership in living systems, and resilience. He has written chapters in The Black Family: Past, Present, and Future (1991), Men to Men: Voices of African American Males (1996), Why Psychology Needs Theology (2005), This Side of Heaven: Race Ethnicity and Christian Faith (2007), Reluctant Integration (2010), and Roadmap to Reconciliation: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness and Justice (2016). His teaching has also included coursework on Social, Cultural, and Spiritual Foundations of Mental Health; Family Systems Therapy; Group Theory; Therapy; and Leadership.


Episode Transcript:

Rachael: Well, good people. I hope this finds you well loved today as you lean in with us, as we lean into a conversation on the art and challenge of discourse, especially in this increasingly traumatized, fragmented and polarized world that we’re all trying to navigate. I’m very honored today to be joined by Dr. J Derek McNeil, our beloved president and provost of the Seattle School, and one of my favorite people to actually engage in discourse with. Welcome, Derek.

Derek: Thank you. It really is a pleasure. This was not hard to say yes to when I heard it with you. So that makes us partners in that I have always enjoyed my conversations and tussles and growth with you has been…

Rachael: Yeah, and that’s more what we’re going to talk about, that we think of discourse as like, oh, let’s have a conversation and it’ll feel good. It’ll be nice. And that’s part of what I love, Derek. I experience you as being someone incredibly faithful to staying in the tough conversations, but the necessary conversations that shape who we’re called to be and how we’re meant to live and love, and in part why we’re having this conversation today is because coming up at the end of the month, the Seattle School is actually hosting an inaugural event that is going to be a virtual summit designed to engage, actually show what does it look like to have some challenging conversations. It’s called Seattle School Connect, and the first theme of the inaugural Seattle School Connect is discourse and want to just give you as listeners a little taste of what it is, and I can talk more about it at the end, but it’s going to be focusing on really important cultural topics, the things that we all want to be in conversation about, but probably have a hard time finding reliable and kind of grounded conversation partners. But we have a lineup of six conversations that are going to kick off the last week of September. They’ll have a pre-recording that you have access to get your brain thinking, and then a live conversation on Fridays at five. These conversations will hopefully have humility and hospitality and courage.

Derek: We’ll aim in that direction. Yeah.

Rachael: Yeah, right? And they’re going to be hosted by different parts of the Seattle School, so the Allender Center, the Center for Transforming Engagement, our graduate school, the other journal, as well as some incredibly special guests that I’m really looking forward to hearing from Lisa Sharon Harper and Shane Claiborne. You’ll have opportunity to hear more from Derek and many, many folks including Dan and myself. If this is something you’re thinking, oh yeah, I’m interested, you can check it out at if you just click on the events link, you can find more information about it. But things will be kicking off the week of September 22nd and running for six weeks. So I greatly encourage you to check it out. And this is in some ways core to who we are as an organization. So it’s an attempt to invite people in, but something that we put a lot of thought and practice into. So I think my first question, Derek, for you, would be in some ways, how is discourse different from just an everyday conversation? Is it different? Is it the same thing? What are we talking about?

Derek: Right. It’s interesting. I would say discourse moves us really towards maybe dialogue as opposed to discussion. I’ll make that distinction discussion to, hey, we’ll talk about topic and we can either change each other or not change each other. I’ll simply say, here’s my ideas of it and you can express your ideas. But discourse under dialogue is more of a change conversation, a conversation that will impact us and that is something to go through as opposed to simply to just touch on. And inevitably a certain type of discourse that leads to dialogue, it gets potential for transformation. When I have a discussion with somebody, I’m probably not assuming I’m going to be changed dramatically. So we can talk about whatever topic. But when I start getting into a discourse that moves to dialogue, the hope is that it changes us. That impacts us in a different sort of way, which requires more of my body to manage when you have ideas different than mine or we have a different perspective or we’re managing our distortions, which often happens when we get into discourse and dialogue, you realize, Hey, you don’t think the way I think. You don’t see the world the way I see the world. And how do we reconcile that? That’s not usually what happens in a discussion of something. You can usually talk about your ideas, but you’re not really getting into each other or going through. So I would say a discourse, and I’ll say discourse under dialogue is much more about change and engagement and a deeper sort of learning and a deeper sort of commitment to belonging to each other.

Rachael: I love how you talk about that sense of belonging and transformation. And I’m just struck by, especially for our listeners, we talk so much about the impact of trauma on the body. You are naming that it’s very bodily and my experience of my own body in attempting to engage in discourse is that I get really activated. And some of that is cultural for me. I come from a big Italian family where discourse can get really passionate and loud and engaging and using lots of gestures. And I think about being at the dinner table and there could be multiple moments of I think both discussion but also a kind of tussle and wrestling around ideas. But I also can get activated in a way that I know I’m not staying in the best, most wise, most courageous, more curious parts of myself. And I’m wondering if you could put a few more words to what is happening in our bodies, maybe even in this moment, this cultural moment we find ourselves in.

Derek: Well, this is a tough cultural moment to have deeper conversation. It seems easier for us to split and have exclusive conversation or us and, us and them. I think what you you’re speaking to is one certainly our amygdala is firing related to threat. So if someone says something, it’s like against my group, it’s not even against me, but against my group, I’ll get upset. And we find ourselves grouping in certain ways that actually we’re kind of confirming our biases with each other and we’d be moved further into us and them. But it’s in fairness to us, I think we have to highlight the fact that hey, we’re living in a cultural climate that has a lot of threat to it. Not just simply the political context, but there’s a certain level of economic threat. There’s a certain level of climate threat, whether you think it’s manmade or just whatever. We’re looking at weather patterns. It’s like, okay, this is different. There’s a certain demographic shifts and changes. There is high levels of some degree of addiction going on or we call deaths of despair. All those are background things for many of us. And sometimes they’re not background, they’re very much present that make it hard for us to not feel threatened all the time about something. And I think when your body’s already heightened to threat, when there’s already technology, even technology, even though we think of it as a good thing, we’re talking about AI and we’re talking about the apocalyptic quality potentially of AI. So all these things create the environment for polarization that is ripe. And then we have to talk about our own bodies. And I love talking about, hey, what it means to be Italian if you’ll culturally, but you also had rules that said, Hey, how do we resolve? But not everybody knows what when you come with a certain energy, not everybody knows how to take that energy in because they didn’t manage their bodies that way and their families. That’s right. So they right away go to, wait a minute, you’re attacking me and you say, no, we’re just having a lively conversation. So how do we work with both our bodies and the context that we’re in, always a little bit of threat and background for some in the foreground, some very present, and then how do we work with, in fact, we have representations of what it means to be us and express ourselves that aren’t everyone else’s. So that means discourse is to try to help us find some common meanings. So when I see you, well, the fact that you said, Hey, this is my background, this is my cultural space. It says, okay, I don’t have to get alarmed because she’s telling me I just do this and this is how I actually get connected with you. And so there’s some groundwork we have to engage in. I think there have to be safe enough context. How do we intentionally create safe enough context and we’re increasingly running out of safe enough context. I’d hope the church could be that, but the church may have never been a safe enough context, family, you hope, but also that institution struggling. And so all of our institutions have not many that really hold safe enough conversations. So one of the reasons we’re hoping in the academy, but not, we’re kind of applied learning, is to say, can we hold safe enough conversations? Can we be the people who actually facilitate these conversations. So we actually can find meaning with each other so we can actually begin having a go through conversation, a dialogue. So I think it’s critically important and particularly hard. And when we lose our institutions that feel safe enough to have these conversations, we’re really left to our groups that we cohere to in a very tribal sort of way. And we often don’t have safe enough spaces where we define the rules of engagement with each other, who are the enemy if you’ll, and once we get locked into us and them thinking, there’s so much research that says, Hey, if I see you as a me and part of me and part of us, I will think differently about you versus if I see you as a part of them or an outsider. And our outsider does not view of the outsider does not give grace. We see their motivations as more negative. We see what they’re doing as more a part of their group, a part of who they are, so when we get into what stereotypical thinking, we might call it, that us and them thinking we’re really in trouble. And culturally right now, I think because the political dialogue has been so loud in the country, particularly with Christians, we’re in a very much us and them conversation, it becomes very hard to say hello without a certain threat response, which means we’re not going to have discourse or dialogue.

Rachael: And I mean even you saying that, I think it’s even in your family maybe where you could have conversations about so many things like Italian culture can be kind of brutal. You can be so mean to each other, but then the family, you’re going to work it out and come back around the table. And even if there’s conflict, it’s like, well, you’re still going to show up for grandma’s birthday, nobody’s going to not show up. But I think things are so intense right now and so polarized that us versus them is playing out in family systems, people you normally could talk about anything with. All of a sudden there are so many things that are just off limits. And you mentioned this and it’s something I’ve been paying attention to for myself, the ways in which what is in the air, in the water, we’re swimming in, it is being amplified by the ways we’re engaging in social media, which already has a distinctly dehumanizing kind of infrastructure to it. And you can jump in your echo chamber. I was paying attention the other day. I mean, part of this I think is the ways that Elon Musk has really destroyed Twitter, but I was a faithful Twitter user and I actually found it… It could certainly have its places that got echo chambery or whatever, but it was a place that I caught a pulse on what’s going on in the world and not just my tribe but multiple tribes. But with the changes, all of a sudden I started getting massive suggestions. Cause they changed it. The loading page now is you get suggestions and all of the suggestions were connected to what I believe and how I perceive the world, but kind of taking it to the extreme. So all of a sudden, the only stories I’m getting, the only…

Derek: The algorithm took over.

Rachael: …thing I’m hearing is totally playing to my fears, playing to exactly what you’re talking about in that us versus them split. And we know in trauma and the impact of trauma, splitting is a kind of knee jerk instinct in order to, we do it within ourselves. I’m going to split off the exile parts of me that I don’t like that are messy, that feel like they betray me and I’m going to kind of be two different people. But that catches up to us. But when you see that kind of fragmentation happening in such a cultural level, I just am confessing, it’s really hard for me in this. I’m constantly, like

Derek: It’s hard.

Rachael: that person’s dead to me and that group is dead to me and I have to be like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. What’s happening here?

Derek: I would say in fairness, it is hard. And there are moments when societies don’t recover. And so in all honesty, we shouldn’t treat this like we’re living in a TV show at the end of the show, it’ll come back to normal. We are in a certain declining sort of clutch, and if it erodes and continues to erode our institutions from family to church or religious institutions to educational institutions, it will mean in some serious decline of this culture. And so it is a much more dangerous thing than a personal thing because part of the culture is we individualize so much and we say, well, you need to be Christlike, you need to be more like Christ. And we actually even deny in the text where there are conflicts in the text. That’s right. We don’t tend to engage the Paul Barnabas breakup or the Peter Paul scenario of who’s Jewish enough. And these are ethnic strife things that were a part of. And they had to have councils, the council of Jerusalem to talk about, Hey, how do we work through? Do people who are gentiles need to be circumcised or not circumcised? And are they being so these tensions are not new, they’re human. And I think we have to give ourselves some credit as humans, not fully like Christ, hopefully pursuing Christ that we will have strife. And if we have internal our own sort of internal trauma and then corporate trauma, that’s a double whammy that really is hard to overcome.

Rachael: That’s right.

Derek: And how do we create safe enough spaces, and I’m calling safe enough spaces and they need to be facilitated. There need to be boundary spaces, spaces where we say, some people might call them sacred spaces, but these are spaces where I can begin to share who I am and trust that you won’t try to destroy me and you can begin to share who you are. And actually listen deeply. And so it’ll take these opportunities to really listen deeply. There’s again, a fair amount of research that suggests that people who feel powerless or feel oppressed in a society really need to be listened to or need to feel like they’re heard. And so there’s a real power to being heard or to listening deeply. And that’s our work, a bit. And in terms of communities of faith or communities of trust, communities of safety. But the task is really quite complicated. And you mentioned media and I think the early fantasy with media was the media would create these sort of safe enough spaces and we could talk to people across the world and we would share different ideas. Well, again, the sort of technology of algorithms and kind of recognizing that we’re more prone to the things we like that with people who are similar to us, it makes sense if you’re going to at some point sell me something to get with people that we probably all buy the same product. But some of that has led to us not really hearing or having spaces. I won’t listen to some news TV news channels infuriate me or vice versa. And we haven’t cultivated spaces and say, Hey, you’re a person too. And I disagree with that perspective was very helpful. Right in the middle of the pandemic, I got involved with a men’s group and we were trying to have conversations about race. It was half White, half Black men, and it was one Asian American brother who actually recruited me for the group. And we would meet every other week, every other Friday, actually have a meeting with them this week. And we would try to have conversations about what it means to be. And I appreciate it got us beyond the sort of media conversation and it got us into talking about our fears and got us into talking about, Hey, will we ever be able to solve these things? And some part of your body says yes, and some part of your body says no, we may never. But the conversations themselves have met my sense of belonging to this group of people in a way that surprised me. And so as you mentioned family, it’s like, hey, we can tussle each other, but at the end of the day, I’m going to have to see you in a couple months. At the very least. I think that sort of orientation towards belonging, it’s not just a feeling of belonging, but I think we have to take on a sort of orientation to belong that Rachael, I belong to Rachael. Rachael belongs to me. Now we’re going to fight next week maybe, but you still belong to me and I belong to you. I think people of faith are going to have to take on that sort of orientation with each other. And I think it begins with a decision to be something connected and linked to move us out of the us and them, out-group in-group, for us to have some possibility of working through tough conversations. But when we move and move people out of our insider group into another group, we’re going to have a hard time ever having a resolving conversation or transformative one.

Rachael: Yeah, and it’s so interesting because I think a lot and talk a lot about the impact of spiritual abuse, which is very similar to multiple types of abuse, but one of the elements of spiritual abuse that can be so destructive is the use of the split, the us versus them split, the insider outsider, to kind of hold onto some sense of control or create really rigid boundaries over who belongs and who doesn’t. And as you mentioned, that is not new, that’s not a new instinct. That’s a very ancient, very human origin kind of instinct to be able to define who’s in and who’s out. And then how do we project all of our rage and our shame and our fears on the outsiders so that we don’t have to be afraid, we don’t have to bear punishment, we don’t have to deal with hard things. And so sadly, I kind of agree with you, it would be my hope that the church is meant to be a place, especially a spirit-filled people. And in some ways that’s what was so problematic about the early Christians is that they were kind of pressing against these social class boundaries, these kind of rigid boundaries, and they were living as such a way that they belonged to each other and that even their enemies belonged to them. And again, not without very human-sized realities, but I just think, man, I don’t know where I was going with that other than just…

Derek: Well, it sparks a couple things for me. I can think of the early church notion of hey, and they had all things in common. I don’t think that was just about financial things in common. I think it was a sense of, hey, you are knitted together with each other and the necessity of you’re knitted together, then we will give you some capacity of resilience, if you will, to work through what you’re going to have to face. And so it’s our togetherness that gives us resilience as opposed to our own individual toughness. But our individual sort of sensitivity and openness and toughness allows us to stay in the community. I mean these kind of individual and communal pieces. And I think the challenge of what it means to belong is much grittier, much more difficult as opposed to the warm fuzzy feeling like, yeah, I love you and so this feels good. Well, some of it is I can’t stand you right now, but I’m still connected to you. And how do we work with that and find ways not to injure each other in those little intimate tussles or how do we make a meaning that says, I’m not trying to kill you, but I don’t know if you really accept my life or accept the life that I perceive will be taken out of me if I accept your perspective. How do we struggle with that? I think this means we’ve got to be in relationship longer than just some hot minute as well. And so there’s a story, a narrative piece of it. How do I make meaning and what’s the story of you and do I think you’re trying to hurt me or not? Which is another sort of dilemma. We make myths of each other based on our own woundedness, based on our own trauma. We create stories around what’s not safe and then if we queue up somebody else in their story in terms of we could spend a lot of time back and forth being unsafe with each other, queuing each other up, not knowing we’re queuing each other up in a certain type of way. And that takes a certain amount of, again, toughness to say, lemme stop this. But it also require externally safe enough environments to do so. And some facilitation.

Rachael: So I’ve heard you say facilitation is a part of creating a safe enough environment. I wonder what other things you would say here’s some kind of qualities of a community or an environment that would warrant it being… like if people are going, I really, I long to find these spaces, whether they’re going to try to co-create it or looking for a place they can join, what are those things you say? This to me is attempting to get to a safe enough environment. And then I want to also hear from you, you’ve named a few things, but what are some of the skills and capacities we need as we participate in those environments? But first I want to hear how you would define a safe enough environment.

Derek: Well, I’ll say the skills, I’ll come back to it. Skills and capacities ongoing. I think it’s a learning, it’s a posture of I’m going to get hurt in this process, but I’m going to stick with it. There is a certain persistence and a stubborn persistence. I think in terms of a safe enough as a language I’ll use because I don’t think anything is ultimately safe where someone first nation persons say, how about sacred enough? And I think, yeah, it’s sacred. It’s an issue of sacredness.

Rachael: Yeah I like that.

Derek: And sacred in the sense of where heaven and earth can come near where there’s some possibility of transformation. It’s a dedicated space. I need some dedicated space. It can certainly happen in a conversation with someone, but even that, it’s like could we take some time? Could we just take a couple hours to so that you actually carve out some space and some time to do this? I think boundary time is the first thing. I think the willingness to listen deeply and listen not just simply to the content, but listen to each other’s fears. I think we have to get past some of the content because often we’ll say, here’s what I think. And underneath it, the question is, well, what frightens you? Because you’re coming at me like something I’m going to, and I don’t know if I’m going to attack you or not, but you’re coming at me like I am, which makes me want to put up my guard. And so the question is, what frightens you? What’s frightening to you? What do you hope for? And what’s frightening to you? And then I think the certain curiosity that, a curiosity that’s able to overcome anxiety, and again, it’s a shifting of the brain part of the brain. It’s engaging. It’s not the amygdala firing, oh my god, it’s unsafe, but it’s a prefrontal cortex saying, okay, but what about that? Is that really a snake? Is that really a person sitting in the chair in the dark in my room or is that my coat? And so employing the brain in a different sort of way, and again, without a certain type of safety, the brain can’t get there. So that’s probably the strongest things I would say a boundary, safe enough sacred space, clear sense of sometimes intentionality in that space. And I think the capacity to be curious and listen deeply, I mean those are just beginning places. And then I think there’s a whole host of things you’ve got to manage. You’ve got to manage each other’s own distortions. In other words, what’s it mean for me as an African American male to be with a group of half White men, half Black men? Where do I think the threat’s coming from? I have a whole history of what I think is going to happen in that space. Someone’s going to say something stupid. I have all that mapped out before it ever happens. How do I examine my own mapping, my own assumptions of what’s going to happen or how I’m supposed to act and my sense of betrayal, which gets into group dynamics a little bit more. We worry about our level of betrayal of our home group, our ingroup, and will they perceive us as betraying them and hence us be put out because as social animals, we need groups. And I’m not going to betray my home group to be engaged with a group that is not… This is always the challenge of when we go do peacemaking and two people from different groups talk and the fear of the groups that they left behind and do this conversation, it’s like, are you going to betray us when you go and how do we actually not betray our home group? At least manage the fears of that even as we work through issues of betrayal, historical as well as current. So those are just some of the qualities. I think there’s a prayerfulness, there’s a lot of stuff that says mindfulness and prayerfulness are very helpful to soothe our bodies. And I think we’re also hoping we find resonance in groups of people because we can’t do this on our own. I can’t resolve my conflict with you singularly. I need you. And sometimes I need the group around us to say, come on Rachael and Derek, you need to talk to each other. And how do we take responsibility for each other in that regard as a group member to say, Hey, we need you guys to keep talking. It’s not done yet. You kind of went to your separate corners and you complained to your group of three on either side. It’s not done. You need to have to keep talking to each other. And we need a commitment from a group that says, no, we belong to each other in such a way that we are also going to engage in this conflict with you and support the two of you or the three of you or the how many of you or it through and all that’s hard work. All that is hard work.

Rachael: Well, I think that’s the question I feel rising up in me and part of why in some ways I’m just so deeply appreciative of you because you are a person I think of when I feel like I’m done. I’m retiring from discourse and caring and transformation and hope. What’s the point? Because I do feel it’s both personally within our organization, in the larger culture, in my family, it’s just been one of those seasons where it does feel like what is the point? And it’s hard work. And then you do this hard work and then people still split and you’re like, guys, we’re staying in it. And so then I just think I would love if you feel so inclined to hear from you, I think it also requires hope. And I guess I’m curious, how do you stay? What gives you hope in staying in these waters with all that you’ve seen and tasted and known in your life with regard to all the things we’re talking about and then what you’re seeing in this particular moment? What keeps you at the table?

Derek: That’s a good question. There’s some part of me that I probably still don’t fully understand, and I’ll say it that way and then I’ll tell, stuck with the person, understand that part of me is almost like a little kid who keeps believing, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this. And I think I have a deep hunger and it’s probably an intimacy piece for people to be linked that I know in their linking would be a good thing. And so I can look at us and say, oh, that would be a great thing if these relationships worked in a certain way. And I do get stubborn about it now, I also get disappointed in that part. But the other piece is a sort of trust in the infinite and finite spaces. So when you say hope, I don’t necessarily trust what’s in front of me all the time to say it’s going to be this crappy always, but I have this sense that it can get better and I trust it’ll get better even though I don’t see it right now and I’m not sure where all that comes from. Some degree, I’m sure the way my parents raised me, some degree of what it means to walk with Christ for me personally. But I have the ability to look beyond the moment and have hopes for a future. That’s really what it’s, and it’s not at all that I’m not discouraged at times. I will say to myself at times, but if not, I know my God is able. But if not, I’m little Hebrew boy, we’ll step into the fiery furnace, but God is able to save us. But if not, and I certainly give space for the, but if not. Which means I will be disappointed. It’s not a journey of non-disappointment or avoidance of disappointment, but it typically doesn’t fully quench my hunger to see us connected and linked. I think there’s such potency when people get together, the energy that’s created when people get together and can find some common purpose together and work together. There’s just a whole different energy. And that energy has the possibility of transformation, which I think is what God says, Hey, I and the Father are one, and I want you in fact to also be one. That energy, that vitality, that possibility for whatever reason, I still believe it can happen. And so I’m able to manage my body enough in the moment, which is a big part of, it’s like you get floodings, okay, calm down, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe deep please and say, okay, I’m not going to punch you. I’m not going to punch you. I’m not going to punch you. I’m not going to punch you. I’m not going to punch you. Okay, there’s still some possibility here. And I even in those moments look for, I find myself looking for the possibility. And I would say it that way because in some ways it’s not even like I’m always intentional, but I can hear in the hurt why I don’t want to do it anymore. And I feel my own weepiness when I say that, but I can hear sometimes we’ll have a conversation. I can hear in the hurt, well, I’m done. You’re dead to me. I’m like, no, it’s because I want so much in this relationship and you can’t give it to me. And I can hear that part. And so it feels like, well no, you’re, it’s not dead to you. It’s just hurtful to you. So I can hear that part and it makes me still want to not let go to hold on to stay in the tussle because I think there’s something about Jacob tussling in the desert of not letting go. And I don’t even think in that story of Jacob becoming Israel. It’s not even to me a story of somebody becomes new as much as their sense of purpose in the world is altered. So the newness comes from Jacob. I’m going to give you a different purpose now. You’ve been trying to strive for yourself. It’s all been about you and how you get ahead and how you don’t get behind and well, let me change your purpose. And again, he has to be reminded two chapters later that, Hey, lemme tell you what I did with you. I wounded you to give you a different purpose. And so how do we in some ways hear God’s new purpose for us? Not even new qualities of personality with each other that I’m supposed to do something on behalf of. So part of the other piece in this discourse conversation is how do we through discourse, find our purpose and service, find what we’re called to do? And I think some of that requires us rubbing up against each other is for you to say, I’m done and I say, no, I’m not going to let you go and you keep tussling. I’m not going to let you go. Or which you are very tenacious. You don’t let it go, you hold on. That’s the making of you in a different sort of way. And I believe that collectively about us, that we really deeply are built, we just culturally sometimes believe we were hyper-individualistic in the sense of, Hey, I’m going to be self-made person. I am. Well, the truth is we are social animals to our core.

Rachael: Oh yeah.

Derek: Our brain functions, our body functions all in some ways are meant the safest place for us and community. And the question is, can we find safe enough communities? Not the opposite. Can I be individual, standalone? Can we find safe enough communities? And I think that’s what the wounding is when family is not safe enough or when church is not safe enough or when school is not safe enough or when institutions are not safe enough. That’s the deep wounding of us that’s personal, that deeply personal and it’s a person that may have wounded us, but it’s not just a person, it’s a society that was not safe.

Rachael: Yeah. I love the way you talked about in some ways it’s a young boy in you that just still believes. I think in some ways the part of me that’s like you’re dead to me is it is a young, very hope-filled, very tenacious, very gritty part of me that man I love so much. And I would say it’s not at all my innocence was shattered in the past five years just culturally for the first time. But I do think something of my naivete and privilege was exposed. And you and I, we’ve had many conversations about this over many years. And so I think having to make space, I’m thinking about this around how do I stay in these places of discourse that I do think bring transformation is also cultivating a capacity to grieve, to really let the disappointment, I think that’s what you’re saying, to make room for the disappointment that’s real when you think people have more kind of, you’ve talked a lot about resilience and that’s something you research and are actively trying to bring even to the Seattle School is a deeper kind of resilience. And you’ve named with me before in conversation that it requires a kind of sensitive toughness to really stay in it. And I feel like I want to cut off the sensitivity. No, if I could just be less sensitive, I could be tough. And it’s like, oh, but I need that sensitive part of me that actually does want to belong and wants to create context where others radical belonging, where others belong. And so I think the capacity to let my heart, instead of just being enraged, also just be really sad that you won’t always get to keep all the pieces and parts together in this quest.

Derek: And even for me with you, and not just you, but appreciate the anger, what the anger is saying. And the anger is saying, I want to be close, but I can’t be safe with you and so I have to fight you. Or it’s not flight, it’s a fight with you because I really want to be close, but I can’t trust that closeness won’t hurt me. And for us to be able to translate for each other, this is the sort of thing, what frightens you is an important question. We, we’ve have a five stage process to discourse that we’re trying to develop a little bit of a technology. I think most of us don’t have a good tool. And so I say some of it is, some of the question is what do you hope for? Or you can interchange this with either first or second question, what are you frightened of? And those two questions are very important to go together because they speak to our desire. My fear speaks to my desire and what I hope for speaks to my desire and the concern that my desire will be crushed. I will be unseen, I’ll be unengaged. And so any process of which we’re trying to get to discourse place has to ask, what frightens you? I think then to try to move the brain into, and what are you still curious about is a third type of question. But we did a project with the board a couple of years ago and we asked them, we were putting something tough in front of them and we said, Hey, let’s try to go through a process. We spent about four meetings on what frightens you. And so you can’t think of it as, oh, well I’ll just tell you in five minutes and we’ll move on. Because usually layers of what frightens you and I realize that frightens me too. And we live in such a defended space that we don’t, not even fully sure what all the sensitivity part is saying, what frightens you? And then the curiosity is, Hey, what do I still need to know to kind of push it to a prefrontal cortex to begin processing and doing less distortion? Then we ask the question of what do we hear God saying to us? So it brings in a transcendent quality of you could say, what are the themes we’re hearing? But what are we hearing God saying to us? We’ve been tussling with each other. Maybe we haven’t come to an agreement, but what are we hearing God saying to us? Not that that means there’s going to be a conclusion because I think sometimes we think, oh, God said it and that’s it. Well, sometimes it’s clearly like, I don’t dunno what’s being said. I dunno what you’re saying to us, God. Because in some ways it’s a paradox that we have to sit with a paradoxical something or other and there’s no instant solution. And then finally, what are the things we have in common? And so we’re trying to develop a process around that and facilitate a process to say, Hey, this is a tough topic. Identity is a tough topic. Race is a tough topic. Gender is a tough topic. Economics is a tough topic. How do we actually sit and walk through a process with each other and the process is not to win or lose. Again, this is the “in group, out group” sort of thing. If I’m going into this to kind of win, we’re sunk. So you have to disavow people the notion of winning as opposed to expanding in a way and understanding more deeply what God might be saying to us, which is more infinite thing than a finite thing. Finite things. I win, you lose, which we’re still very geared to that and that’s cultural and that’s not a problem. That’s human, but it can get in the way of hearing infinite things in finite moments. And so how do we work ourselves through that process? And we need each other. My goodness, when you don’t want to, I need to be standing and saying, come on, come on, come on back. Not today, maybe tomorrow, come on back. And we need that for each other. I will need it. We will need it for each other. And this is that sense of, again, belonging and linkage and connection. That feels very important. So we heal together. I think certainly some healing is done alone and having to face into our stories alone, but we heal together as we wound often together.

Rachael: I firmly believe this, that it’s someday I plan on asking God more about it, clearly a design. And I think there is something very paradoxical about it because I think we’re all, if we could find a way to heal in isolation, we would. But you’re absolutely right that that’s not how we’re made. And I think a lot about how we have such disordered imagination that we, like you said, so much distortion that we actually have to imagine and create new imagination together. And I do need you and I need others, and I need people who see the world very differently than I do to help me imagine more fully who we are and who we’re meant to be as we kind of bring things toward a close. I guess I’m curious, one, if there’s just anything else you’d want our listeners to hear, but I also find myself curious, and maybe it’s the group that you mentioned already, but just can you recall recent, however long ago that needs to be, a recent experience of a discourse community that transformed you or something that changed you through your relationship and conversations with others?

Derek: Yeah, I have to, I’ll go back to this group again. Again, we meet him Fridays every other Friday, and we kind of have a running sort of, everybody can’t come all the time, but we kind of keep the date open. Well, the gentleman who actually took the initiative to begin this group, he has since passed. He died last year. He was an older gentleman.

Rachael: Sorry to hear that.

Derek: But his impact in the group was pretty potent. And I won’t go into who he was, but he was well healed status-wise. It was interesting. He’d been a CEO of a corporation. And so it was unusual for me to be with this group of men, what I going to deal with in terms of White guys and Black guys. But he said something one day that really quite was pretty potent for me. And we were having a conversation, and typically sometimes these conversations go, tell us about yourselves. It’s usually White guys saying, tell us about yourselves Black guys. We want to be supportive.

Rachael: We want to help you.

Derek: We got into this conversation about fear, again, and he and I were going back and forth a little bit, and he said, he paused. And again, it was a pause. He paused in the group and said, Hey, the truth is all of us White guys are frightened in some way. I was like, okay, I’ve never heard a person in power say anything like that. And it stopped us all because it changed the relationship in the space. It was no longer the patriarchy White male sort of something or other. It had to push us out of that dynamic. And I think from after then we started talking about how much we loved each other in a certain, and I don’t think we were trying to be intentional. As much as I have affection for you, we’ve been in this, we’ve been tussling with each other. We’ve been struggling with truthful, honest things, and I care for you. And so I found myself saying to one of the guys, European American guy in that group, I said, if you see me on the street and I walk by, I’m with these two, maybe two other Black brothers, and I walk past you and don’t salute you as another brother of mine, you should slap me in the face. You can hit me upside my head. Because in some ways I’m saying, Hey, no, we belong. We have been in this long enough to actually give each other a level of truth that we belong to each other. And I can’t deny that. Even in my group of loyalty, I can’t deny that. And so I have not intentionally tried to change, but it has changed parts of me. And I came into that group saying, I’m not sure how long I’ll be with you all because this is a nice little exercise, but I don’t have time for this. And here I am three years later, still on Fridays meeting with a group of men and having conversations. And sometimes it’s just kind of nonsense conversations, but often we’ll touch on something that speaks deeply to us and we’ll find some commonality without erasing our differences.

Rachael: That’s right.

Derek: And so that’s the challenge. How do we not erase our differences, but find our commonality? And so that’s what I’ll leave us today with.

Rachael: Well, Derek, I want to say thank you so much. Hopefully if you’ve had an opportunity to listen, you are understanding a little more deeply why Derek McNeil is one of my favorite people to be in conversation with. And I do hope that if you want to engage in a space where we are attempting to be a safe enough space to lean into some of these harder conversations that you will check out the Seattle School Connect series again, you can go to, click on the events tab, it should pop up, you can register, it’s free, and you can tune in. Thanks again, Derek.

Derek: Thank you, Rachael. It’s good to be with you.