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A Conversation with Ted Lewis of the Restorative Church Project and CRJP

Ted Lewis, Founder and Coordinator of the Restorative Church Project, has worked in the fields of restorative justice and conflict resolution in Kansas, Oregon, Wisconsin and Minnesota since the mid-1990s. His area of specialty is facilitation and training for restorative conferencing that includes harming and harmed parties, along with support people. Ted is also a restorative consultant and trainer for the Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking (University of Minnesota, Duluth), helping to support program growth nationwide. As an adjunct teacher, he has taught restorative justice courses at University of Minnesota Duluth and Bethel University, and, since 2014, has served on the Advisory Council and Executive Committee for the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice. Ted currently serves on the Conflict Management Support Team for Central Plains Mennonite Conference, and, in 2016, he founded the Agape Peace Center in Duluth, Minnesota, a ministry initiative of Central Plains Mennonite Conference.

“A few years ago I had a chance to visit a group of men in a Michigan prison, all of whom were lifers for murder cases. I was there to describe my work as a restorative justice facilitator in a model that invites harming and harmed parties, after preparation meetings, to come together for healing dialogue. I told several stories from my casework. When I opened up time for questions, one question was dominant. ‘What can I do to help the families I victimised?” I told them the sad truth: “These very walls that lock in your supposed badness so it won’t touch people on the outside, are the same walls that lock in your goodness which could bring deep healing to people on the outside.’”

Ted Lewis, speaking at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial (CJMM) on the CJMM Day of Remembrance on 15 June 2021


According to the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice, restorative justice (RJ) is often understood as facilitated meetings between victims of crimes and those who have committed a crime, sometimes to supplement or replace legal action and punishment. While Howard Zehr, a pioneering figure in the RJ movement, concedes that this is an accurate conceptualisation of the practice, he argues that “... restorative justice is more than an encounter, and its scope reaches far beyond the criminal justice system”. But what constitutes this “more” and in what ways is the scope of RJ expanding?

For Ted Lewis, facilitation work and restorative justice seemed to find him:

“I grew up in a family of ministers going back three generations and so it was sort of expected that I would follow suit. As a result of meeting and working with Mennonites, I met someone who grew up in Howard Zehr’s church... and that person asked me to be a staff program manager for a new Victim Offender Reconciliation Program in Kansas. So I was not looking for that occupation, but as soon as I was introduced to it, it was a great fit”.

Lewis’ work as a “second-generation” RJ worker began in Kansas exploring criminal justice conferencing via solo facilitation:

“Most of my practitioner experience is in the criminal realm with both adults and juveniles. The model then was either mediation or conflict resolution, with the best practice of holding individual preparation sessions with each side and then bringing them together voluntarily if they chose to do so. In my first two years, I would do solo facilitation work, often meeting with people right in their homes... I would be in their kitchen talking about this program. For the most part, it was so new to people... so it was fun to introduce people to something they had never heard about and have them say, ‘Yeah, I could do that’.”

Although new at the time, RJ is now a widely discussed topic during a period when traditional forms of justice are scrutinised as insufficient and peace and justice are increasingly intertwined. Ted Lewis’ work as a facilitator and teacher in the Church, and beyond, provides scholars and justice-seekers insights into the practicalities and potentials of RJ through facilitated processes.

Practicalities of Justice Through Facilitation

New opportunities brought Lewis from Kansas to Oregon where he worked on both dispute and harm cases”:

“That was nice because I got cross-trained in both... it is a good distinction. There is a lot of overlap (between dispute and harm) because they both involve what I call ‘party empowerment’. You are bringing out the strengths in people to hold themselves in hard conversations and you need a third-party facilitator to help hold that space. The key difference between them is that in a dispute case both parties are more equal and they both feel slighted, whereas in a harm case there is more of an inequity where someone is truly in a more vulnerable position. The goal is to balance that out so that both parties can see the humanity in each other”.

Within these processes of party empowerment, verbiage can play an important role: the terms “victim” and “offender” are sparingly used. According to Lewis, “those terms are going out of fashion because they tend to be labeling words. I might use them in an article, but when I am present with people I will use phrases like ‘responsible party’ and ‘impacted party’.”’

Facilitation work is made up of a series of mental and relational shifts for participants moving them forward through the process. Lewis says:

“In some respects, there are lots of tiny shifts that help people to go forward and then there’s what I call a ‘major shift’ which benchmarks talking about things past and present and talking about things going forward. For most simple crimes, if people are prepared for a couple of weeks and then come together for a two-hour conversation, generally they will have that shift within those two hours. The real issue is, are they ready to be together? Sometimes it only takes two weeks to bring them together, other times it might take two months, and in some cases, it might take a year for, for example, a murder case. So it is really a question of being sensitive to how much trauma and trust people are carrying within themselves. Because if they do have a lot of trauma and a lot of mistrust, you can imagine that they have a lot of resistance, a lot of barriers, to the idea of opening up and having that emotional shift. People experience this all the time with friends and family, this being resistant, so that is why I talk a lot about moving from the head zone to the heart zone. The head zone involves lots of rational thinking that seeks to protect ourselves, protect our ideas, even in civic conversations. The heart zone allows people to think about the other, recognising commonality in human experiences. Once we get into the heart zone, it is easier to make that shift”.

Storytelling as a whole is central to the process of facilitation, referred to by Lewis as an act which helps free oneself by releasing heavy emotional burdens; “I know that without storytelling you are not going to get to that shift point”.

Given the personal, social, or even legal stakes in cases of harm or dispute, questions may arise regarding which party - impacted or responsible - brings their case to a facilitator in search of a conversation. Lewis has had both.

“Everyone brings themselves so they are a unique profile based on the incident in combination with their backstory, their personality, their family life, etc. So it can be both ways as to who might initiate. I've worked with very open victims who are ready for a conversation where the responsible party is guarded, and I have seen it the other way, too, where the victim is very offended and the responsible party is open and remorseful. So, tuning into that is important for facilitators, and letting people be who they are without them feeling any pressure”.

Important, too, is identifying and acting upon what Wade Lode Walgrave refers to as “common self-interest”:

“Common self-interest expresses the intrinsic permanent tension between a tendency to satisfy our self-interest uncompromised and the ethical norm of channeling the achievement of our self-interests through a common self-interest. It may be seen as a paradox, but it is a fundamental condition of our human existence”.

Lewis adds to this:

“People do not do something that is vulnerable and risky unless they feel like they will get some reward. But at the same time, RJ pushes the envelope in that they also have to have common self-interest. So in the prep work, their horse blinders have to widen out to see that other people are involved in it. It is not just you doing the right thing to take care of your business”.

In addition to facilitating restorative conversations in dispute and harm cases, Lewis conducts conflict resolution training for facilitators:

“My default training is sixteen hours and that is to facilitate harming or harmed parties of either a crime or non-criminal harm. In those sixteen hours, I try to have a real variety of learning opportunities - some PowerPoint, some video, open discussion, breakout group exercises... and within a sixteen-hour training I will have four roleplays, which can last from an hour and a half to two hours. On the heels of that, I will do either four or eight-hour advanced trainings to deepen peoples practices in that field of work, focusing on a more intuitive approach”.

“Taming the ego” and being mindful of the baggage one brings into the work is a lesson Lewis passes on during these sessions:

“I am very indebted to my mentor Dr. Mark Umbreit who has pioneered what I call a “Zenish” approach to facilitation that focuses on mindfulness, deep listening, silence, and the importance of storytelling... all of which are really intuitive-based parts of a practice”.

The Restorative Church Project

Per Lewis’ website, the Restorative Church project “promotes collaborative, cross-fertilising conversation between people in the fields of restorative justice, restorative theology, and restorative practices for church communities”. The project has been a collaborative endeavour and one which centers Lewis.

“The seeds of that project began with New Zealand scholar Chris Marshall who is a unique blend between someone who did biblical work and full RJ work and found a way to teach in both realms. About four years ago, he and I did a webinar specifically on the integration of the three strands of restorative justice, theology and church practices. Out of that webinar, we started to realise that there’s a sub-community of people who’d like to have cross-conversation around what those three realms offer to enrich each other”.

“Chris and I and a number of others realised that because the church (at least in the modern context) provided the original soil for restorative work in Canada and then Indiana, it is a shame that there was a later detachment between RJ and the church. In launching the website and these discussion groups, it is saying that this is the terrain that church communities should be thoroughly invested in, both missionally (in terms of giving something good to local communities) and communally or internally”.

Lewis cites a pervasive issue of churches “walking the talk” when it comes to restorative practices externally, but perhaps not “walking the talk” within their internal communities and each other: “... there really needs to be both for there to be good integrity”.

Much like any cultural or familial group, church communities possess different stages of openness and functionality which is deeply entrenched. When working with church groups to resolve inner conflict, this may create difficulties. Lewis expands:

“There’s a classic joke in the field by two of the founding figures that did church resolution work in the eighties. The joke is: Why did both of them leave the field of church conflict resolution work and go into international peacemaking work? And the answer is because the latter was a lot easier”.

The intersection of faith and biblical texts with peacemaking is one which may seem unconducive to traditional models, or inapplicable across varying religions or cultural contexts. For Lewis, however, the underlying ways in which all human beings relate to each other don’t change from culture to culture, and that is what one should focus on, without giving up the use of cultural distinctions.

“Personally, I make the assumption that whether people are religious or not, whether they have beliefs or not, all humans share the same nature, the same social dynamics, etc., which means that in any religious tradition you can find wisdom for how justice and peacemaking can happen. There is a way to look within a tradition and find bits of wisdom that can narrate or inspire or guide peacemaking processes but that does not mean it changes anything for how people relate to each other. So the same wisdom can apply to any human culture and might resonate with aspects of other cultures. For example, many Native American systems of interrelatedness inform an ethos of working things out. And the more you emphasise that along with the values of respect and responsibility, it is going to support peacemaking efforts. I like to think that any group can benefit from calling forth those values, but that does not mean that just because you are a part of a certain tradition that you are benefitting from that”.

That is not to say, however, that biblical texts cannot provide insight within certain settings - and Lewis will draw upon certain narratives to demonstrate themes of peace and conversation:

“I do workshops that often build around a biblical narrative, such as the Genesis story of Joseph and the way in which he was separated from his family. There is a woundedness that affects the whole family and Joseph spurs a restorative learning process for coming to terms with his brothers’ past offending. Further, the vulnerable nature of God within the Christian narrative is one that may be helpful in inspiring personal vulnerability and trust. In Christianity, the creator of the world enters into the story, so that vulnerability of entering in the story and becoming a character in the story really speaks to me... That to me is a huge resonance between the nature of restorative work and the religious tradition which sets the mould for it”.

Important to understand in conversations regarding RJ, especially within different theological contexts, is the relational differences between covenant justice and conventional justice. Their relationship is one explored by Howard Zehr who wrote the groundbreaking book Changing Lenses. Per Lewis, covenant justice is a more relational network.

“In that relational network, there is more horizontal responsibility as opposed to just vertical. So when Howard Zehr talks about the contemporary justice models that come out of the West, those usually have some sort of a split between professionals who have active roles and players (victims and offenders) who have more passive roles. Covenant justice, biblically, has more to do with empowering relationships that have more give and take both ways, directly between harming and harmed parties. There is a sense of obligation on the part of the responsible person to make things right”.’

Can these horizontal models, such as the Yukon circle model and other indigenous forms, be combined with contemporary court models in order to incorporate the restorative model into English law systems? For Lewis, the challenge of restorative justice reforming the traditional system is the million-dollar question:

“My answer is both yes and no. I do think that there are success stories of reform and integration and then there are stories of tension and clash. I do not think you will ever get away from the tension. For example, take the analogy of organic and non-organic food economies. Those two can integrate together; you will find in a supermarket GMO foods next to non-GMO foods. So on that level, they can co-exist. But when you think about long-term sustainability, you have to ask: can they truly coexist? Is it ok to keep putting chemicals in our soil and foods while sometimes not putting chemicals in our soil and foods? Is it ok to have professionals making all the decisions and having punitive outcomes and having people have more power and wholesome accountability? There are some contexts in which you can have wholesome accountability fit into existing structures, and others where there are clashes”.’

Overall, the Restorative Church project opens restorative conversations within church communities, assists said communities with external restorative work and works within the nexus of religion and justice. Lewis says:

“I have certainly been inspired to remain in the field because of that integration. For me, integrating my faith tradition with restorative practice is vital to what sustains me. But that does not mean that the people I work with need to see this same sense of integration because people are people and I’m really happy to serve anyone”.

Restorative Justice and Race Relations

Minnesota - home of Ted Lewis, the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking and the Restorative Church project, has been both the physical site and conversational focus of many recent discussions surrounding policing and race relations following the murder of George Floyd. But Minnesota’s history of racial conflict spans centuries, as exemplified by the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial (CJMM) in Duluth which represents Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie - three black men falsely accused and lynched in Duluth, Minnesota, on 15 June 1920. Speaking at the CJMM’s Day of Remembrance in 2021, Lewis addressed the potentials of RJ in the realm of racial justice and community building in Duluth. In the wake of trauma and also tensions between law enforcement and communities of color, he emphasised how truth-telling and trust-building have to go hand-in-hand.

“I feel like my contribution to this challenge is what I call the relationship between truth and trust. You hear a lot about truth-telling; people need to tell their truth, white folk need to come to grips with the truth, and so forth. What I find is that if you do not know how to match truth-telling with trust-building, truth-telling itself does not necessarily lead to stronger relationships between groups in tension. Even with the police here, there are people that want to start a conversation and tell them the truth of what it’s like to be discriminated against. But if there is not a base of trust for the police to hear it well. In my experience, it can actually alienate groups more. So good intentions of telling the truth with bad results is a function of not having trust. What Restorative Justice as a field really offers that challenge is to methodically have processes that build up trust, again through storytelling that builds relationships between groups so that you have a strong enough platform to talk about the harder issues that can bear that emotional weight. You cannot just jump right in and expect that bridge to be strong enough for those trucks of truth; you have to first make sure that the bridge is strong. Practically, that means we need more local people with facilitative experience to guide trust-building processes. That takes time, that takes work, that takes relationship building... but you cannot avoid it if you want to bring people together across divides”.

As RJ increases in its chronological scope to address past traumas and build bridges for the future, community empowerment becomes both the ends and the means. For Lewis, communal trust is a vital first step. He says:

“If the word ‘reparation’ can mean practical things to do, like taking down a statue or donating money, the restorative approach focuses on relationships before reparation. Otherwise, what is the point? If you do not aim to coexist in a relationship with each other, what is the point? Do you want people to still live in tension with each other, minus a statue? Part of our work is building those relationships in a restorative manner”.

The content of the conversations that build these relationships is important, but so are their dynamics. For Lewis, civil conversation based on trust should be demonstrated and maintained. This model of “justice through peace” rather than “justice preceding peace” is key to the restorative approach.

“If you think in terms of ‘No Justice, No Peace’, you are only thinking of peace as the outcome and justice as the means... Traditionally, when people say ‘No Justice, No Peace’ they mean that if there is no sentencing or accountability, then there will not be peace on the streets. What that is doing is looking at traditional justice as a functional system that delivers peace. Can it really do that?”

In addition to the potentially unattainable pressures that this puts on a system that has proven itself to be unsatisfactory in certain contexts, violence tends to beget violence.

Rene Girard would say that once you unmask the scapegoating mechanism that uses violence to create scapegoats to bring about supposed peace, the only thing you have is genuine peace to bring about justice. It makes peacemaking part of the means that informs the process, as long as you want an outcome of holistic peace. That is why I play off ‘No Justice, No Peace’ by saying that if you do not have peace as an ingredient in your justice method, you are not going to have real peace as an outcome. I was so happy that George Floyd’s family had relief but even more so that they were able to say that accountability alone is not complete justice. Real justice is meeting the needs of a society that can change - and that itself points to a restorative view of addressing the harms of those who were victimised, and involving the community. It is not just a punishment that brings about full justice”.

Looking Ahead: The Growing Potential of Restorative Work

The term “Restorative Justice” and its associated practices may grow increasingly popular over time, in part due to the growing interconnectedness of communities and incidents. Lewis says:

“In the early days, it was just about bringing in the individual parties and the mediator. As Restorative Justice has evolved, it has gone in two directions: one, it has broadened the number of participants, because more people are impacted and they have a stake in any conflict. Second, instead of just narrowly addressing an incident, more holistic work goes in both directions to address root causes as well as follow-ups in the community. So you can see how there is more of a communal emphasis rather than an individual emphasis; an entire community might have a responsibility to create something better for the future. That approach has helped the field move beyond criminality into culture-building, into preventative peacemaking, harm reduction, race relations, historical harm... it just keeps going wider and wider”.

One model that has sprung out of the restorative practice is the communal and restorative hub model:

“In the moving of restorative leadership beyond traditional white stakeholders, which has been extremely exciting and there is a lot of support, you can see a trend toward what I call ‘program autonomy’, especially in urban areas, from traditional systems. An example would be in both Chicago and Oakland: there are community RJ hubs that have multiple offices that deal with restorative work, both prevention and intervention, that almost have an independent set of services without having to rely on all the professionals in the court world. It is like saying, ‘We as a community can handle our own stuff’. So that is a really interesting thing to observe because it’s saying ‘We can do good work without the involvement of professional mega-systems.’”

On an international scale, some nations have restorative practices already in place, with positive effects as a result.

“New Zealand is one nation that has aspired to have large-scale restorative work; they have made restorative systems the norm and court processes the exception. Whereas in American society, it’s the other way around. We still make traditional court processes the norm and restorative work the exception. There are places worldwide that have turned the tide on this, and as a result, for example, New Zealand’s youth detention centers have decreased in numbers”.

Lewis’ most recent work has surrounded new practices in cases of sexual assault, one involving surrogates:

“It was a case where two surrogates were able to come together, a victim surrogate and an offender surrogate. As it was not possible for them to meet with their actual counterparts, they each requested a healing dialogue opportunity in the same month, and I was able to prepare them over a seven-month period for a joint dialogue session that lasted six hours. That was for me a frontier opportunity to learn that there can still be really deep healing for sexual assault cases even though people do not want to meet with the counterparts of their actual case. It even showed that it’s almost better to meet with surrogates because people can in a sense enter into it with a little more trust”.

Next summer, his practice will soon be taking him to Chicago:

“The Restorative Church project is aiming to partner with other RJ stakeholders in the Southside. This gathering will bring church folk together to talk about how their church can practice dialogue-based peacemaking both communally and missionally. We also hope to bring together seminarians with restorative justice thinkers to ask how each group can enhance the other. I have also created the Faith and Justice monthly learning groups for college-aged students. These Zoom sessions are designed for newcomers who want to think about how all these issues come together”.

For those interested in integrating restorative practices into potential legal careers, Lewis recommends exploring Collaborative Law. Collaborative Law is “an umbrella term for anything to do with lawyering that has more of a humanising win-win approach”. Facilitation work is another possible route:

“I think it’s good to have a regular foundation in restorative conference facilitation and circle-keeping and then getting all the experience you can. What I hope to do with restorative church workshops is help people gain basic communication skills in the context of learning about restorative themes in the Bible”.

Truth-telling via trust-building can undoubtedly resolve seemingly unresolvable issues and may increasingly serve as a tool of creative legal and non-legal problem-solving. For Lewis, the vulnerability behind this truth-telling is a driving force:

“A big part of my mission, I think, is how do you invite church folk into realms of weakness, so that they can see the paradox of a greater strength within it? And that is the essence of my personal strength; when you become comfortable with weakness and vulnerability, you actually open yourself up to greater sources of power and healing”.

More information on Ted Lewis and the Restorative Church project may be found on their website.


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