Javen Swanson

Javen Swanson, Associate Pastor, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church

By David Schimke

Rev. Javen Swanson believes faith-based action begins and ends with intentional conversation.

Javen Swanson’s faith was forged and fortified communally.

Growing up in Pine River, Minnesota, a town of 900 in the Brainerd Lakes area, he found his best friends in a high school Bible study at the local Lutheran church. His spiritual devotion deepened while attending Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. The progressive Christian community embraced his decision to come out as a gay man. On the way to graduation day, close friends and influential professors encouraged the math major to consider attending divinity school.

Swanson was not sure about whether or not he wanted to be a pastor, but he knew he wanted to attend graduate school. Upon receiving a scholarship to attend Yale Divinity School he decided that, no matter what path he ultimately chose, the experience would be invaluable. “My first semester at Yale was really heavy duty theology-oriented stuff. And of course it was Yale, so it was like a step up from what I had experienced at Gustavus. Academically, I felt very average,” Swanson remembers. “Then, my second semester, I took a preaching and a pastoral care class and I found I had gifts in both areas. And I realized that those two things were really what being a pastor is all about.”

Coming back to Minneapolis with a Master of Divinity from Yale, a non-Lutheran seminary, Swanson completed another year of study at Luther Seminary in St. Paul and then spent a year as a pastoral intern at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis. After that, he waited to be called to his first church. “Everyone wants to be in the Twin Cities, so the Lutheran church is saturated with candidates and there aren’t many openings. I also needed to stay here because my husband, Oby [Ballinger] is a pastor and was serving a local church. So I waited a long time.”

Three years to be exact. But the time was not wasted. In fact, it resulted in a pivotal period of community building. Swanson worked as an organizer with OutFront Minnesota and Minnesotans United for All Families, which spearheaded the campaign to defeat a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage in Minnesota. Since the organization’s day-to-day charge was to engage and empower everyday citizens, it put its volunteers and staff through a series of trainings. And the first building block was a series of teachings on how to conduct one-on-one conversations.

A methodology with its roots in the work and writings of activist Saul Alinsky (author of the seminal book, Rules for Radicals), and popularized by authors and speakers like Brené Brown, one-on-one conversations are structured interactions designed to engender authentic sharing. In organizational settings, the process is used to help people find commonalities, which can help create deep alliances and build resilience.

“The ultimate goal of these conversations is to form partnerships to create the world you and I both want,” Swanson explains. “So, when I’m leading a conversation, I’m going to take what I’ve learned about what you care most about to figure out how to work in a way that really deeply matches your passion.”

Today, Rev. Javen Swanson is the Associate Pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul, where, according to his bio, he has “been called to assist parishioners in developing caring relationships with one another and the community, expanding and enhancing their outreach and service, and putting their gifts to use for the sake of God’s mission in the world.”

In late October, the 33-year-old sat down to talk about his journey from student to teacher and discuss the one-on-one training he will be conducting for Opportunity Saint Paul’s Learning Community Event on November 9.

When you were trained to conduct intentional, one-on-one conversations, you were a community organizer. How did that skill impact your day-to-day work?

An organizer is always trying to get people to build something big together. And the only way you can fire people up to do the hard work, and to be vulnerable, and to take the necessary risks is to find a way to connect the work to their deepest passions. Because if it’s just about altruism—“I want to help people”—when the going gets tough, the natural reaction is to say: “Well, I wanted to help people, but this is outside of my comfort zone.” One-on-ones are about finding out what a person feels deeply passionate about, what wakes them up and gets them going. If you can find that thing that resonates for them, you can help them connect the work to their self—we call it self-interest—and they’re much more likely to come along and put themselves out there when things become uncomfortable or challenging.

I imagine there are times when the roots of that passion, or how that passion connects to whatever work is being done, is something people haven’t even thought about themselves.

Yes. I always say that part of a one-on-one conversation is me learning more about your self-interest. But, it’s also about me helping you uncover your self-interest. There’s probably something subconscious that led you to get involved in a movement or volunteer, but maybe you haven’t been self-reflective about it. My job is to help you be more self-reflective.

How would you evaluate the quality and character of the typical, everyday conversation?

When we do these trainings, we always say these are uncommon conversations. Because, day-to-day, we do not do this stuff very well. Ninety-five percent of the time our conversations are very functional. We don’t go deep, even with close friends. It’s not unique to our time, but I do think it’s maybe gotten worse in the age of social media and text messaging and things like Snapchat. I mean, when’s the last time you actually had a real conversation with someone on the phone?

Why is that? Is it because we don’t know how, or we don’t have time, or we don’t take the time?

I think it’s because it feels vulnerable. We don’t want our friend to feel uncomfortable. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable. Even though a preponderance of evidence shows that being vulnerable is what builds deep relationships.

So, an intentional interaction requires both parties to be present, paying attention, and maybe even taking risks.

Right. When a person is conversing, they often crack the door open a little bit to see if the other person is going to walk through. If they weren’t willing to say more about it, they wouldn’t drop the hint. But they also aren’t sure that the person they’re talking to really wants to have that vulnerable of a conversation. So they put it out there, they crack the door open, and leave it up to the other person to decide whether or not to take it further.

What does an intentional, one-on-one conversation look like?

So, typically, you and I would get together for an hour-and-a-half. The first 45 minutes would be me having a one-on-on with you, and the second 45 minutes would be you having a one-on-one with me, because it’s really not an even conversation. When I’m having a one-on-one with you, you’re not getting to know me in the same way that I’m getting to know you. Because I’m really there for a purpose, which is that I want to uncover your self-interest and find out what it is that makes you tick. I’m going to share some stuff about myself along the way, but you’re not going to get to know me in the same way that I’m going to get to know you. But then you reverse the roles.

So deep listening is key?

When we do one-on-one trainings like the training I’m going to do on Thursday, we always tell people that when they’re asking questions they should be spending about 70 percent of the time listening and 30 percent talking. But that 30 percent talking is crucial. Because when you say something that resonates with part of my experience, I can say something like, ‘Hey, you know, that’s interesting you said that, because I had a similar experience once when…”

Now, that doesn’t mean I make it about me. I don’t hijack the conversation and suddenly turn it back to me. I show that I’m listening enough by connecting what you’ve said with some of my own experience.

What should people do to prepare for the training? 

I feel like this is sort of not a fair thing to ask, but be ready to be a little vulnerable. We’re going to be asking people to have deep conversations and to talk about things that matter and things that are hard and also things that are really joyful and life-giving. And for people that work really hard to put up a façade so that they don’t have to reveal what’s really going on for them, that’s going to be a challenge. We’re not going to ask people to do or say anything they really don’t want to, of course, but the challenge is to risk being a little bit vulnerable for the sake of building a new relationship.

Should folks start thinking about what questions they want to ask?

I always say that you shouldn’t have a list of questions that you go in with and want answers to. I suggest thinking about one question, like: “Where did you grow up?” I basically start with something like that, and then I think the good listening piece is that I really pay attention to what you say and then ask questions to bring us along. So, maybe you’ll say, “Well, I grew up in a lot of places because my dad was in the military, and so we were moving all the time.” And then I might say, “I grew up in only one town, and had the same group of friends the whole time.” And then I’ll ask: “What was it like for you to have to make new friends?” So, the conversation grows out of a real desire to get to know someone.

Would it also be helpful for people to think a bit in advance about their own relationships?

Yes. Part of the training will involve me asking what things people need to know about someone else to really feel like they know them. We’ll actually draw like a stick figure up on the board, and people will start by saying things like: “Well, you should know, like, what they do for work. And you should know what their family is like. Or whether or not they have kids.” Then we’ll likely go a little deeper: What are a person’s hopes and dreams? What are their biggest fears? Ideas will just start pouring out, and we’ll write them all down. And that will help us begin thinking about conversation. And then, we’ll go even deeper to figure out ways to find out what a person is most passionate about.

So, something for people to ponder before they arrive might be what it is they need to know about someone to really feel like they know them well. Think about your deepest relationships. What is it that makes them deep?

And, also, I’m guessing, what it is about those relationships that makes us stronger.

That’s the beauty of these conversations. They help us be real with one another about what’s actually going on, and that helps us help each other. It helps us have each other’s back more and feel like we’re not alone.

David Schimke is a Minneapolis-based writer, editor and media strategist.

To learn more about Opportunity Saint Paul, please contact:

Zac Poxleitner
Director, Opportunity Saint Paul