Grad and Faculty Roundtables that Explore the Intersection of Faith, Science, and Philosophy

I recently added an icon to the top bar of my website, titled “Other Models,” which identifies excellent initiatives that seek to foster loving and respectful conversations among persons having strong disagreements that nicely complement the approach that is modeled on this website. One of these complementary initiatives is the “Grad & Faculty Roundtable” program, led by David Thom, the president of The Leadership Connection. I asked David to write a “Guest Musing” for my website, focusing on five topics that I posed for his consideration, as follows:

#1: Tell us about the genesis of your Roundtable Program under your “The Leadership Connection” rubric.

Midway into my junior year in high school I found myself treated to the humblest hospitality of others in a context for casual conversation about what I thought the Bible said. The relaxed mood, the presence of peers, and the light touch of leadership from slightly older young men and women made it easier for me to consider what they had to say too. In a short time I grew to have this non-judgmental “we’re friends first” kind of relationship with Jesus. The leadership had a light touch of “love comes first” that made it easy for me to grow into being a leader.

As a ministry professional eight years later as a university chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia I co-founded a Bible study for athletes that remains active to this day, endowed with a specific method for success: With a modest hospitality setting of lots of brownies and milk, Christian athletes will grow in their faith and in their maturity the more they have a chance to share about their faith with other athletes that include those who are not known to be devout. Just enough similarity to relate to each other – and just enough difference to learn from each other.

Coaches are the gatekeepers to contact with their players. Into my late 30’s I absorbed the fact that coaches are as open to friendly love coming first as players are. I felt challenged by The Lord to reach out to adults on campus – specifically the faculty – and use the same lessons I had learned in student ministry: mix those who are devout and the not known to be devout – but this time I was convinced that I was going to need a setting rich with hospitality.

#2: Describe the “structure” (How it works) of your typical Roundtable event.

Roundtables intend to bring together mostly faculty with some clergy who are “known to be devout” and a lot more faculty who are “not known to be devout.” We always have faculty coming that we don’t know anything about when it comes to their theism or atheism because all we know when we send them a personal invitation by email is that if they come, it will make for more of an eclectic conversation. The invitation a professor gets from trusted faculty chair-persons is to explore the intersection of science, faith, and philosophy in a dinner-discussion format featuring interesting presenters who are usually faculty themselves. After 30 minutes of drinks and hors d’oeuvres, guests are seated at their assigned tables juggled toward diversity in every way. Speakers speak for no more than 20 minutes, and then most of the evening is devoted to dinner discussion right through dessert and coffee. It cannot be overlooked that serving a meal does more than make it possible to eat and talk at the same time: elegant hospitality opens the heart – and it guides one’s mind and mouth toward being as delightful as the food and drink it receives. Served dining sets table partners at each others’ sides with an invitation to guard and protect each others’ vulnerabilities.

There are only two rules at each table: the first is that only one person speaks at a time. That way in a room of 102 at tables of 6 only 17 are speaking at any time, helpfully making it easier to hear each other. The Cambridge Roundtable meets at the Harvard Faculty Club Main Dining Room. There are now 20 Roundtable sites from coast to coast and border to border and all meet in dining rooms where faculty consider the venue to be friendly and the menu to be magnificent.

Our audiences are predisposed to conduct respectful discussion thanks to them being seated as if they were family. Therefore the admonitions of the host have a chance to lean into breaking down the one proclivity that we urge faculty to drop at their sides if they want to fully enjoy their evening; namely the inclination to speak only from a professional disposition. As host I urge guests to share remarks that include their personal positions on matters being discussed, which above all includes the second rule: “Have fun!”

#3: Present a summary of the Roundtables you have carried out to date.

The Five College Roundtable in the Western Massachusetts town of Amherst began in the fall semester of 2002 and the Cambridge Roundtable began in 2005. Roundtables have been conducted once or twice a semester, but experimentally 7 Cambridge Roundtables were conducted one spring semester in 2011 and 11 Cambridge Roundtables were conducted in the fall semester of 2016, each time proving that “if you build it, they will come” so often that you could run a Roundtable every week if you so chose. With John Templeton Funding in 2014 we grew to have 5, then 6, then 12 and then 20  roundtable sites mandated to focus on science and faith, and that helped novice Roundtable Coordinators at new locations to narrow their concerns while still delivering fruitful grist for discussion.

Our best assessment of our success is that when faculty file Roundtable Reviews emailed back to the host, participants declare that no better opportunity exists for such enlightening conversation on subjects that matter both personally and professionally. Guests keep coming back and it almost never matters how different the presentations are from a guest professor’s discipline: subject matter always finds itself at the intersection of sorting out science, faith, and philosophy, and that is a lot of fun with peers who think hard for a living and still know that they have a heart and a quite possibly a soul. And since 2021, when we began inviting grad students to join faculty, we’ve found this to be a welcome change that we will expand on.

#4. Present your dreams for the future of your Roundtable conversations.

We are working out an architectural plan to see faculty, clergy, and now also grad students, walk into a semester’s first Grad & Faculty Roundtable on Science & Faith, followed by a semester’s second Roundtable that will focus on exploring meaning. Why? We will endeavor to increase experiences of better quality mentorship between faculty and grad students by using Roundtables as laboratories for faculty to evaluate their communication and reception of what is meaningful and valuable to them as individuals and as department personnel. Imagine how valuable it would be if faculty were more than sources for academic development, and grad students were more than just extensions of the professor’s research. The whole person is served and societies flourish when hearts, souls, and minds are challenged, not just intellectually but relationally, the part of yourself that passes on – or receives – meaning that possibly changes how you look at yourself, others, and who God is. Uniformity isn’t the goal: Differences respected with love, not tolerance, are what build diverse communities and meet needs more fully.

Experimenting at a table of people you don’t see the next day can feel safe, but, from any vantage point, experimenting with how one communicates leaves one open to considering new perspectives and getting valuable feedback on communication techniques. We hope to benefit those in position to mentor and those in positions to be mentored. If 20 Roundtable sites delivered four Roundtables a year, for three years, our funding needs would be $5 million dollars.

#5: Provide us with a link to a website where interested readers of your posting can make a donation to your Roundtable project.

Interested readers can go to, and click “Donate”

Closing Note from Harold Heie: For more information about this worthy project, readers can go to Questions can be directed to David Thom at or

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