“Discernment” is one of
those words that we tend to throw around a lot, especially in our current
era. In recent times, we’ve grown in our
sense that how we operate here in church should embody something beyond mere
“democracy,” or—even worse—personal or ‘consumer’ preference. We also use the word “discernment” to talk
about what we seek to do in our own personal lives as we make important choices
and decisions. In either
context—personal or church-communal—we therefore use this word, “discernment,”
to express that we somehow are trying to seek something deeper, something more
profound, something of what it is we think God is pointing us toward.
But what does “discernment” actually entail? Recently, as I was gathering materials for board-member orientation and formation as our Governing Board gets started on its new term, I found some helpful thoughts in the Rev. Joan S. Gray’s book, Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers: A Handbook:
A discerning way of life has certain characteristics. You may be familiar with some of them already and practicing them yourself or in a group:
- Discernment is God-focused. The focus of discernment is always on God. The key questions are: What is God’s call to us? What is God’s desire in this situation? The important assumption here is that God will make God’s desire known to us as we pray, listen, and search. The God Jesus showed us is a God eager to be self-revealing. Jesus urged his disciples to ask, seek, and knock, assuring them that by God’s grace what they needed would be given to them.
Discernment also brings us face to face with the call to surrender ourselves fully to God. We can only partner with God in God’s work to the degree we are willing to let God take the lead and do what only God can do. Too often we assume we know what God wants, and we set out to do it with perhaps a little prayer for God to help us. This approach may stir up a whirlwind of activity, engage numbers of people in programs, and even do some good in the world. However, these efforts usually bear little lasting fruit. Practicing discernment reminds us that every day we are first and foremost to be about the task of seeking God’s will, not our own. This may keep us from falling into the temptation to make God a means to our own ends.
- Discernment requires faith. The desire to know and to do God’s will is in itself a gift of the Holy Spirit. If we have this desire, we claim by faith that God is already at work in us to lead our decision making. Discernment is not something we produce, but rather something God does in us. When we recognize it happening in or among us, we praise God, who is the source of every good gift. One of the beautiful things about a discerning way of life is that it keeps us constantly turned toward God. It relieves us of the tyranny of circumstances, the obsession with personalities and politics, and the addiction to always having our way. Instead we all turn as one to face the One who promises to lead us if we are willing to be led.
Some years ago I was pastor of a congregation that discerned the need to call additional staff to broaden its ministry into the community. We had a certain amount of money to fund the ministry on a part-time basis for a number of years. However, as the search for the new staff person unfolded, the person who seemed most clearly gifted and called to the position could not afford to work part-time and would have to move to us from a faraway state. In a process that took more than a year, the search committee and the candidate for the position worked to discern God’s will. In the end both the church and the minister (along with spouse and children!) took a leap of faith and moved forward into this adventure in spite of the obstacles. Each year money appeared to fund this work either through unexpected gifts or increased giving by members and new members. The willingness to take this leap of faith resulted in a ministry that bore good fruit for the congregation, the community and the family that answered this call. Those who take up the task of discernment should be aware that they may be led outside of their comfort zone and involved in actions that at the time may make little sense on a strictly logical level.
- Discernment is communal. When we make medical decisions, we want our doctor to give us the most up-to-date advice based on medical research and accepted protocols. When we have a legal problem, we expect our attorney to be well versed in all the law of the land. When we have an ethical issue, we go to our Pastor or trusted wise counselor to hear his or her thoughts on the matter. Similarly, the process of making decisions through Christian discernment draws us out of ourselves and requires us to seek the best wisdom we can from our tradition and our community.
[In our tradition, we] turn first to the Bible. … While most Christians would agree that the Bible is meant to guide how we believe and therefore live, understanding what Scripture requires of us in particular circumstances requires reflection and interpretation. For instance, how does Scripture come into play [if a church] is discerning whether or not to sell its current property and move to another place? Instead of flipping through the Bible looking for yes or no answers, believe that we can discern God’s will on this matter by taking time to reflect prayerfully on the circumstances, the whole message of Scripture, and how it applies to our situation. As the Holy Spirit moves in this process, in the fullness of time a path of faithfulness will be made clear enough, and we wait until it is.
To help us in this interpretation process, we can look to the [theology and historic faith testimonies of our tradition]. They contain the testimony of Christians in generations past who struggled to interpret Scripture and discern God’s will in many circumstances and on many subjects. We are not the first Christians to seek God’s will. Listening to the testimony of the great cloud of witnesses represented in the [testimonies of our forebears] can shed significant spiritual light on our path.
Spiritual guidance also comes to us through each other. As groups discuss and pray, insight will often come through the Holy Spirit working through the minds and spirits of the group members. Discernment requires that we honor the contributions of others and listen for God’s truth to come from them, even though we may disagree with some of what they say. Special people in every community of faith have unusually deep insights into the things of God. Steeped in prayer, grounded in Scripture, and gifted with wisdom from the Holy Spirit, these people are great resources in times of discernment. Having the humility to seek guidance from others is essential to good discernment. Likewise we can be guided through the wisdom of people we have never met personally through books, articles, printed or recorded lectures, or sermons. Sometimes an image, a story, a verse of Scripture, or even a single word opens the way forward.[
What about you? Have you ever thought about the ways that “discernment” might be different from “democracy” or “decision-making”? What are the ways you seek to keep discernment in the church and in your own life God-focused, faith-filled, and communal? In the United Church of Christ, we’re fond of saying that “God is still speaking,”… what are the ways we tune our hearts and minds to hear?
 Excerpt reprinted from “Discerning Leaders in a Discerning Community”, chapter 9, in Joan S. Gray, Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers: A Handbook (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2009), 90-92.