Teaching Your Church about Discernment

Decisions and Discernment – not always the same

Most leaders know how to make a decision.  Not so many know how to discern the will of God. Sadly in our churches we have assumed that making decisions in our meetings is the same thing as discernment.

Discernment is a process that allows a gathered faith community to seek and understand God’s will for a specific time and subject.  It actively engages people in prayer, study, reflection and Christian conferencing to accomplish this vital work together as disciples of Jesus Christ. These tools are different to the ones that are used to just “make a decision” in a meeting.

Teaching in your church about discernment

Here is an activity at your local Church Council or Board meeting to explain discernment to your leaders and generate a shared meaning.

  1.  Prepare a handout with various Bible passages about discernment on one side and an acrostic on discernment on the other side (see #2).  Suggested passages include:                                                                               Phillippians 1:9-10 – And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ.
    Romans 12:2 – And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
    Psalm 119:66 – Teach me good discernment and knowledge, for I believe in Your commandments.

    Hebrews 4:12 –  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Proverbs 3:1-6 – My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you. Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. John 7:24 – Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.    Proverbs 2:15  – My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.

  2. Prepare a sheet of newsprint with the letters of the word “discernment” vertically.  Leave a space for responses.

D ______________________

I  ______________________

S  ______________________

C  ______________________

E  ______________________

R  ______________________

M  ______________________

E  _______________________

N  _______________________

T  ________________________

2.  Lead a Bible Study on the word “Discernent.”  Have participants take turns reading the selected Scripture.  After each reading, ask:  “what does this passage tell us about discernment?”

3.  Explain for every letter in the word “Discernment” they are to think of a word or phrase that explains what discernment means to them.

4.  Distribute handouts and pens to people. Provide a few examples:  ‘D’ stands for disciples or decision, ‘I’ means involvement; ‘R’ means reflection, etc.

5.  Provide 10 minutes for participants to complete their acrostic.

6.  Walk down the letters n the newsprint beginning with D and record people’s responses in the space provided.

7.  In concluding ask participants what they have learned about discernment.  Ask: “Does our way of making decisionss lead to discerning God’s will?””What changes could we make to move in this direction?”

Next Steps

At your next meeting return to the conversation about what changes are needed if your group is to move into a discernment mode of operation. Look closely at each part of your agenda and meeting procedures and make concrete decisions for change.

The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together includes a number of other strategies and conversation starters that you can use to foster discussions and learning about discernment.

Please share what you are doing to foster the practice of discernment in your church. We’d love to learn from you.

My Consensus Compass for Good Decision-Making

A compass is used to learn where you are and which direction you are headed. Use this consensus compass to get your bearings on good decision-making processes.  Then summarize what you know about making good decisions together in your church group. Where are you strong? Where is there room for improvement?

Christ centered Community

What would be different in your meetings if you placed Christ first in your decision making process? What practices will help you to do that? How do you recognize Christ’s presence when you gather to make decisions in your Congregation or Church Board?

Options to explore

How does your current process of making decisions generate creative options to consider rather than simply an ‘either’ ‘or’ choice? What practices do you find helpful to surface these options? 

Ministry matters

How does your process of making decisions take into account your shared values about mission and ministry? How do you share information when making a decision so everyone understands how your decisions will affect ministry?

Participation

How do you invite people to participate fully when making important decisions? How do you prepare them for this task? Is your process safe for people to participate in, and be respected for their contribution?

Action

How often does your decision-making process lead to implementation or action? How do you communicate your decisions to the entire congregation so that they understand what has been decided and how it will affect them?

Structure

What are the basic steps you follow when gathering to make decisions? How do these steps provide information, allow ways for people to discuss the issue, and make a decision that honors one another? How do you orient new members to your way of making decisions?

Seek God’s will

How do you know that your decisions reflect God’s best hope for and through you? Rather than relying on popular opinions or the loudest voice, how do you listen for the voice of God in your process? How confident are you that you have discerned God’s will when you make a decision?

A compass is only any use if you use to to help you get somewhere. I encourage you to use these questions to lead you into a faithful discernment process.

The spiritual foundations for discernment

  

Foundations matter

A long time ago I built a retaining wall in the backyard of my new house. At its highest point it was about 1.5 meters (5 feet) high. It was made up of large keystone blocks that weighed 20kgs (44lbs) each. There were over 200 of them across 25 meters (27 yards) of ground and five high at their peak. It took six months before they started to tumble.

I spent so much time getting that foundation of concrete wide and deep and flat enough to hold them. But I didn’t quite get it right. I was lucky that I only had to pull out 25 blocks to fix it.

The solid foundation for discernment is that it must have spiritual foundations. So there is no Christian discernment that does not have spiritual foundations. Discernment is the process of determining God’s desire in a situation, or being able to distinguish that which is of God and that which is not. Hanging out with God is inherently a spiritual activity.

From this understanding we can identify the spiritual attitudes and practices that support discernment.

Commitment to Jesus

Commitment to Jesus is the first prerequisite for discernment. Christ can only be known through the presence of the Holy Spirit made accessible through faith. The Holy Spirit makes possible an awareness of God’s character and desires.

God’s work in Jesus makes it possible to have unity with God. So all the barriers that prevent this relationship and the capacity to faithfully follow God’s way have been overcome. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we are sustained in relationship with Christ, invited to serve God and empowered to do so.

A yearning to find God

Discernment presupposes that the people want the will of God to be achieved and not their own. So nourish the spirit in you that hungers after God. Yearn to know and please God – it is not limited to the prayer cells of mystics.

Self-emptying and being filled with the Holy Spirit is a core practice of the Christian life. This is what makes it possible for us to distinguish between willfully pursuing our own preferences and willingly surrendering to the will of God. Radical openness is required in group discernment as well as is in our personal life.

Believing in God’s goodness

Discernment will often take us where we do not want to go. The Spirit will lead and at times we will be afraid. When we walk in the Spirit we go where God takes us. We can only let go of our own wisdom, fears and great ideas if we have embraced at a deep level the goodness of God. When we have developed spiritual confidence we can go anywhere in response to what we discern because we know that God desires good for us.

The goal of Christian discernment is to put people of faith in a place where they can participate in the hopes and purposes that God has in store for the community of which they are a part. That is always a good place to be.

Belief that we have no higher calling than love

The Christian life is a journey towards living a Christ like life. Christ reveals the true character of God. God is love and we show our allegiance to God as we love God, others and the world (1 John 4:8).

Cultivate a loving disposition because it is foundational for discernment. God will never do anything that does not show love towards people. A core spiritual foundation for discernment is to keep asking “What does love require?” And then listening for the answer!

Obedience

The Christian life is impossible without obedience to the will of God. So there is no point making decisions in church meetings if we have not nurtured our capacity to follow God – come what may.

Community

Dietrich Bonhoeffer the German martyr and theologian said about the Christian community “It is a gift that we cannot claim. It is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in which we must participate. … Christian community is founded solely on Jesus Christ…” (Life Together, NY, Harper Collins, 1954, pp30-31.)

The community of discernment finds its identity as it gathers around the person of Jesus. This community is transformed and reshaped by Jesus who stands at the center of our community.

Only when Christians convert to this sense of identity – as a community in Christ – is it possible to see that we are not just meeting to do business but that we are a spiritual community.

Spiritual foundations for discernment

Commitment to Jesus, yearning, confidence in God’s goodness, love, obedience and community.

Which foundations have you applied? Do you have any to add to the list? Please share them in the comments section.

Don’t start a discernment process without this!

How to be a natural at discernment

Being a natural at discernment is like anything else – you have to be born with it! I admit that on occasions I have been given to the odd case of envy. In my youth it was about my younger brother’s incredible ability to play any sport to which he turned his hand. That I couldn’t do. I knew the rules of the game but I was hopeless and he was “a natural”.

What makes a person “a natural” at discernment? Discernment is the outcome of a process. So do activities that put you where you recognise the wisdom and direction offered through the Holy Spirit. People who do that “naturally” have the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. These people have developed the spiritual practices that enhance sensitivity to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their life.

The good news is that every Christian, by definition, has the gift of the Holy Spirit in their life. Christian discernment needs Christians to do it. I am not encouraging you to hold tests to see who is a Christian in your church meetings. However the point is that it doesn’t matter whether you have great accountants, office bearers, lawyers, donors, etc, on your Committee. You cannot start a discernment process based on these expertise. The baseline requirement is to be a follower of Jesus.

How do we discern God’s will?

Discerning the will of God is not easy. If it was that easy then Christian libraries would have a lot less books in them. There are lots of reasons that it is hard. Some that come to my mind are:

  • people like to get their own way and are not inclined to take directions
  • the tools for listening to God are very different to those we use to listen to people
  • some people are inclined to associate their own ideas with God’s opinion
  • some cultures are cynical about insight coming through emotions and “hunches” rather than logic and reason
  • too often we do it on our own rather than with companions
  • we try to use methods that are not aligned with the way God does things
  • we haven’t been taught how to do it

Discernment requires the attitude of being genuinely open to, and expecting, the leading of the Holy Spirit. So openness to the Holy Spirit needs to be the base line orientation of a person’s approach to decision-making. Then it is possible to build the spiritual disciplines that help people to tune into the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Group discernment needs people who know how to discern God’s will for their own life

Before you can do group discernment you have to have learned how to do personal discernment. If you don’t know how to recognise when God is speaking to you then you will not be doing it in your meeting. When people learn to identify the movement of the Holy Spirit, how to be self-emptying, and when to let go and trust in their personal life then they will do the same in your meeting.

Don’t start a discernment process without taking seriously the capacity of the participants to engage in spiritual discernment. We like to assume that people called to make decisions on behalf of the church are mature, Spirit led people. They all can be – but it isn’t always how things work out.

The consensus building discernment process that we commend emphasises the importance of prayer, worship and growing the quality of community life. When these are present you ensure that in every meeting God’s claim upon your work, and the tools to hear God, are before the group. Assumed and embedded in these practices is the foundational conviction that it is only possible to make faithful decisions if the people gathered genuinely want, and know how, to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in their midst.

How do you go about building the capacity of your leaders to be a community of discernment? What resources can you offer us that can be helpful?