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.

6 things I wish they taught me about church meetings

When I went to theological college / seminary we didn’t have any lessons on how to run church meetings. There was no lesson that made clear that our church meetings were for seeking discernment. This is what I wish I  was taught.

  1. It’s not our meeting – it belongs to God

A possible notice for your church bulletin: the Holy Spirit will be leading the Property Committee on Wednesday at 7.30pm to discern the will of God for our congregation.

You don’t hold meetings in the church. Christ calls you into a community of discernment. God is calling you to listen and learn. God calls and gifts people to make decisions – for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

Often people turn up at meetings  to pursue their own agenda. A lot of meetings are held just because it’s a certain date on the calendar. Many meetings end with people saying “What was the point of that meeting?!” Wrong, wrong, wrong. You don’t want those kinds of meetings!

Every church meeting is an opportunity to understand what Jesus wants from your community of faith. You are not involved in simple meetings. You are part of God’s unfolding drama of salvation. Church meetings are caught up in the divine purposes of God. Awesome!

  1. God’s will can be known

In your personal walk of faith you can probably tell lots of stories about how you have been led by God. The bedrock assumption of the Gospel is that it is possible to know the will of God. Great. So how do you live that out when you hold meetings in the church?

Apply your conviction that the will of God can be known to the way that you approach church meetings. What difference would it make if you planned and participated in meetings believing that God  makes it possible to have unity with God and to be obedient?

It is not always easy to discern the will of God. For the Christian – whether in private or as part of a group – there is no other game in town. If you are not interested in discerning the will of God for your community why do you even hold any church meetings?

All the barriers that prevent our capacity to faithfully follow God’s way have been overcome. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, you are sustained in relationship with Christ, invited to serve God, and empowered to do so. God will lead you.

  1. Meetings are an exercise in spiritual discernment

The goal of Christian decision-making is to participate in the hopes and purposes that God has in store for you and your faith community. Therefore your meetings are spiritual exercises. Discernment (making Godly decisions together) is the goal and the purpose of church meetings.

Your church meetings have a spiritual destination – discernment. Spiritual results come from using spiritual resources. Unfortunately there are too many stories around the church about church meetings that look like the worst of political power plays and the serving of self-interest. Let’s not go there! Let’s think about spiritual results from using spiritual practices.

If you want to find God in your meetings then use the tools that God has given you – all the way through the meeting. Prayer, reflection on the Scriptures, deep listening to others, waiting for the Holy Spirit’s leading, confession, forgiveness, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit are resources often neglected in church meetings.

You don’t make a cake by using ground beef and gravy. You don’t get discernment unless your meeting includes the spiritual practices that make discernment possible.

  1. Use Christian practices of discernment

If you had a lesson on running a meeting in seminary it probably involved turning up the section of the rule book that talked about moving motions, seconding, points of order, taking a vote, etc. In many churches the rules are based on parliamentary processes, and follow its style of debate and decision making. Robert’s Rules of Order is the classic presentation of this approach.

I know that God can use anyone to serve God’s purposes. The Persian emperor Cyrus comes to mind. But do we really want to put God to the test by continuing to use practices that have zero to do with Christian discernment?

What is Christian about trying to score points at the expense of another person? Where is the Holy Spirit in shutting down a debate by moving that “the motion be put”? How is the body of Christ built up when people’s contribution to discernment is crushed through political maneuvering? If knowledge is power; how is it Christian to keep the knowledge to a few and not share it with everyone? What is honorable, good and right about sowing confusion in order to prevent a motion being passed? How is the body of Christ respected when meeting procedures favor articulate, well educated, aggressive, usually, white men?

There is nothing inherently Christian in Robert’s Rules of Order. The people of God have a wonderful and effective set of resources and processes for discerning God’s will –  and most churches refuse to use them.

  1. What to do when people disagree

Call for the vote. That’s what I learned. So, if it is clear what the majority support just close down the debate. Being pastoral was shown by not letting arguments go on and on. It was considered to be for the best to not get people all riled up with each other.

I don’t see it that way any longer. If knowing the will of God were that easy then everyone would be doing it. It isn’t easy for theological, sociological, capacity and willingness reasons. We will have disagreement until we reach the mind of Christ on an issue. Disagreement – a lack of consensus – is a sign that our journey towards discernment is not over. Instead of being a reason to shut down the discussion, disagreement should be embraced as a place for the possibility of revelation.

Christ only has one mind on an issue. So expect that the Church, the Body of Christ, will come to agreement when it has discerned Christ’s will on a particular topic. Disagreement is the doorway through which insight will be found. Disagreement is not a problem to be fixed but a sign of the promised answer to be welcomed.

When there is disagreement

  • Create a culture of acceptance and safe spaces where people can feel secure in offering a different point of view.
    • Give people a chance to speak about what concerns them and their ideas.
    • Show respect.
    • Listen carefully and ask questions to help your understanding.
    • Be honest with yourself about why you have difficulty accepting another point of view.
    • Pray and seek the Holy Spirit.
    • Take your time – work in God’s time not yours.
    • Don’t rush.
  1. Build the capacity for discernment in leaders

When you are recruiting for your church Board or Committees what are you looking for? Many recruitment processes include a skills matrix so that all the important skills are included in church Committees. This is a very wise thing to do.

When that process has been completed there is no guarantee that you will have the ability to discern God’s will in your group. Without the right character and attitudes in the membership of your church Board you don’t have a community of discernment. You have sets of skills sitting on seats.

Group discernment is impossible if the people in the group do not know how to practice discernment in their own life. Cultivate in your Board members the character of humility. People who know everything cannot be led by the Holy Spirit.

Expect and seek evidence that your group members engage in the practices of personal spiritual discernment – solitude, silence, engaging the Scriptures for spiritual transformation, prayer, growing is self-awareness. A leader who is not able to discern what is going on inside of him/herself cannot discern what is true or false outside of him/her.

Having developed a life habit of seeking the movement of the Holy Spirit in your life you can join with others in this discernment of the Spirit in shared responsibilities.

Six things that I would have liked to learn earlier in my ministry:

  • It’s not our meeting – it belongs to God
    • God’s will can be known
    • Meetings are an exercise in spiritual discernment
    • Use Christian practices of discernment
    • What to do when people disagree
    • Build the capacity for discernment in leaders

What things have you learned about Christian group discernment? What questions or comments do you have on these approaches? Let’s learn together by hearing your comments.