Discernment and Desicion making

Between my experience of a serious change in focus in a prayer retreat, and an article in my inbox from the Alban Institute, I am thinking about discernment this morning.

Now discernment might be an uncomfortable idea that has been misused in the past. Democracy, for instance, a 50 percent plus one vote is not necessarily discernment. Here’s a quote of a quote form the Alban article:

Thomas H Green, S.J., says, “Many people today express well-grounded misgivings about community discernment, and even feel uncomfortable with the word, ‘discernment.’ It can easily be a polite and pious name for a ‘tyranny of the majority,’ a way of attaching the Lord’s name and authority to what most of the group want, or believe he [sic] must want. If this happens, then, as we have seen, ‘discernment’ becomes a way of manipulating God to agree with our convictions concerning action and decision making.”

We are just two weeks away from Synod 2014.

In the way our denomination structures and approaches things, both Classis and synod are “Deliberative assemblies” or “Discernment gatherings” which are made up of people who are ‘delegated’ to attend those assemblies from local church councils, where, in our polity, the main authority given by Christ to the Church resides ( CO [Church Order] art 27).

The understanding and intent is that hardly anyone comes to such an assembly with their mind already made up, but that they come with some ideas, but in the process of meeting together, the Holy Spirit will make clear what the best decision is. Much could be said and blogged about how or whether that actually works, but I mainly want to get the ideal in your awareness.

Given this is how major decisions are to be made in those assemblies, you can understand how important it is to have wise and spiritual and mature people in those places of responsibility. You can also understand the inclination to send ‘people who think like me’ which is a departure from the intention.

The same applies to a local council. Whenever there is to be a discussion of a serious question (the colour of the carpet is not really a serious question) all officebearers need to be discerning, and not necessarily immediately decisive. They need to be people who are people of prayer and discernment themselves, who can hear information, who know God’s grace-gospel Word, who are in touch with their own spirit and can discuss together until a direction that is suitable and feels God guided is found. The outcome might not be popular. But the leaders need to be people who can sense in their ‘gut’ that the Holy Spirit is behind it.

My best such experience in a council making a hard choice went like that. I was a student pastor, and the council was trying to change to prayer led casting lot system of selecting new officebearers. We discussed and debated and pleaded with each other, sometimes with some tension, but always prayerfully. One man and one woman consistently and strongly made their case against the change. Finally, when all considerations had been exhausted, a vote was held. Two votes were against, all others were for the change. And in the most amazing display of maturity and acceptance of the outcome of a discerning deliberative process, the two both spoke out and said “OK, the Lord has led us to a decision, lets get on with implimenting it.”

One point of that is, if you are participating in such a deliberation and the decision does not go in a way you are comfortable with, if you believe it to be a proper discernment, you will have an easier time of following with it. If you see it as an argument that has to be won by your side, you will not be able to get there so easily.

In the article I read this morning, the author says:

Where do we begin to identify the difference between group decision making and authentic communal discernment? We begin with the basic stance of freedom, unknowing, or indifference that underlies group discernment processes. Group decision making typically involves a cadre of leaders who are individually invested in particular outcomes, who come together to iron out and resolve their attachments and differences, to represent the good of the whole. By contrast, authentic communal discernment requires sincere and committed prayers who are unencumbered by preconceived notions and outcomes. To move from deciding to discerning, we must free ourselves from inordinate attachments. We must assume an indifference to anything but the will of the divine One as discovered collectively by the group; setting aside matters of ego, politics, personal opinion, and vested interests.

I went into my retreat with some things I thought I needed discernment for. I went in open to God’s leading. And God clearly and decisively and yet gently made clear I was focused too far ahead, that I needed to focus on the here and now, on seeing God in the here and now, on seeing his presence every moment of every day, and all else would be taken care of.

Discernment does that. It can lead to an outcome that no one could have predicted. If I as a person or we as a community do not have the ability to be discerningly flexible, God surprises are less likely, but life will be more stable and predictable.


IF you are interested in reading the article I refer to, here is the link:  http://www.congregationalconsulting.org/free-to-discern

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