Some are healthy and some are unhealthy.
For congregations and people of faith, making healthy, faithful choices is both necessary and difficult. This is what the spiritual practice of discernment is all about.
For our purposes, discernment is defined as the spiritual practice that brings together prayer, intuition, fact-gathering, imagination and faith to the decision-making process. As a spiritual director, I work with individuals, groups, organizations and congregations in discernment with the hope that it leads to better choices and a deeper relationship with the Holy.
What this series will do
There are numerous books, resources and philosophies on how to practice discernment as a corporate body. This series will focus on key principles that congregations can use for discernment in good times or bad, keeping in mind that if a congregation becomes experienced in discernment in daily life, it has a foundation for handling crisis and trauma in those critical, distressing unwanted experiences.
These principles are drawn primarily from two religious traditions: Catholic Jesuits (specifically the teachings of St. Ignatius of Loyola) and Quakers. The universality of the principles makes them adaptable for congregations from any faith tradition.
The Key Principles of Discernment and Corresponding Questions
- Discernment focuses on a concrete question; a choice between two or more options. What is the question this congregation needs to be able to answer in discernment?
- Spiritual freedom (from fear, addiction, compulsion) is important in order to discern well. What fears or blocks are getting in the way of exploring this question?
- Faithful discernment leaves the outcome open and in God’s hands. (This principle is sometimes known as “holy indifference.”) Everyone engaged in communal discernment must commit to setting aside any agenda they are holding onto. Can we be at peace with whatever God shows us in this discernment, regardless of outcome? If not, do we at least desire to be open to God’s revelation in this matter? If the answer to that is “no,” then pray for the desire to be open.
- To discern well, we need to carefully notice the “movements of our heart” around the discernment question. What are we feeling deep inside? What gives us deep peace, gratitude, energy, love and joy? What gives us anxiety, chaos, despair, deadness?
- Spiritual discernment is steeped in prayer. Surrounding your discussions with times of silent prayer and reflection and committing to holding the communal discernment in prayer every day is helpful. How are we praying about this question? What emerges as a result of our prayer?
- To discern well, we need a working knowledge of our options and the many practical considerations involved with each option. What are the facts surrounding the question? Whose lives are affected by these options? What are the pros and cons for each option?
- The options under consideration are to be weighed using head, heart and body wisdom. Which option feels most rational to us? Which one speaks to our hearts? Which option “just feels right?” As we consider this choice, what bodily senses are we experiencing?
- Good discernment pays attention to our truest and deepest desires. What is it that we most want for this congregation? How do our options satisfy those “great desires?”
- Discernment involves imagining we have made the choice and reflecting on possible outcomes. If we make this choice now, how might we feel, act or be in the future? What does thinking about this choice make us feel like now?
- Good spiritual discernment always considers how the option you choose affects not just your congregation but the surrounding community. How is our choice advancing God’s reign in the world? How is our choice affecting people who have fewer choices than we?
- Discernment doesn’t go on forever. It’s not an opportunity to stall. At some point, you must take action. As we make the choice, do we feel a sense of lasting peace? Where do we feel a sense of life energy? Where do we feel a blocking of energy?
- Discernment needs to be evaluated after the action is taken. Judged by its merits. What has been the outcome of making this choice? Do we still feel love, joy, peace and clarity around the choice? Do we need to do more discernment?
Practice, practice, practice
Keep in mind that using these principles of discernment can be slow, certainly slower than simply looking at one suggested option and voting on it, so practice patience. Also, discernment is not a magic bullet ensuring that all decisions work out perfectly. It’s a human process, and humans are flawed. Still, if we work toward discernment as a way of life in our congregation, I believe our relationship with God will grow and the outcomes of our choices will improve.
Coming up Next
In my next blog entry, I’ll address how to use these principles in the everyday life of the congregation and offer some caveats for practicing discernment around trauma and in times of crisis.
Follow the series:
Part II - Discernment Principles in Action
Part III - Finding Help for your Community's Discernment
* Discover more spiritual formation practices and resources on the ICTG training menu, including the 2017 Spiritual Formation Resource Guide and Spiritual Formation Assessment.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.