So, how does a faith community do this and what are the constraints they need to be aware of?
Before launching into processes for discernment, it is important to note that when a community is in crisis and reeling from trauma, discernment is still possible. However, it is best to delay making critical decisions in the midst of crisis. For Ignatius of Loyola, deep desolation was a time to pause, pay attention to the Spirit, and wait a bit. Decisions made quickly in the midst of crisis often become occasions for regret. So, if your community is in the middle of a firestorm, stop, watch and pray but do not vote on that new capital campaign!
There are times that decisions regarding a crisis have to be made relatively quickly. The following processes can still be used, but your community may have to work harder than usual at withholding judgment, letting go of the outcome, and quieting the mind and spirit in order to come to unity.
The goal in any discernment is to listen deeply to God and determine how God is leading your community to take the next step. Two kinds of discernment processes are time-tested and recommended for communal decisions: Quaker clearness committee and practices from the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. These processes are simply structured ways to go about doing the work of discernment. Feel free to play around with them and find the ones that work for your community. Remember, what’s important is that you listen for holy guidance, not how you go about doing it.
Gathering for Clearness
The Quaker process for communal discernment centers on a gathered body sitting in silence around the discernment question. A facilitator (called the clerk of the meeting) then opens the floor for people to share what they feel led by God to share about the question. As people share without interruption and without responding, questioning or judging each other's statements, the clerk and others are asked to notice when a sense of unity in the group emerges. This could take hours or several meetings.
Unity doesn’t mean everyone agrees. Unity means the group is leaning in one particular direction and even those who may disagree in part agree to accept “the way the wind is blowing.” Unity means no one leaves the meeting feeling unheard and determined to undermine the discernment.
There are a number of ways to carry out a Clearness Committee. You don’t have to follow a strict traditional Quaker process. The best description of what Clearness Committee is can be found in Parker Palmer’s essay, The Clearness Committee: A Communal Approach To Discernment in Retreats, found on the Center for Courage and Renewal’s website. This essay describes how an individual might use Clearness Committee. To adapt it for a group, simply make the session about your community’s discernment question, and allow both questions and observations from the members of the group.
Ignatian Discernment Process
St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises include practices and advice for discernment. You can find a number of processes based on these exercises and they usually include the following steps:
- Steep the process in prayer. Asking for guidance is the most important step.
- Agree on the discernment question. Make it concrete and specific, not global or ambiguous.
- Everyone agrees to set aside their attachment to any particular outcome. If someone feels they cannot do this, they are advised to pray for the desire and strength to let go.
- Consider the context surrounding the question. What is the history that led up to the question? What social and economic factors are affecting us?
- Consider internal and external freedom. How free are we to answer this question? What may be holding us back?
- What are the facts of the situation that we need to confront? What are the pros? What are the cons? How are they weighted? (Some are more important than others.)
- What are our options? Which option feels more life-giving? Which option feels stifling? In discernment, we are asked to look at which option leads us more into God’s love and peace. Generally speaking, God leads us by drawing us toward decisions that produce more peace, love, energy and compassion.
- Test the options with imagination:
- Imagine looking back on this decision many years from now. What do you wish you had done?
- Imagine advising another faith community facing the same question. What would you advise?
- Imagine living out each option or each answer to the question. What do you notice when you project that forward?
- Spend time in silence considering how the options feel deep inside your body. This is where “gut feelings” come into play. What is the community’s intuition saying about the question?
- Using all the information from the above process, decide on an option that answers your discernment question. But, don’t implement it immediately. Sit with the decision for a period of time. Pray about it.
- After all that is done, take action on the option the community feels best embodies what God is saying to them.
- Keep practicing discernment as you live out the answer to your question.
In the next post, I’ll offer suggestions for help along the way.
Follow the series:
Part I - Finding a way forward: the practice of discernment for congregational health
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.