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To be a discerning church

Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications
Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications

There are many reasons a congregation might wish to enter a process of spiritual discernment. Discernment is a helpful tool for churches anxious about declining membership, conflicts within the congregation, recent loss of property/assets and other issues. It can also help churches considering a bold new course such as starting a new campus, engaging in a building campaign, adding a new service or courageously committing themselves to new forms of outreach. Whether a congregation is struggling or thriving, discernment is a great way for a church to check itself, become attuned to hear God’s voice guiding it and plot a realistic path to the future.

Discernment before decisions

Taking the time for spiritual discernment may not come naturally to churches who are used to quick and predictable decision-making. It requires patience, humility and letting go of control. In short, it’s the opposite of how many churches today operate. Rev. Jason Valendy, consultant and co-pastor of Saginaw (Texas) United Methodist Church, has led many churches through discernment as the first step in decision-making. Conditions he called essential for discernment are:

  1. Participants need to be comfortable with silence. People are conditioned to think not talking for significant periods is unproductive, but God often speaks in them in the silence.
  2. The process must be slow and deliberate. Discernment means operating on God’s time and waiting patiently for Holy Spirit to bring the group together.
  3. The path will be more narrative than linear. Most people are used to clear and carefully-plotted conversation when making decisions. Discernment means being open to spontaneity. Instead of jumping from one point to the next, the conversation should revolve around each person sharing their own thoughts and experiences without fear of getting off-track.
  4. Find the vision that’s there – don’t try to create it. The final vision or dream isn’t conceived by the group, but rather the members see the vision God provides and orients themselves around it.

Asking the right questions

Longtime church consultant the Rev. Gil Rendle has written extensively on the role of discernment within congregational life. In his book “Quietly Courageous,” he suggests churches engaging in discernment orient their conversation around three essential questions:

  1. Who are we now? To know where their local church is going, members have to know where they are starting and look honestly and critically at the current state and life of the congregation.
  2. What is God calling us to be? The congregation takes the focus off itself in order to discern what God wants from it. Members don’t assume an answer as the conversation starts. Instead they allow everyone in the group to share their perspective and take time to listen closely to how the Holy Spirit is trying to bring the conversation together.
  3. Who is our neighbor? Jesus himself made this the orienting question to guide the church in its ministry. By identifying its neighbor, the group knows where and to whom God is calling them to serve and will orient themselves around that concern.

Rendle points out that many participants will be tempted to come to the process with ready answers. The pastor or leader meditating the conversations must guard against this temptation. The loudest voices may need to be held at bay in a gentle and graceful manner. Likewise, the leader needs to make sure he or she isn’t forcing an answer on the group.

Leaders also need to ensure the participants are engaging in dialogue rather than argument. The Rev. Tom Laney, director of the Turner Center for Church Leadership in the Tennessee Conference, recommends getting participants in the habit of using   “I” and “me” pronouns, instead of “we” and “us,” so that they are speaking only for themselves. He also suggests trying to turn the “buts” in the conversation into “ands” by having participants see their different points of view not as opposing, but as each revealing a different aspect of reality.

Having the conversation

Discernment processes likely will look different depending on the church. Size and culture can both help determine the best model for the conversations. Most churches, however, will find it best to appoint a representative team who will report back to the rest of the congregation. While the selection process should aim for a team that is diverse and representative of the church's overall membership, the team should also include persons who have the spiritual gifts of discernment or wisdom. The United Methodist Church has a free online spiritual gifts assessment to help identify an individual's natural talents for serving the church.

The Rev. Jessica Moffatt, lead pastor at First United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma,  has led many churches and conferences through discernment and used different models for holding conversations. Here are two she recommends:

  1. The Fenhagen Model is based on the book “Ministry and Solicitude” by James C. Fenhagen. In it, the leader presents a new ministry opportunity to the group and invites each person to consider first the “cons” and then the “pros” of the opportunity together with time set aside before, in-between and after for prayer and meditation. Afterwards the group does a longer consideration of the pros and cons collectively to discern the best course of action.
  2. The Lawson Model is based on “Discerning Steps: Toward a Vision of God’s Will” by the late United Methodist Bishop David J. Lawson. This model has the leaders do research before holding the conversation and present as many possibilities as they can with the understanding that more alternatives may emerge through the conversation. Participants are challenged to consider each scenario with an open mind. Each shares with the group their answer to the question “Where have we sensed God's affirmation in what we have been talking about?” The group then tries to build consensus.

It’s important not to rush or force consensus in discernment. If a majority forms early, some members may feel pressured to go along while they still have serious reservations. Leaders need to continue to encourage individuals to speak out. Moffatt recommends using the “Fist-to-Five Model” in which each person holds up a hand with anything from zero to five fingers up, five representing strong affirmation of a proposal and zero strong opposition. This allows the leader to see where the group really stands. If most or all are holding up four or five fingers then strong consensus has been reached. If a number of people are holding up two or less fingers, more dialogue is probably needed.

Following through with discernment

Once strong consensus is reached, the discernment team or congregation needs to establish goals and key metrics to ensure the new vision is lived out. The goals should be bold and hopeful. They also need to be realistic and reflective of the resources, time, money and other factors that will influence the church’s ability to reach them. Valendy suggests developing different metrics for each quarter of the year.

The discernment team will need to ensure the entire church is on board with the new vision and goal. As the conversations are happening, the team must keep the larger congregation in the loop. It may want to give regular reports to the church council or other committees.

When the process is complete, the team should present a report to the church, perhaps through a specially called charge or church-wide conference that includes time for asking questions or expressing concerns. Significant resistance may indicate a need for further discernment. In most cases, the team will have anticipated what resistance may come and found ways to address the concerns.

Spiritual discernment can be challenging for 21st-century churches. The process can take from a few months to a couple of years. It requires humility and focus on the part of the participants. However, when done right, discernment is both practical and liberating. It means turning everything – including  one’s biases and anxieties – over to God and letting the Holy Spirit take the wheel. Discernment can bring church members closer together while putting them in-step with God’s vision for their congregation.

Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer on the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

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