Congregational Discernment

“… a practice of discernment is simply more open-ended, more patient, less activist, more oriented toward silence, and I just think out of that comes a really different culture and spiritual discipline, which we just haven’t cultivated, which is why I was saying when the PUP (Peace, Unity and Purity) report came out and said we should call the denomination to discernment I though well obviously we should do that, that’s the most important and significant thing we can do, it’s just that we haven’t nurtured a people that could do that because we don’t have any common practices that regularly do that.  I haven’t yet ever been in a presbytery meeting that was organized as a communion of discerners”
– The Reverend Dr. Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Theological Seminary

I often wonder about the “discernment” that takes place prior to committees and congregations requesting dismissal. Spiritual discernment is not a discipline many of us are very familiar with or comfortable practicing.

Church consultant Susan Beaumont published on online article titled Free to Discern in which she writes,

“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.”

Committees formed to study the denominational issues are most likely comprised of, or at least chaired and resourced by, people already troubled by what they are hearing.  It is hard to imagine their work as being unencumbered by preconceived notions and outcomes.  Maybe it is not possible for any of us to be completely free of preconceived notions and outcomes but persons with strong positions should not be chosen to help discern this matter for their congregation, especially in the absence of anyone with such strong opposing views to counter them on the committee as well.

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.”

Based on the strong reluctance I’ve seen congregations have to engage and promote staying voices from the very beginning of their discernment process I am concerned that what many leaving congregations call discernment is not discernment at all.  Nothing about a process that doesn’t bring equal voice to all sides of the issue is free of inordinate attachments, personal opinions, or vested interests.

Giving staying voices 2-3 minutes to speak at a microphone in a congregational meeting isn’t at all equal to inviting them onto the denomination committee and allowing them equal time as the leaving voices to prepare and make their case to the congregation.

I think it is interesting, and a little telling, that congregation after congregation who leave continually point to what they believe are heresies in the PC(USA) as their reason for requesting dismissal rather than it actually being the discerned will of God.

Let’s #StayPCUSA together