Tag Archives: discernment

How Do You Decide? Some Tools for Discernment

Take the leap, little bird!

Take the leap, little bird!

A couple weeks ago, our church’s T4 group (Thursday Theology Talk on Tap… I love alliteration, can you tell?) gathered at the Lost Dog Cafe around the the question, how do you decide? When confronted with a decision or a puzzle, what resources do you deploy to determine the right course of action? If you are a person of faith, how do you listen for the leading of the Spirit, or the inner guidance, or whatever you want to call that sense of knowing that helps us find our way? (The churchy word for that is discernment.)

As I thought about what to bring to that gathering, an article came across my social media stream: How To Know When You’re Trusting God… Or Just Being Stupid by Corey Nieuwhof. It’s well worth your time, even if you are not a theist. Nieuwhof offers two thoughtful questions to help you evaluate whether that leap into the unknown is a faithful decision that will allow you sprout wings, or whether you’re likely to plummet to the ground because you didn’t do your due diligence. It’s not foolproof—nothing in discernment is—but it’s good guidance.

I also shared with the group some of my own favorite discernment tools, and I asked some of you for additional ones. Here is a compilation:

The Daily Examen is that Ignatian (Jesuit) practice of looking lovingly at your life for grateful and “least grateful” moments. These places of consolation and desolation can be powerful guides. A great resource is the book Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life by the Linns.

Lectio Divina is a way of reading scripture prayerfully to allow the voice of the Spirit to speak to you. There are many guides to this practice on the Internet; here’s a good one.

I’m not a Quaker (though I like to joke that my spiritual “inner child” is Quaker), but I’ve long been intrigued by the Quaker Clearness Committee. This is a trusted group of wise listeners whose job is to hear the person struggling with the decision or difficulty, and ask non-directive questions. Parker Palmer has a great story about working with a clearness committee when discerning a call to be president of a college. When they asked what he would enjoy about the work, he made a list of things he wouldn’t like about it. When they reminded him the question was what he would enjoy, he was silent for a long time and said, “I’d enjoy having my name in the paper.” One of the people leaned in with a twinkle and said, “Do you think there might be other ways to get your name in the paper?” He didn’t take the job.

I have had a Spiritual Director for many years—this is a person (usually specially trained) to help me “listen to my life” and see the patterns, growth opportunities, gratitudes, and places that need healing. Pastors can function as spiritual directors for their congregants—I have played this role with people before—but I like being able to meet with someone every couple of months, and that’s a hard rhythm for a pastor to sustain.

A friend suggested Morning Pages as a tool for discernment—that’s three pages of stream of consciousness writing every day, written without stopping or censoring. Morning pages can bring to the surface buried thoughts and emotions that can guide us as we face decisions or difficulties. Read Julia Cameron’s books for more info, especially The Artist’s Way.

Another friend suggested developing a moral code or personal mission statement that decisions can be lifted alongside: is this opportunity consistent with what makes me come alive? (And remember, I like that question better than Frederich Beuchner’s words about vocation. No idea what I’m talking about? Here’s a post about that.)

Along the lines of the previous, this may be my favorite discovery. A friend directed me to the poem Where I’m From, which includes an exercise you can do to write your own “where I’m from” poem. I can see how such an exercise would help you find your true north when faced with a quandary. Check it out here.

What do you think? How do you decide? And what resources would you add?


photo credit: photonut-mi via photopin cc

Following Your Call: Building on Buechner

Two weeks ago Tiny Church held a leadership retreat for our elders, deacons and transformation team (which is fond of calling itself the transformers… more than meets the eye!). It was a fruitful day. We’ve got a number of exciting things on the horizon, including our 100th anniversary celebration in 2014 and a potential building renovation.

Jessica Tate, the director of NEXT Church, led us in a morning of teaching and reflection on the current state of the mainline church and some of the cultural shifts we’re all weathering. At the end of the morning she set us up for an afternoon of nuts and bolts discussions by helping us answer a fundamental question: What is our particular call in this place and time? 

I’ve written before about my ambivalence with traditional understandings of vocation, what Frederick Buechner defines as the intersection between the world’s deep need and a person’s deep gladness. What Jessica offered was much more comprehensive because it offered three different areas of focus, each as indispensable as the other:

1. What are the needs of our community?

2. What gifts and resources do we offer to help address these needs?

3. What kinds of ministries energize us as a community?

These three questions come from the book and website Church Unique by Will Mancini and are illustrated in this diagram:

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 9.16.18 AM

What a revelation! It makes Buechner’s rickety two-legged stool much more sturdy and stable.

I’ve heard for years at Tiny Church, “Let’s bring back the Harvest Dinners!” This beloved tradition and ministry to the community pre-dates me, yet they’re remembered by enough people that I feel like if they could be resumed, they would be by now. I suspect that the harvest dinners meet criteria #3 (excitement) but not #2 (gifts and resources), and perhaps not #1 (needs of the community).

And there are plenty of examples in our churches of ministries that combine #1 (need) and #2 (resources) but are completely devoid of #3 (excitement). These are the programs that we keep doing forever and ever, world without end, despite their sucking our will to live.

Our Sunday School ministry was a bit like that until we decided to move to the Upper Room model. Or maybe you read about The Well at Burke Presbyterian Church.

These three questions would also work on a personal level. My kids are years away from college, but I hope that when the time comes for them to choose a major, that they consider all three of these questions. I know parents who steer their kids toward business or technical field because (they feel) it satisfies #1… but it may not satisfy 2 or 3.

On the other side, I’m bracing myself for the day when Caroline announces she wants to major in musical theatre.

Why Congregations Are Stuck

We can... but will we?

We can… but will we?

I had an “aha” this weekend about why many of our congregations seem so stuck.

I attended a “Building and Empowering Communities” leadership training sponsored by VOICE, a group of congregations and institutions in northern Virginia that are doing community organizing around issues of affordable housing, immigration, and other issues.

The tools of community organizing are not just for engagement in the wider community; they are also helpful within the congregation, as you seek out leaders and discern a vision.

The crux of the training centered on the one-on-one “relational” meeting, in which you try to identify potential leaders through getting to know people and learning their stories—their histories, their passions, and what “keeps them up at night.”

To give us a taste of this, each presenter offered a bit of personal history before launching into his/her topic, and it was easy to connect the dots between the person’s past experiences and his or her life’s work. One person’s aunt and uncle was the victim of a predatory loan. Another saw her single working mother face discrimination and sexism and was driven to empower herself and other women in her community as a result. You get the idea.

Then we practiced one-on-one meetings, and I was struck with how many stories (mine included) were some variation of “I had a pretty comfortable life… and now I just want to give back and make the world a better place.”

Now, admittedly, many of us were brand new at this relational meeting stuff. The organizers who trained us (and whose dots were so easy to connect) have been telling their stories for a long time. And granted, it was an artificial exercise, taking place in a fishbowl, and we could only go 8-10 minutes long instead of the 30-40 minutes that is suggested.

But these rather bland, generic responses revealed to me how we find leaders and volunteers in the church, and how we talk about service. And how it’s killing us.

Here are three realizations I had:

1. We do discernment primarily around gifts rather than stories. We need to stop doing that.

Whether we’re the nominating committee trying to put forth a slate of officers, or a youth director trying to find confirmation sponsors, we think predominantly about a person’s skills and gifts. “This person is a teacher, so I bet he’d be a great Christian Education elder.” “She’s chief operating officer of her company; maybe she’d serve on the stewardship team.”

It’s not that gifts are unimportant. After all, spiritual gifts language has been with us from the very beginning. But one of the tenets of community organizing is that good leaders are made, not born. As a pastor, I can teach skills. But I cannot teach passion. Getting in touch with a person’s history allows you to find those deep hungers that will motivate and drive them even when the going gets tough. No wonder so many of our congregations are boring and lethargic—we’ve been talking about the wrong things!

2. We need to get way more concrete in our language about service.

“I want to help people because Jesus tells us to love our neighbor” doesn’t get us anywhere. Yet it’s our default response when people ask us what drives us. The content of a relational meeting is why and how. “Why do you want to help people? Why does that matter to you? How have you seen that impulse lived out? How do you see that not being lived out in your community?”

Just as we’ve relied on gifts as the primary mode of discernment, we have not taken the time to drill down past our surface responses about service. Many of the overworked pastors there (myself included) were searching for shortcuts—Can’t you do this work in group settings? Does it have to be one on one? What do you suppose the response was?

3. Anger is not the enemy. It is a resource. 

Maybe you’re one of those who had a genuinely untroubled childhood. You didn’t see your aunt and uncle’s devastation at almost losing their home because of that predatory loan. But I bet there is an injustice that makes you furious. We don’t like to talk about anger, especially in the Church of Nice that so many of us belong to. Anger is bad, we tell ourselves—something to suppress. But anger, properly contextualized, is also energy. Anger is fuel for action. And there is plenty of holy anger in scripture. One of my favorite benedictions has the line, “May God bless you with anger—at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people, so you will work for justice, freedom and peace.”

There are plenty of injustices in the world that I worry about. But when I look back on my personal history, the key issue for me has been women and girls, again and again. The specifics of that have played out in different ways over the years, and the pivotal events that sparked that anger are for another post. But yeah. Women and girls.

My favorite quote these days is this one by Howard Thurman:


But how do we know what makes people come alive unless we ask them?

I’m Not Married to My Church, Are You?

I was with a group of folk from another congregation recently, introducing them to NEXT Church and talking about my involvement as co-chair. We got to talking about generational differences when it comes to membership in an institution, particularly a church. Millenials are way less wired toward joining a group in the sense of signing on the dotted line. In many cases they are committed to the organization and will support it through time and money, but they do not see the point of being a member.

I made an offhand comment about churches that have people re-commit to church membership every year. Rather than having someone join and be a member of a church “forever,” there is an annual discernment process. The church leadership re-introduces folks to what it means to be a member (and presumably, the expectations are high), and asks people to consider whether they are willing to devote the time and energy toward that endeavor. As always, non-members are welcome to worship and serve in the community, to receive pastoral care, etc.

There was some predictable backlash to this idea, some of which I can understand. There are times in a church’s life when things just aren’t that much fun. A beloved pastor leaves and the energy declines. There are conflicts and crises. Are we saying it’s OK for people to bail just because things get hard, or because the church is not suiting their needs?

And yes, our culture is one in which ties to institutions and communities are more tenuous than ever. So people are right to ask whether a yearly church membership drive feeds that lack of commitment. OR, does it simply acknowledge the world as it is, not as we want it to be? People can carp all they want about “kids today,” but how does that work as an evangelism strategy?

One comment really grabbed me: What, are people going to get married year by year now? I didn’t have the presence of mind at the time to question that analogy. But now, a few days later… No. Just no.

Church membership is not like a marriage. It’s just not. Don’t believe me? Consider this: when a person relocates because of a job, there is often grief over leaving one’s church. But rarely does someone pass up that job because they have made a commitment to their worshiping community. But I know plenty of people who have done that because a move would be bad for their spouse or family.

We use the marriage analogy all the time in the church. Pastors seeking another call feel like they’re “cheating on their church,” like they’re “running around behind people’s backs.” I can relate to the sentiment—there is a zone of secrecy that must be present in these situations, and it can feel inauthentic and sneaky. Still, I find these kinds of metaphors very unhelpful. Pastors are not called to a church until death do they part. They are called for a season of the church’s life. And in the Presbyterian Church (USA), there is at least a minimal sense of re-upping each year, in the sense of negotiating and re-approving terms of call.

Why would we not at least consider giving church members the same freedom to reaffirm their commitment to a congregation that pastors themselves have? Why do we get to leave whenever we feel the winds of the Spirit blowing, but church members are on the hook for the rest of their lives?

The real crux of this membership stuff is not people’s lack of commitment. It’s that the church has done a poor job of teaching discernment and discipleship.

Discernment: sensing the presence and leading of God, which goes beyond what makes me happy in the moment.

And discipleship: commitment to following the Way of Jesus, even when it’s hard, even when it means being in a community with people who are sometimes a pain to deal with.

A church that does a good job of this doesn’t need to worry about a mass exodus of people if the interim’s a boring preacher.

And a church that does a poor job of this wants to keep warm bodies (or not-so-warm ones) on the rolls any way they can.

Anyway You Go You’re Gonna Get There

As I reflect on 10 years of pastoral ministry, I’ve been talking with friends who are discerning God’s call and job shifts, and it’s got me thinking about U2. Some years back there was an article (can’t find it) that talked about what the guys from Dublin would have done with their lives had they not become the world’s biggest band. I recall that Larry would’ve been a police officer, etc. etc.

Then it quipped, “Bono, of course, could only be Bono.”

I know a few people like that. They’re doing what they were born to do and it’s hard to see them doing anything else. But most of us are like Edge, Adam and Larry (though not nearly so cool). We have many different gifts and many different interests. There are many possible paths we might take. If not this, then something else. And whatever we end up doing can lead to a meaningful life.

It makes discernment more difficult because you’re not usually deciding between right and wrong, but right and right.

Or option A, which is slightly less right, and Option B, which is a little more right but requires a big jump into the unknown.

Or Option C, which is right in several very important ways, and Option D, which is right in several other completely different ways.

But being Edge or Larry or Adam is also very freeing. It’s not about cracking the code and finding that one perfect vocation. It’s about trusting that whatever you decide, you will be where you need to be in that moment. And if you’re a Christian, it’s about trusting that the Spirit can use you wherever you end up—that you will play a small part in God’s grand dream of shalom for all.

You know those studies of people who won the lottery and those who became paraplegics? And how after six months of adjustment they were as happy or unhappy as they were before? Yeah. Like that.

During the last decade of ministry, there have been several crossroads moments for me—a church’s search committee that came calling, or that first writing workshop I attended that unlocked something important in me, or a cool non-profit opportunity that tugged on my heart. The most significant was applying for a sabbatical while an associate pastor, only to be called to Tiny Church instead. In fact, three days after Tiny voted to call me, I got the notification that my sabbatical grant application had been accepted and the Lilly Endowment wanted to give me [mumble] thousand dollars to hike in the Rockies and visit Cinque Terre with Robert. I had to turn it down.

God and I had some words about the timing of that. But here we are.

Our family loves Billy Jonas. He’s a sage in musician’s clothing, with some Pied Piper thrown in. One of my favorite songs is “Anyway You Go You’re Gonna Get There.” Check it out:

I got lost far from home, I was scared, I was all alone
A great big circus came my way; let me see what the fortunetellers have to say
First one said, “home is near,” second one said “you can’t get there from here”
Third one said, “it’s time to scatter, cuz any way you go it doesn’t matter….”

Chorus: Any way you go you’re gonna get there!
Any way you go you’re gonna get there!
Lean a little bit to where you wanna get
Cause any way you go you’re gonna get there!

Then here’s the heart of the song:

What if I choose the wrong career?
“Any way you go you’re gonna get there!”
And what if I make my choice in fear?
“Any way you go you’re gonna get there!”

Yes, some decisions are between right and wrong. But not most. Most moments of discernment are invitations to lean a little bit, and trust that any way you go you’re gonna get there.

Are you discerning between Options A and B, C and D right now? How are you being called to lean?