Discernment: What? When? How?

By Meck Groot, Joe Sullivan

A group of people sit on chairs together in a circle under the sun and trees.

[This post is a follow up to "When We Wonder Together" (Practice Makes Possible - March 7, 2023)]

In March, the theme for the bi-monthly gathering for our community of practice Spiritual Leadership for Culture Change (SL4CC) was "Discernment for Faithful Risking." We distinguished discernment from decision-making and intentionally chose prework activities so members of the community would know what discernment is, when to use it, and how it might be done.

It gave us pause when people in the gathering shared these questions in the chat:

  • What is discernment?
  • When would you use discernment?
  • How would we do this in our congregation?

The following comment in the chat spoke eloquently to the attractiveness of the practice and the bafflement about actually engaging it:

I found the reading and viewing all very powerful and helpful, but quickly stalled when I tried to imagine it being applied within my congregation. Basic things like knowing what issue discernment might best be applied to or what group would come together to do the discernment all seem to challenge me.

What's more apparent now than when we were planning the March gatherings is just how radically counter-UU-culture the practice of discernment is.

The first challenge is getting a group of UUs to admit they are staring into an uncertain future and no one really has a clue what to do. There's no easy fix, no meaningful plan, no map, no expert to call in to tell us what to do. More and more congregations are asking existential questions that baffle all of us:

  • What are the needs of families and children of our community today and how are we situated to serve those needs?
  • How will we serve our mission regardless of the outcome of our new minister search?
  • What options are open to us to advance our mission and serve our ministries with our present financial and volunteer capacity?
  • What are available options for uses of our building consistent with our values that could allow us to continue to fulfill our mission while helping defray the cost of upkeep? How might we pursue our mission without the building?

These are perfect questions to bring to a process of discernment.

A second challenge as noted in our earlier post on this subject, involves the key component in discernment of "listening to God or the Holy Spirit." Discernment is a faith practice, rooted in an awareness that while individuals may not have answers, there is wisdom within and among us that we may tap into if we get quiet enough and listen for it together. That may be a discernment deal breaker for many UUs.

But let's assume a group of UUs who overcome the first two challenges: they recognize they face a situation where answers are unclear and they are willing to exercise faith and listen together for wisdom to emerge from within and among them.

Now comes the next challenge: How do they do this? What is a process for discernment? There are many possibilities here. Quakers and Jesuits and other faith-based groups have much to teach about the processes they use. Translating those for UUs feels like a worthy project. (Anyone?)

What these processes have in common, however, reveals additional challenges a group of UUs might encounter to the practice of discernment. These could be categorized as "attitudes required for discernment practice." Comments from participants at the March gatherings of SL4CC highlight the challenge:

  • "How do you develop the trust that is necessary for discernment and careful listening?"
  • "People need to trust that others will release their agendas in the discernment process, but how can they trust that if they know full well that some will not?"
  • "Importance of being willing to be changed — hard for most people, including me, but seems very hard for my congregation."
  • "How to encourage processes of discernment when others are focused on brief meetings and getting their agendas to win?"
  • "Discernment for me is about making time and space. How do we get people to do that?"

Culture change is hard. But here's the good news: UUs already have established practices and processes that can support group discernment for faithful risking. The ministerial search process at its best is a discernment process. At its core, covenanting is one way UUs develop the community trust needed for a practice of discernment. Worship done well creates opportunities for us to receive the wisdom and guidance of the community and beyond. Cultivated practices of inner work help us get in touch with inner wisdom and let go of ego that keeps us expecting the “right” answer.

Discernment over the perplexing questions facing congregations today is about revealing faithful next steps rather than finding right answers. Thus, discernment taps into core values, mission, calling, and readiness to reveal options that are faithful for a given group of people at a given time.

And, if what confounds you in attempts to promote discernment are “those” people who want to hurry through meetings and decisions, who feel that the right answer should be obvious and show no patience with process, then start smaller or narrower. Begin working with new practices where the ground is fertile; with small groups or teams where there is willingness to go deeper and try new ways. Over time, decision-making practices that are faithful, enriching, and fulfilling will attract others and grow in use.

About the Authors

Meck Groot

Meck Groot’s lifework has largely been at the intersection of faith and social justice. She has delivered her gifts in administration, teaching, consulting and facilitation as a UUA employee on district and regional staff in New England. Her passion has been to inspire and support vital,...

Joe Sullivan

Joe works with churches of all sizes on a range of congregational life matters with a special interest in helping congregational boards be more faith-filled, mission-focused, and accountable in their practices. Joe joined the UUA staff in 2012 as District Executive for the former Northern New...

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