by Christine Sine
A couple of days ago I met with a friend who used to work at a well known megachurch. He left the church because of his discomfort with their discernment process. There was no place for the congregation or in fact for the leadership team to contribute to the direction of the church. Tragically this is a pattern that I see in many churches.
Fortunately for me, a good Quaker friend introduced me to the process of group discernment many years ago and we were able to implement it with our Mustard Seed Associates team and Board.
The amazing thing is that this process not only drew us closer to God and to each other but also made us more sensitive to the moving of God’s spirit in our lives and those of our colleagues at other times.
It made us more creative as we listen to the diverse ideas and possibilities that God was unveiling through others.
I think that group discernment is an essential part of any discernment process and believe that whenever we think we have heard from God, we need to bring together a group of friends and colleagues to help us truly discern what God intends us to do. None of us alone hear God clearly all the time but together with friends we can find far greater accuracy in our discerning.
- Centering – (Recognizing the presence of God). It is always helpful to start with a centering prayer or activity that stills our minds and brings us into a place of attentiveness to God. Centering is an intentional way to gather the group and help us begin to leave behind our busy schedules and the demands on our time. We each arrive at a meeting with an entire world dragging behind us. For each of us, that world is unique. So taking time to make a conscious choice to set aside those demands and distractions is helpful. That’s what this opening exercise is all about. Here is a prayer that I wrote last year to help me with this process:
May the centre of all things be Christ
May the way of all things be Christ
May the truth of all things be Christ
Behind, before, within, without
May the life of all things be Christ
- Other suggested centering exercises are: to light a candle as a representation of Christ’s presence; join hands in a moment of silence; sing a song; say the Lord’s prayer or another prayer and then sit in silence. I have also written several breathing prayers that we have found useful in this process.
- Gathering silence before the meeting. Sitting in silence for a few minutes extends this time of stillness before God. This is a time for each of us to let go of our grip on ourselves and our desire for control over both the process and the decisions that come out of it. We each need to acknowledge that we know nothing and must trust in God for all that comes out of the meeting. In this place of stillness we remind ourselves that God is in a different dimension beyond cognitive knowing.
- Relating – (Checking in with each other) Since business is now a practice of discerning God’s desires, our ability to be sensitive to the movement of the Spirit must be encouraged. This step a spiritual practice that enables us to reconnect with one another in a way that grounds us in the Holy Spirit, connecting us more deeply to the presence of God. This is an extremely important part of the process in which as we actively listen to each other share we become aware of who the Spirit of God is at work in our lives.
There are many ways to do this and we are finding that as we grow together as a community that we want to expand and deepen the ways that we listen to each other using this as a time to affirm and strengthen the work that God is doing to draw us into a more intimate relationship with himself.
- Prayer of Examen on your experience of God this last week: Consolations (those things that have given you a deep sense of life-giving connection to God, others & yourself) and Desolations (those things that have made you lose your connection to God)
- Sharing the transforming edge of God’s activity in your lives. Where are you most aware of God’s transforming work in your life? What would give God the greatest opportunity to continue that work? What is the greatest hinderance to what God is teaching you?
- How is it with your soul? This is a question we can only ask when we are in a long term trusting relationship with our discernment group. Sharing our sense of our own spiritual state places each of us in a very vulnerable position. The willingness to keep this confidential is an essential element in this depth of group sharing.
- Lectio Divina. This is a very ancient contemplative prayer technique practiced at one time by all Christians and kept alive by the monastic tradition. It draws us into the presence of God opening our hearts and our minds to the activity of the Holy Spirit in and around us.
A second step in relating is to anticipate the week that is coming. What are you looking forward to? What are you less excited about? This step increases our sensitivity to the issues colleagues are struggling with as well as the joys they are anticipating. All of these might influence our ability to be fully present to God, our colleagues and our work during the coming week.
- Receiving, listening and reflecting. (Attending to God, listening) Once we have shared we take time to consider what God is saying in our midst through our personal situations. This step works from the assumption that God is busy in our midst. We spend time in silence listening to God looking for directions, threads and common themes considering how God is moving in our personal lives. We then ask the questions: Given what we’ve heard and shared, what is God doing among us or calling us to? How is that related to our vision as a staff or board? What are the implications of what we have heard for our lives and ministry?
If your staff or board has some directional/identity questions before it, you could introduce them here, even if at this point you don’t answer them, but merely see how your sharing might relate to any of them. “What is our calling as a staff or a board? What is God’s heart around our mission? What characteristics of God should we endeavor to represent to the world? Where are we experiencing energy but not doing anything about it? Where are we pushing forward and finding resistance?”
- Prayer of thanks for God’s activity in our midst. It is good before moving into the business for the day to spend time savouring the preciousness of all that has been shared, resting in the contentment of knowing that our lives are in God’s hands and giving thanks for both the good and the bad. Then we pray for request that have surfaced during our sharing.
- Responding (With this focus on God and God’s activity, we do the business at hand in a spirit of attentiveness) This is the point where we finally get to business. Oh wait, we’ve been doing business all along! This is simply the point where we introduce specific items that need discussion or decision. Once the foundation of feeling connected to one another and to God has been laid, then we can move forward with confidence into the tasks at hand…always keeping an eye on our attentiveness to the Spirit. If at any point we feel distracted from being rooted in Christ, we need to push ourselves back from the agenda, take a deep breath, recenter and reconnect.
- Returning and closing(offering ourselves and our efforts to God) are the final steps. Before rushing back out into the world, take a moment to prayerfully reflect over the course of the meeting. Ask yourselves where you felt close to God; where there seemed to be shifts in the discussion that opened you up to new ways of thinking; where there were blocks; where God seemed most present. Celebrate your experience of doing the work of the Church in the presence of God by naming some of these times and being grateful together. Allow your closing prayer to express your thanks and joy.