Karen asked: How do you define discernment?
Beth: Discernment is the act of intentionally listening for God’s guidance in our lives. It is a life-long practice that begins by having the desire to desire what God desires. As you can see, it begins so small – like a mustard seed, having the desire to desire – with a deep yearning to earnestly follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It continues with consenting to what God desires and then acting upon that desire.
Karen: Thanks to Simon Sinek and others, we’re learning to begin with Why. Why do you believe discernment is essential to leaders and congregations in this time?
Beth: The world is rapidly changing around us; the covid tsunami, post Christendom, political polarization, climate change, and racial reckoning are a few of the ways we continue to be overwhelmed with collective trauma and uncertainty.
With all of that free floating anxiety and the uptick of conspiracy theories, how do we know that our intuition is of God and not our ego needs? How do we know we are doing the right thing? Where is our solid ground?
We know we can’t go back to pre-pandemic church, which was unstable to begin with, but we are unsure of what God’s preferred future looks like. We can no longer count on pre pandemic vitality metrics because we are experiencing the great resignation in our leadership, our worship numbers, and our financial health.
It will no longer be enough to frenetically try to get back what we lost with our tried-and-true ministry programs from 20 years ago. People have gotten out of the habit of church and now are wondering if the church is relevant anymore. So now is the time to listen deeply for what longs to spring forth. Because our world needs healing and our mission is to be that good news. We can begin by asking deep questions of our purpose and our values. We can follow the energy of the Holy Spirit by aligning our deep joy and passion with the world’s needs. And finally, we can let go of what no longer serves, trusting that it is through death that we experience resurrection.
Karen : Are there additional benefits you’d mention?
Beth: I find that when discernment becomes a part of our life practice, we are no longer swayed by the siren calls of personal preferences. Instead, we are able to be a witness to ourselves and others with curiosity and wonder. As a witness we have the space to slow down and move into faithful action instead of reaction. [We relinquish] The negative self-talk quiets and we develop compassion for ourselves and others. We engage our world with grounded, humble confidence. We are able to rest in grace more readily, trusting that we are a part of the sacred unfolding of life. Simply put, we experience freedom in Christ.
Karen: What is necessary or essential for effective group discernment?
Beth: (First) The capacity to listen to our heart’s desires both personally and corporately with curiosity. Asking questions like these:
o What do you care deeply about?
o What brings you joy?
o How do you want to grow in the ways of love?
o What kind of community will help nurture you in that process?
o What kind of community is God inviting us to be in our neighborhood?
Also, the capacity to open our minds to new ways of thinking and fresh perspectives so that we can follow the gold of the synergies and themes that emerge.
• The capacity to listen to the wisdom of our bodies as in-fleshed Spirit.
• The capacity to sit in the discomfort of not knowing as a sign that we are on the journey.
• The realization that this is Holy work for a time such as this.
Karen: How might a congregation and its leaders begin to incorporate the art of discernment in their life together?
Beth: We can recover the art of discernment through some simple practices that invite us to listen to ourselves, each other, and the world around us more deeply. One easy way to begin is through Lectio Divina – the practice of praying the scriptures using a different discernment question for each time you read the scripture.
The questions are the following:
1. What word or phrase captures my imagination?
2. How does this scripture relate to my life or not?
3. What is love asking of me in response to my engagement with this scripture?
Eventually this process will shape and form the way we engage life as we use these questions to reorient us to what life is asking (of) us. In other words, we begin to ponder what is the life that longs to be expressed through us? How can we consent to being a vessel of God’s unfolding grace in the world?
This is just one of many practices that I offer in my Discernment book. I actually recommend using the practices and questions at the end of each chapter with your leadership group. I am also excited to offer an online course for church groups to use for a Lenten study. You can find out more here.
Karen: How does this essential practice benefit congregational innovation and experimentation?
Beth: With the practice of discernment, we are constantly moving into the unknown with curiosity. The same could be said of innovation. The innovation cycle is made up of a series of experiments in which we actively test our hunches about what we think might work. It follows the process of planning, doing, assessing, and adapting.
I actually see discernment as a process of listening, doing, assessing, and adapting as a way to follow Holy Spirit Energy. That is one of my guiding questions in both discernment and innovation – "Where is the energy and am I following it?" As I have studied the scriptures and read about the saints of the church, I see that they did just that – they followed the energy even if it seemed highly unusual at the time. I believe this is how the Holy Spirit guides us – through the energy of the gifts of the Spirit.
After serving as a pastor in a variety of settings in Georgia and Oregon, and then as Director of New Faith Community Development in the Oregon and Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church, Beth wanted to have a greater impact with leaders that were striving to fulfill their ministry call while balancing homelife and their own yearning for healing and wholeness. Her journey led her to become a master certified integral coach as well as a meditative yoga instructor. Her contemplative sensibilities and integral approach inform her coaching and consulting work with leaders all over North America and the United Kingdom. Beth is the author of 2 books, Weird Church: Welcome to the 21st Century and Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Building a Life of Faith. She also co-hosts "The Field Preachers Podcast." She just launched her first online course for clergy experiencing burnout and overwhelm during this pandemic season, called “Leading with Renewed Energy and Joy.” You can discover more on her website here.
Karen Ziel is the Assistant Director of the Center for Transformational Leadership (CTL) at the Southern New England Conference. She can help congregations and their leaders with tools and resources for assessment and discernment. As a member of ...