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August 27, 2012 / Richard Bass

Resources and Comments in Response to “Delighted and Disillusioned with Discernment”

n “Delighted and Disillusioned with Discernment” (the August 27, 2012 Alban Weekly, adapted from the recently revised and updated edition of Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church), Charles Olsen comments on the growing interest in discernment as a spiritual practice. At the same time, he acknowledges the frustrations people have experienced when they’ve made a sincere effort to discern and follow God’s will, only to find that the outcome wasn’t as they had hoped.  Olsen’s response to these frustrations is to stay with the process of discernment.

In particular, advises Olsen, stay with the discernment process in the face of multiple world views, diverse personality styles, and even divergent biblical and doctrinal sources. Patient and prayerful discernment “may seem at times messy” as the “Spirit will often turn us on our heads.” But practice is always worth it.

What resources might help you and your congregation to engage fruitfully in a spiritual discernment process? In addition to items listed at the end of the book, please consider Grounded in God: Listening Hearts Discernment for Group Deliberations and Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups.

What are your stories and thoughts on this topic? And what resources do you suggest? We look forward o hearing from you.



Leave a Comment
  1. Don McClure / Aug 28 2012 10:33 am

    I have not yet read the new book but plan to do so. I offer training to churches in board governance issues and that includes parliamentary procedure. The repeating theme I see in my training, in the article describing the new edition, and in the responses posted above for both processes (discernment and Robert’s Rules) is a lack of understanding among the users of both processes. . . and an abuse of both processes by persons in leadership positions.

    It comes as no surprise that Robert’s Rules simply don’t work in many cultures. But I must object to describing the “presbytery meeting in Egypt” noted in the article as spiritual discernment. In my admittedly limited experience, I understand that many cultures depend on a “recognized wisdom figure” to announce all decisions and will not operate any other way. That the group in Egypt sat around telling stories first does not make the process spiritual or discerning.

    The fundamental proposition of Robert’s Rules is that every voice is heard and considered. The process, practiced well, should include tabling motions for further deliberation whenever needed. In my training, I encourage no decision be made unless a fully developed proposal citing positives and negatives is available ahead of the time at which the vote is taken, so as to give the members time to think and discuss the topic with other members and with other constituencies. The most common failures I see in the use of Robert’s Rules are: 1) members surrendering their right to speak (or more properly avoiding their responsibility to speak) often due to (ignorant or abusive) leaders who force issues through the process; 2) leaders sharing their opinions on a question while still “holding the gavel” and controlling the meeting. Both should be avoided in well run meetings.

    Using Stephen Covey’s four quadrants as background, boards should not be operating in the two unimportant quadrants at all; but I suggest they would do well to use Robert’s Rules for the important and urgent issues and discernment (or a deliberate Robert’s Rules practice) for the important but not urgent issues. And in my training I insist that the leader’s real job is to plan well enough to make sure the nothing urgent ever comes before the board.

    I strongly suggest that failures using either process are common and are mostly due to uninformed (or under informed) participants and unintentionally (or intentionally) abusive leaders . . . and that replacing a poorly run process based on Robert’s Rules with a poorly run process based on discernment only clouds the fact the most of our meetings are poorly run.

    Don McClure
    Acuity Consulting and Training
    Siren, WI

    • Judith Gotwald / Aug 28 2012 11:15 am

      Your criticism of the use of Robert’s Rules of Order describes many denominational Annual Assemblies where critical issues are decided based on as little as ten minutes of regulated discussion and binding votes are taken “on schedule.” Perhaps every Annual Assembly should be preceded by issue-specific caucuses so that voices of many can actually be heard and considered. As practiced now, the assemblies are often little more than pep rallies with all decisions approached as fore-drawn conclusions of church leaders — who are proud of achievements, while anyone who disagrees feels useless, voiceless and helpless. Why bother? soon prevails — expedient for some, but rarely good for any in the long run and somewhat defeating to the purpose of gathering together in Christ’s name.

      • Don McClure / Aug 29 2012 3:40 pm

        When we think about decision making of any kind we would do well to distinguish between decisions that by their nature need to be collective or community-based decisions and those that need to be made (or are made) by a select group or an individual. Both Robert’s Rules and spiritual discernment processes can be used (or distorted) for either. A major disconnect happens when we (naively) think we are entering a collective decision process, and we find the decision is being made for us by others.

        I don’t know the source but I like the following words:
        Church officials are concerned about order among the people.
        Prophets are concerned about people’s relationship to God.
        There will always be a tension between the two.

        I would add I seldom witness much of a prophetic voice at church wide assemblies and as a result conscientiously avoid them.

  2. Christopher Xenakis / Aug 27 2012 9:20 am

    I cannot say that we have fully implemented Worshipful Work here in the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ–but over the past fifteen years many of us have been exposed to its principles, and we have been encouraged to apply those principles during annual meetings of the Conference, during retreats, among our own congregations, and in our own personal reflection. In some instances, I have seen church and denominational leaders attempt to inject 20-30 minutes of Worshipful Work into business meetings that were otherwise dominated by parliamentary procedure. I do wonder if the principles of spiritual discernment and Robert’s Rules of Order are compatible.

    I suspect that part of the problem is that all of us are in a hurry. We have places to go and schedules to keep. Annual meetings need to adhere to strict timelines. If a church business meeting goes over an hour, the church leaders may be accused of being disorganized. Yet discernment process is, by definition, open-ended and inefficient–at least as “efficiency” is defined by time management gurus. By comparison, Robert’s Rules of Order gets results quickly.

    Another problem may be that some of us have our minds made up about a given issue–particularly about a controversial issue–and are not open to honestly seeking out the mind of Christ.

    Having said all this, I wish we could be more deliberative and discerning. I sometimes wish we could go into a church or a denominational meeting without an agenda or a strict time-schedule. I wish we had the time to seek out the mind of Christ. This is especially true when there are substantive issues before us, like the search and call of new leadership, or the decision to take a prophetic stand.

    Robert’s Rules of Order creates winners and losers, but that’s not the most important outcome we should be looking for in a Conference annual meeting or in a church business meeting. A 25-19 vote does not suggest a clear victory, even if the parliamentary rules stipulate that a simple majority is all that is required for a given measure to pass.

    Chris Xenakis, Pastor,
    Groton Community Church
    Groton City Church

  3. Judith Gotwald / Aug 27 2012 7:52 am

    The word “discernment” in our denomination has been used to cover up strong-armed tactics that have only the predetermined interests of the regional body, or perhaps more specifically, the leader of the regional body’s interests in mind—and that typically has more to do with the value of congregational property than congregational mission.

    In our congregation’s case, the discernment process, which our bishop publicly refers to with the suggestion of much deliberation over many years, consisted of one meeting—which went well. The meeting ended with a promise to work with the congregation. Four months later, after no further discussion nor the promises made at the meeting kept, the congregation was informed by letter that the bishop had decided to close the church. The rest of the discernment process has been taking place in four years of court battles (where even the judges can’t agree), while the leader of our regional body reports to other congregations that the process of discernment had been long and arduous. Maybe it was. But our congregational members were not present.

    Sadly, our experience is not unique. A midnight raid was part of the discernment process in another ELCA synod. In still another, the bishop called a “discernment” meeting in her office and had locksmiths go to the church while congregational leaders were in her presence.

    Discernment may have started with good intentions. It has become a nice-sounding word to cover up willfulness, greed and a lust for power—by any means.

    Discernment in the church (at least in our denomination) is a joke.

  4. Dick Hamm / Aug 27 2012 7:00 am

    In the 1990’s, as head of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I sought to change our Disciples (mainline Protestant) culture from one of democracy (debate and decide) to one of discernment. My associate Lori Adams (now Vice President of the Fund for Theological Education) and I had long conversations and she took the lead in designing the processes we would eventually use in our general assemblies (mass meetings of 5000-7000 people). We studied the Rule of St. Ignatius, read everything we could find on discernment, and met with Chuck Olsen and drew heavily on his resources.
    The result was an innovative process that has led, as Chuck says, to “delight and disillusionment”. We designed processes for use in our assemblies and in our congregations (Disciples have a congregational polity and we felt the key to better general assembly outcomes was to engage our congregations in the issues before they arrived at general assembly).
    It is indeed difficult for most Americans to have patience for discernment. There is an ideological approach on both the left and the right that holds every important issue hostage (in Congress as well as in the church). However, the greatest challenge has been the avoidance we find in most congregations. The unwillingness of congregations and individual church leaders to deal with the important issues of the day has been the problem, not the concept of discernment itself.
    Congregations and church leaders typically avoid controversial issues until they can no longer be avoided. But there is, of course, “no hiding place down here”. Eventually, the issues catch up with every congregation and leader. This results in a cycle of sorts: avoidance, confrontation, failed attempts to impose one viewpoint or another, division, and avoidance.
    Discernment seeks to break this cycle and to offer a “come let us reason together” approach to the church dividing issues that confront the church daily. But, ironically, leaders may find (as we did) that seeking to develop a culture of discernment will result in accusations that one is seeking to avoid prophetic leadership.
    As I like to say in response to those who claim that discernment itself is a form of avoidance, “the only problem with discernment is that churches are unwilling to try it.” Meanwhile, we Christians continue to dilute our witness by dividing ourselves along the lines of the culture wars, becoming increasingly irrelevant in a society that needs direction but sees mostly fragmentation among Christians.
    I remain grateful to Chuck and others who have helped us pioneer new forms of discernment for the 21st century and to people like my successor, Sharon Watkins, who continue to seek new ways of helping us all move forward together. Now, if we of the church will just give it a try.

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