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Deep Discernment Builds Capacity

How can congregations weather the liminal space of discerning their future?

I’ve been thinking a lot about healthy discernment for churches. The current situations in our world – pandemic, fires, rampant racism, climate change, ice storms, political unrest – you name it, have forced countless congregations into a time of discernment. Yes, we’ve had to make some quick pivoting decisions regarding ways to keep us safe in the midst of a global pandemic and haven't given much thought to deep discernment. But as we emerge and continue the pandemic, it has become increasingly apparent that taking time to discern the future is essential to local churches during this liminal, in-between place we have found ourselves.

“Discernment ... requires us to move from our heads to our hearts, as we listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our congregation.”

Discernment is a contemplative (meditative, thoughtful) practice of slowing down and listening deeply. It requires us to move from our heads to our hearts, as we listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our congregations. It is an inviting space to remember, receive, and release all that has, all that is, and all that will be to God. It takes time. And for congregations who feel like their situation is in a dire state of emergency, time isn't something they feel they have. It is a bit of a rock and hard place situation - a pandemic raging, the lack of in-person engagement - it all feels so urgent.

Sabotage & Passive Aggressive Blame

But what happens when we don’t take time for discernment? I think it looks very much like inertia, contempt for change, collective anxiety, and distrust for the systems. This causes congregations to place a higher priority on buildings and procedures. Congregations start making decisions, then going back to sabotage the too-quickly made decision (even if it was a good one!). It places blame (always passive-aggressively) and seeks a quick fix for the perceived problem. It is a distinct undercurrent of toxic, manipulative (and often selfish) decisions that are made without any thought about what will be left of the church for future generations. While it might be a genuine desire to want the "church" around so that their expectations of life's events can take place there, one wonders, at what cost to the greater community? When churches leap into unhealthy partnerships, argue about power and control, vote with their feet (by not attending), that’s not discernment – that is kicking the can down the road.

Taking Time for Discernment

Discernment happens when we take time to listen without a set agenda for the outcome. I know that for some of us (myself included) not having an agenda is anxiety-inducing. However, with God’s help, we can build our capacity to be open to different perspectives and to use our sense of curiosity to ask questions about our church. How do we make the liminal space a fruitful time for the congregation when we so desperately want to skip to the good part? How do we make space for discernment? How do we diffuse the anxieties that churches are feeling?

Engagement in the Process

We start by contemplating our own capacity. We ask questions of ourselves - What do I want (for my congregation)? What do I think God wants (for our congregation)? What is the Spirit telling us (about our congregation)? Where do love and grace live in our church? In our community? These questions can only be answered by individuals for themselves. Scripture reminds us over and again, when we know and realize our own gifts, we can begin to see a way we can be together as the Body of Christ.

The thing that takes the longest in congregations is healing the wounds that are deep. I'm not talking only about the collective trauma of the last few years, but the deep wounding that has happened over the course of time: passive-aggressiveness (in an effort to "be nice"), sabotage of new ideas, not listening to diverse voices, etc. This is especially apparent in churches that do not utilize the gifts of interim ministry. When churches don't discern their mission appropriately it perpetuates cycles of entrenched and unhealthy power plays. For unhealthy systems, this work of healing can seem unnecessary and perfunctory. Often this process is skipped. Churches that engage and process the deep wounding from unhealthy systems and toxic individuals will become healthier as they slowly emerge out of unhealth. When a mirror is held up to entrenched systems, churches will be stronger, more vital. Churches have an extraordinary capacity for resilience when they are given an opportunity to deeply discern their future in a healthy way.


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