Communal Discernment


“Communal Discernment” is a topic of much discussion these days between Pastor Tom and I. Like, what does it look like for a church to make decisions together? What could it look like for an individual to make a decision within community? How can the leaders of Holden Chapel increasingly encourage the congregation to benefit one another in the midst of making important life decisions? Stuff like that… At the moment, this is a topic that is interesting and important to both of us.

Pastor Tom read this book first. He loved it, and recommended I read it as well. So I did and I enjoyed it too. Of primary help are the authors’ definitions of “discernment”:

  • On page 10, Smith tells us that the word discernment implies (at least in English) three different concepts simultaneously. First, it includes the idea of insight, which speaks of the capacity to see something clearly – the acumen to recognize that which is. Second, discernment includes the idea of discretion, the capacity to distinguish between good and evil as well as between the good and the better. A wine taster, for example, has the particular capacity to distinguish between good wine and even better wine. And third, discernment includes the idea of judgment. To be a discerning person is to be a wise woman or man capable of making a good assessment, a judgment that is informed by knowledge and understanding. Through the regular practice of discernment, a person grows in wisdom – a wisdom evident in the quality of one’s choices.
  • On page 53 Smith explains that discernment happens when we “truly understand when we know something with heart and mind. Discernment, then, is not merely a matter of rational analysis, of weighing the pros and cons and seeking to respond with a biblically informed mind to the options we are facing. Neither is discernment a matter of pure revelation, what some call a ‘word from the Lord.’ Rather, it is a way of knowing and seeing that is experienced as a profound interplay of intellect and emotion in which head and heart are informing and guiding each other.” And one more summation I liked:
  • “Spiritual discernment is an intentional way by which we respond with courage and integrity to our world. Discernment enables us both to see the world more clearly and to respond well to what we see. We discern our circumstances; we then, in turn, discern the appropriate response” (Page 183).

There is lots of good stuff in this book. But my favorite sections were the last two chapters where the author in discussing communal discernment touches on topics such as:

  • The nature of communal discernment (page 227ff)
  • The values of communal discernment (page 232ff)
  • The conditions for communal discernment (page 236ff)
  • The process of communal discernment (pages 242-260)

Without going into all the details, I want to conclude by highlighting one of my favorite parts of this section – found on pages 233-234. It is where the author considers four **distinct** ways in which the gift of discernment might find expression within a communal-discernment event. I found his delineation really helpful if for no other reasons than to help me pinpoint and value the diverse forms of discernment as they pop up within community (it was also super eery how two of them fit me to a “T” and the other two, perfectly to Pastor Tom):

  1. Some bring a gift of discernment through their capacity to see beyond the immediate. Every community, it seems, has those who have vision, who see the big picture – a capacity made possible only if they are not caught up in the mundane details of the organization. Those who have this capacity need to be cautious lest they are impatient with those who do not see things as quickly as they do. They need to consciously value and listen to those whose strength is to focus on the details of the immediate situation.
  2. Some have a gift of discernment exercised through their capacity for critical analysis – they understand the issues and the facts as well as the implications of the various choices a group is considering. Some with this competency have the capacity to read the facts easily, perhaps the financial data that are presented to the group, while others have the capacity to do the research needed to assess and respond well to a situation. The caution for those with this gift of discernment is to remember that though careful analysis is critical to the process of discernment, the process always includes more than rational analysis.
  3. Some are intuitive and have been given the capacity to identify the emotional dimension of organizations and communities. They are able to bring to the discussion an awareness of how a community and individuals within the community are responding emotionally to change or the possibility of change. At their best, intuitive can help the process by attending to the emotional contours of a community and the emotional dimensions of a decision-making process. But there is a caution: they need to recognize the potential of emotional blackmail in a discernment and decision-making process, when one person or group of individuals tie up the process with a threat – explicit or implicit – that they will be “hurt” if they do not get their way.
  4. Finally, the gift of discernment is also found in the sage, an individual who has perhaps been with the organization for a long time and is able to speak out of years of experience and observation. This is an invaluable contribution to the community. Yet here too there is a danger, for those who are older or have been with an organization longer can easily discount the contributions of those who bring a fresh perspective. After all, sometimes it is the newcomer who sees what those of us who have been around a while cannot see or have come to take for granted.