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Lessons Learned about Group Discernment

by Lorraine Watson
Pastor, North Seattle Friends Church

One Way signIam drawn to group discernment as the Quaker way of finding way forward as a congregation. I firmly believe that we can discern the mind of God as we are gathered in community. I wrote a SEEDS article in April 2010 about discernment. (See http://www.goodnewsassoc.org/seeds-pdf/seeds10-04.pdf.) But doing group discernment is a learning process and through personal experience I’ve learned several lessons about discernment since then.

First, the gathered community is key to discerning God’s Leading. As a child I remember learning that Quakers don’t vote because the majority might be wrong. God can speak through even one dissenting voice so it behooves us to listen to everyone that is part of the community. Individually we hear imperfectly, but as we come together in community with a commitment to hear God’s Leading, we put our pieces together and continue to listen. What is God doing with this? How can these seemingly disconnected pieces fit together?

In the midst of the discernment process, sometimes opposing possibilities present themselves. We are often inclined to debate the pros and cons of each possibility. However, what we should be doing is  listening for God’s Leading rather than simply finding the well reasoned decision. Therefore, I find it more profitable to stop and wait in silence, inviting God to show us the next steps. After waiting in silence and prayer, the next step is to invite each person to share what they heard in the silence. In particular folks are invited to share new learnings and ways that their thinking is shifting.

Sometimes we can’t come to clarity on the way forward within the time set aside for the meeting. When there is no clarity, it is often wisdom to postpone the decision. In the intervening time before the next gathering, community members should ask God to direct them to new information or understandings. Being open to new leadings can open up possibilities that had not been considered.

There are times when the answer doesn’t come as a direct response to the questions being asked. We need to be open to all leadings and recognize that we may not be asking the right questions.

When the community finally makes a decision, we often want to implement it right away. We worked so hard to get to this point that we want to get on with it. But with difficult discernment processes, it is wise to let the decision season before acting on it. When making a major purchase, we are often advised to sleep on it before buying. Likewise with the discernment process, let it settle and come back later to verify that we are clear to move forward. Not doing this can give rise to “parking lot discussions” that undo the hard work of the gathered community.

If a decision has been painful for some or all of the community, take time to grieve together. Name the loss and pain caused by the decision, while affirming that it was clearly God’s leading. Honor the past and find ways to celebrate it. Before moving forward, it is important to say a respectful goodbye to the past.

With a long and difficult discernment process, I have found it healing to debrief the experience together. After a yearlong and difficult decision-making process in our church, someone outside our community helped us debrief the situation with us. He didn’t allow us to reconsider the decision. He would only let us tell what shifted for us in the process of moving through the year. Rather than feeling judged all over again, people found it healing to name God’s work that was accomplished in our midst.

While it may take considerable time to come to clarity about God’s leading for us as a community, I find that if we are patient we can own the outcome and the answer rests more deeply in our spirits.

The best place I’ve found to learn about the group discernment process is the Institute for Group Discernment held at Tilikum Retreat Center, Newberg, OR, May 16-19, 2016. Time is given to think through the process in detail, consider the Biblical foundations of discernment, talk about the problem areas and how to work through them, and consider group discernment in multiple settings. There is still time to sign up at http://goodnewsassoc.org/leadershipinstitute/.

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