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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The importance of congregational discernment

Over my years in ministry I have come to appreciate the distinction between decision making and discernment. Decision making in an organization is heavily focused on pragmatic and technical responses to issues that come up, and is usually a political process of some kind. We see this at work in an election year, when our nation and state are in the process of choosing, in an election, which candidates offer the best solutions to our problems, and provide the most capable leadership to address them. Discernment is not primarily a political process but a spiritual one, in which members of a body, an organization, try together to understand God's movement and call. I find this article from the Alban Institute helpful in understanding discernment.

Spending time together in discernment is a critical and essential congregational task. Because discernment is an abstraction, it can be one of those things, like the weather, that people like to talk about, but where no one ever does anything. Here are some elements I think are important parts of discernment in congregational meetings, which hopefully helps us understand what discernment looks like.

Prayer. Prayer is essential to congregational discernment. Indeed, discernment is a prayerful act. We are not working at discerning our own will, but God's.

Bible Study. When we read the Bible together, we identify how God has been at work and called God's people at other times and places.

Testimony. Part of discernment involves listening to each other's testimonies of how God is at work in our own lives and in the life of our congregation.

Listening is shared. Congregational meetings must be structured in such a way that the talking and listening is shared, and that two or three people, and their particular concerns, do not dominate the meeting.

Leadership is respected. Churches have lay and pastoral leaders which they have already called through a process of discernment. Congregations empower themselves and honor their own processes when they support their leaders, and let them set the agenda for discernment.

Agenda is focused and clear. Congregational meetings only have time to discern certain things. Sociological studies have shown that the largest congregational meetings will ever consistently be is 150 or so, no matter how large the congregation. Still, there are limits to what a large group can do. It is harder and more cumbersome to discern in a group of 100 than a group of five. Because of this, the congregation is empowered when its agenda is of significance to the vision, goals, mission, and overall direction of the congregation, and it is disempowered when precious time is taken up with congregational minutiae. It is the job of leaders to focus meetings so that the essential congregational work is not derailed by the thousands of concerns each of us bring to congregational life.

There may be some other things worth adding to this list, but a congregation that does these things as part of a discernment process will be healthy and well.


Anonymous said...

Well-organized and well-said, Phil. As in any relationship, listening is as important as talking and if talking is monopolized, then some people in a congregation are not listening. Our congregation is individuals in relationship with one another and with God; thus, talking and listening with all involved is essential. Thanks for your perspective.

Elaine Schrock said...

Thank you, Phil. Amen!

Sheila S. Yoder said...

Thank you....helpful to me to consider how discernment happens in a congregation, particularly one of our size.

Anonymous said...

Phil, you make some essential points on congregational discernment – both within the congregational meeting and without – correctly affirming that “spending time together in discernment is a critical and essential congregational task.” Discernment indeed happens on the various levels of relationships, as found in our Bylaws: one-to-one, family, small group, Sunday school classes, neighborhood groups, and also congregationally, in meeting. We need to be more conscious than we often are, as to the importance of discernment on all of these levels of congregational interaction, and your focus on discernment in prayer and Bible study (individual and corporate), testimony, listening, respecting leadership (all those who are leading the Congregation, whether ordained or not – on the various levels of such interaction) are all vital.

I would like to focus specifically on how discernment works within the congregational meeting, as stipulated in our newly revised Bylaws:

You correctly mention the need to listen. There is also the need to respond. The Congregation simply has to respond, if it is “the final authority in all congregational matters.”
To be the final authority, the Church Board/pastors/commissions propose, and the Congregation, in order to be the final authority, accepts, or rejects, or modifies the proposal.

If the Congregation is not only to listen, but also to respond as the final authority, it needs to respond as it is led by the Spirit.
The Church Board does not give its permission to the Congregation to respond; rather, the Congregation, by definition (if it is the final authority), takes on the authority to respond.
This crucial process, in action, is what happened at the time of our Bylaws ratification: the Congregation took the Church Board proposal (the new Bylaws draft), and decided not to accept it as written, but to modify it.

The Church Board works with CMC’s “program on its various levels, as discerned and acted upon within the congregational meeting.” Discernment is thus a prerequisite to action – action which in turn translates into program.
That is, the Congregation establishes the program in the first place, and then, in follow-up fashion, the Church Board takes it from there, fleshing it out – along with the pastors and commissions – and making it work.
In this regard, the Congregation as a body votes on a spending plan, selects the pastoral team, discerns vision and program (creating foundational documents on such things as bylaws, vision, core values, covenant, mission, purpose, and long-term goals) and other matters concerning the Congregation as a whole.

The sphere of Church Board authority encompasses all that the Church Board proposes which the Congregation then has acted upon via the process of acceptance/rejection/modification, in this manner establishing it as official CMC program; and
all that individual members propose within meeting (“any member may also share concerns and make motions”) which the Congregation has acted upon via acceptance/rejection/modification, in this manner also making it official CMC program.

In Conclusion. The Church Board added two new “laws” to our current Bylaws, which were not in our former Bylaws: “any member may also share concerns and make motions,” and the Church Board, working with “program on its various levels, as discerned and acted upon within the congregational meeting.”
I am thankful to the Church Board for proposing these two additions (which the Congregation then adopted) since both of these additions align exactly with our Mennonite understandings of New Testament congregationalism. They also align with the opening statement of our new Structures document, which you as a Church Board also introduced into our Bylaws (III-5), that “Mennonite polity is clear regarding authority being vested in the Congregation; hence, the congregational meeting is the final authority in all congregational matters.”

If anything in the above analysis is not in keeping with our revised Bylaws, please let me know.

Leonard Gross

Anonymous said...

P.S. I’m glad for your last point, that “Agenda is focused and clear.” Certainly, our CMC tradition has always been that the Church Board brings a tentative agenda to the meeting.
True, as the Spirit works, within meeting, individuals may feel led to share concerns and make motions, apart from the tentative agenda as announced ahead of time.
This “moving of the Spirit” is an absolutely essential part of a congregational meeting, without which we would not be the Body of Christ.

Leonard Gross