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But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

John 14:26

Discernment is a word we bandy about in congregational life. Sometimes we use it as a spiritual- sounding term for deciding something, but discernment and deciding are actually quite different.

Decision-making is concerned with solving problems, embracing opportunities, processing data, assessing risk, and evaluating outcomes. It is very external, and very much up to us. We make hundreds of decisions each day, and these are both necessary and good. We decide in groups too, be they families, businesses, or community organizations. When we do, we seek to reduce conflict and encourage a reasoned approach to problems. Sometimes there are power plays, political trade-offs, and an impatience to “get it done”. This is considered normative – the grease that oils the gears, the cost of doing business. Sometimes the group splits into factions, part of the group ending up “winning” and part “losing”.

In her book Pursuing God’s Will Together, Ruth Haley Barton describes discernment, on the other hand, as “an ever-increasing capacity to ‘see’ the work of God in the midst of the human situation, so that we can align ourselves with whatever God is doing.” This is a rich description of opening ourselves to something much larger than we are, to accepting God’s invitation to participate in something already in process, and the cumulative effect of practicing that. “In group discernment, participants adopt a stance of indifference to anything but the will of the divine as discovered by the group, setting aside matters of ego, politics, opinion, or personal interest. Discernment seeks out more than simple group agreement. The goal of discernment is to tap into the will and movement of the Holy Spirit.”

Quote from Susan Beaumont How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You Are Going (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019)

That’s certainly different.

It also seems like a pretty grandiose aim, to know the mind of God. God speaking is one thing, but us actually hearing? Scripture is clear, though, that this is exactly why the Holy Spirit is given to us – so that we can see and hear and follow God’s leading in our lives and in our communities.

Thank you for being a community in which we help each other along this path. May our capacity to see the work of God be ever-increasing.

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