By Eddie Pipkin

Discernment, as defined in its normal, non-church-related context, is about a display of judgment or taste.  Take fashion, for instance.  I have no fashion sense.  No one has ever accused me of having style.  My whole life, the only sartorial style with which I have ever been associated is a lack of style so consistently featuring such tasteless and dull choices as to embody me as anti-hero of style.  And yet, I have led a blessed and happy life.  Judgement in what to wear has turned out not to have been vital to health and happiness.  Discernment, as defined in the spiritual sense, however, is about a well-tuned sense of perception.  As Christians, we live not only for our personal gratification, but to serve the God we love.  We long for spiritual discernment, because, as disciples, unless we align our choices with God’s desires, fulfillment is impossible.  Discernment is essential for individuals and essential for churches, too.

[This blog is part of a series focusing on Phil Maynard’s new training program “7 Dimensions: A Practical Approach to Congregational Development.”  We are taking a closer look at the topics of Discernment, Visioning, Gathering, Discipling, Worshiping, Maturing, and Multiplying.  We’ll consider ways that these dimensions apply both to purposeful institutions and purposeful individuals.]

The “7 Dimensions” training material begins with a clear definition of discernment:

Discernment is the continual process of discovering and responding to God’s will, purpose, and call for the journey of faithful discipleship and ministry.  This discernment is both individual and corporate.  Each disciple responds to the call of God to engage the journey of experiencing life as Jesus intended.  Every congregation responds to the call of God to engage the community in ways that invite people into the journey of discipleship, address real needs, and bring transformation.

Discernment is not a once-in-a-lifetime experience (e.g., conversion or call to professional ministry), but a lifelong journey of growing in maturity as disciples, discovering our giftedness for ministry/service, and understanding the community in which God has placed us and our congregation.

Breaking down this overview, we can identify basic principles that underlie this understanding of the process of discernment:

  • First of all, that it is a process, not a one-and-done event. It’s not a lightning bolt of inspiration from out of the blue (although that occasionally happens).  We have to work the process.
  • It’s an ongoing, lifelong process which we revisit regularly as we grow towards maturity. We keep coming back to the “discernment well,” using the tools that have worked for us before, but also being willing to try new approaches, understanding that what works at one stage of life may not work as well at another stage.
  • It’s for individuals and for institutions. Individuals who engage the discernment process lead to institutions that engage the discernment process.
  • If done well, discernment produces tangible results. It has measurable impact.
  • When done thoughtfully, prayerfully, and regularly, it produces within us (and within our institutions) a sense of peace, purpose, and stability.

For many of us, having done the work of discerning that we are called to ministry (professional or personal), we then begin stumbling from decision to decision based on whatever pressing need is demanding our attention in the moment.  We neglect to step back and re-discern.

Understanding the basic principles that underlie the process of discernment, we are able to ask incisive institutional questions that get to the heart of whether the ministries we lead value and empower the discernment process:

  • How do we invite persons to discover God’s call to become a disciple? What transition points are in place to support the decision(s)?
  • How is the concept of “the priesthood of all believers’ lived out in our congregations?
  • What processes are available to support disciples in discovering their gifts and graces for service?
  • How are leaders (administrative, ministry, small group) identified, trained, and deployed?
  • How are persons with clear gifts for ministry encouraged to explore professional ministry options?
  • What is the identified purpose of your congregation? How are you called to make a difference in the surrounding community?

Thinking as individuals, working independently on our own spiritual growth, as well as working within the context of the institutions we serve, these institutional questions provide a framework for accountability questions we might ask ourselves:

  • Do I understand what the discipleship call means for me personally? Do I have a clear concept of what God would have me do in order to faithfully serve?
  • Do I know how to access resources (independently and within the context of my local church) for actively engaging and regularly revisiting the discernment process?
  • Have I identified my own unique gifts and graces? Having identified them, do I engage in practices to grow these gifts and graces, understand them more completely, and fully employ them for kingdom work?  (And one might note here, to fully employ them as a means to personal satisfaction and fulfillment as well, because being fully in tune with who we are created to be is clearly the path to lasting satisfaction and fulfillment.)
  • Have I identified accountability partners and an accountability community to help me in this process?
  • Do I regularly consider how fulfilling my godly purpose can impact the lives of those around me and the community beyond my doors?

So far, I have written several references to “the process of discernment” without providing details as to what that process looks like.  Traditionally, in most local churches, we talk about discovering God’s will through lots of prayer and Scripture reading, and those are the two foundational techniques for disciples.  But there are many, many tools for guiding our discernment process, and one of the things the “7 Dimensions” training does is provide specific best practices and tools with which to outfit our discernment toolbox.  There is an abundance of available resources, and different approaches work better for different people.  The tools featured in the “7 Dimensions” training gravitate to the practical approaches (as alluded to in the subheading).  The key, as always, is that we have identified the tools that work for our context, and we are disciplined in applying those tools.  Also, it’s important to revisit some spiritual skills that get neglected in the drive to competitively hyper-achieve that the world’s success models promote: for instance, the sacred art of listening and making space for quiet reflection and contemplation.

For many of us, this discussion / process will feel familiar in the sense that it seems a lot like the visioning process in which many leadership teams have participated at some point.  This is because discernment is an essential first step before visioning can happen, and it is often wrapped into organized visioning sessions as perfunctory first step.  It should, however, never be given short shrift.  Discernment – understanding God’s will within our unique context – has to happen first.  Visioning is the articulation and implementation of the truths we have revealed through the process of discernment.  Visioning that happens without a full and prayerful process of discernment leads to goals being established that have grown from the wrong motives, and while such goals may be executed (and even executed well with great fanfare), if they are the wrong goals, they will ultimately implode for individuals and for institutions.

The “7 Dimensions” training on discernment explores all of these ideas in far greater detail.  It serves up hands-on tools for working through the questions and finding clear answers.  You can explore it more fully and reach out to Phil for more information at the Excellence in Ministry Coaching website page HERE.

Do you feel you have a clear process of ongoing personal discernment?  Not just a sense of your general calling, but a process for discerning a purposeful way forward from project to project and goal to goal.  Looking at the bigger picture, does your local church honor the discernment process by promoting an environment that connects people with the tools to discern their personal direction and the directions they should be pursuing as a faith community working together?