The Art of Discernment – Minister’s Message

CarrieBail.June2016I am a cradle roll Congregationalist; here are two brief stories about that identity. First, I was an ardent teen-aged member of the church during the height of the Vietnam War. As happens too often in our tradition, our congregation split seriously over some UCC initiatives. Suddenly, we teens found ourselves disenfranchised when it came to the congregational vote. Like several of my age-mates, I fled from church organizations (remember that pejorative label, “The Establishment”?) for about a decade.

When I moved to Hawaii in my mid-twenties, I went back to church for the express purpose of singing with a good choir. The Lutheran Church of Honolulu certainly provided me with that gift, as well as two others: meeting a future husband and the opportunity to do social justice work. My pastor there also helped me to discern my growing call to ministry. When I went off to seminary on the mainland, I was still torn between the wonderful singing worship tradition in the ELCA and my own foundational journey in the UCC. In studying, my deep conviction about UCC polity and governance brought me back to this fold.

So what is that conviction? Here are the main points, as simply as I can put them:

  • The purpose of gathering together into a church is to discover and to do God’s will
  • This discovery of God’s will does not come from one human being, even if he/she is a Bishop or at the other extreme, a charismatic cult leader (from Mother Anne of the Shakers to Jim Jones of the People’s Temple)
  • God’s will is best discovered in a committed group of people who are sincerely attempting to discern it, through prayer, reasonable discussion, surrendering of ego, and movement of the Spirit

These principles were held by our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors, and have resulted both in great blessing and, dare I say, curse. The genius of our national democracy has root in these ideas. But, so do the greatest schisms and arguments of political difference. If one or more individual(s) bases their position solely on their own thinking or emotion or opinion, in the process they are likely to neglect prayer,  surrendering of the ego, and movement of the Spirit. Discernment is NOT the same as majority rule.

Unfortunately, the history of congregational churches in our nation is fraught with the vulnerability of equating these two things. We are not very good at teaching or practicing the art of discernment. Consequently our decisions – important and trivial alike – too often become divisive rather than harmonious, and process too often is mislaid or ignored. It’s both humorous and distressing to learn how many congregational churches split over things like the placement of the choir loft, or the color of the rug.

I invite you, in this interim time, to explore this art of discernment with me.  Practicing the arts of prayer, of listening, of letting go of ego, and of putting our trust in the oneness of God’s purpose will go a long way on the journey toward continued healing and the future flourishing of this community of faith.


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