Conversatio Divina

Part 6 of 17

The Call of Communal Discernment

Steve Doughty

I am intrigued by how often in recent years I have heard the phrase “communal discernment.” I hear it in congregational settings, on retreats, and at regional church gatherings. Sometimes the phrase arises with great hope. A year ago I attended a three-day conference for leaders from ten different Christian denominations. To a person, communal discernment excited them. “When we practice communal discernment in our committees, relationships grow stronger,” said one seasoned leader. “We begin to see possibilities we never thought of before,” affirmed another.

On other occasions, “communal discernment” wells up in contexts of near despair. I recall a leader whose denomination, like many of ours, wrestled with major divisions. “Only God can provide a way out of the mess we’re in,” she said, shaking her head. “Do you think communal discernment might help?”

In both the excited and the aching references to communal discernment, I hear a call for the whole of Jesus’ church to explore the ways of discerning God’s will together. No one person has a lock on what communal discernment is about. Nor does any single church tradition. What we have right now, I am convinced, is an immense opportunity for shared conversation and mutual learning among various parts of the entire Christian family. We also have an emerging sense of the basics of communal discernment: its purpose, its source, the predispositions needed for discernment to take place in community, and some practices for discerning God’s will together. With gratitude to the many who have been both my fellow searchers and my teachers, I share the following as, I hope, an encouragement to ongoing, prayerful exploration.

01.  The Purpose of Communal Discernment

What is the purpose of communal discernment? When we engage in communal discernment, what are we really about? 

How we answer is crucial to the fruits communal discernment will bear in our life together. People can view discernment primarily as a quick fix for the church’s present ills and divisions. On occasion I get an invitation that essentially says, “We have an all-day meeting coming up and some tough divisions among us. We’d like you to help us with discernment. We hope to come out with a clear sense of God’s will for us by adjournment at 3:30 p.m.” The purpose of discernment, however, has nothing to do with quick fixes.

The insightful resource Grounded in God offers a clear picture of the purpose of communal discernment: “In group deliberations, discernment involves coming together with open hearts and open minds to seek God’s wisdom around issues important to the community.”Suzanne G. Farnham, Stephanie A. Hull, and Taylor R. McLean, Grounded in God: Listening Hearts Discernment for Group Deliberations, revised edition (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1999) 7. In communal discernment we seek one thing and one thing alone: God’s guidance for the life we share together.

Biblical images enrich our understanding of this purpose. I will mention just a few. When we discern together we seek collectively to put on the mind of Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5). We allow ourselves to become molded more fully as agents of God’s world-redeeming peace (Micah 4:3–4). We seek God’s guidance in order that we may more fully welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner, and feed the hungry (Matthew 25:31–46). Communal discernment is not about glossing over our divisions or articulating our plans “right on schedule.” It is about being formed together in God’s ways.

A young pastor expressed what she was learning about the purpose of communal discernment in words that I find encourage much thought: “The ultimate aim of discernment is not just a decision. It is growth in the freedom to live wholly from the love of the living God and wholly for that love. When we practice communal discernment, we are on a journey into a way of being together in God’s presence. Then we seek to live that presence back into the world.”

02.  The Source of Communal Discernment

The words of that young pastor are key in understanding the source of all our discernment. In discernment we seek to live from the love of God and, yes, from the wisdom, the guidance, the very being of God. The source of discernment is not our own quickness of mind or our cleverness. Faithful discernment will not arise from our inner attachments, our deeply held passions, or even our careful process for deciding what to do next. The source for faithful discernment is the living God and God alone.

The life of the early Christian community offers strong witness on this matter. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would guide, help, and teach his followers (John 14:16, 26). Paul encouraged followers of Jesus to be mindful of “God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13, NRSVAll Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright © 1989, 2021 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). When the early church faced its first major decision—Who should replace Judas?—it turned wholly to God for guidance (Acts 1:23–26).

The truth that God is the source of our discernment can emerge in stunning and grace-filled ways. I watched for several years as a group within my denomination sought to discern God’s leading on some of the most painful issues that were dividing us. At the outset the group itself was fractured. In the end its members spoke with a single, courageous voice to the rest of the church. What they shared was not the last word, but it was a step. Their way of being together was itself a witness to the rest of us. One member of the group told me, with much feeling in her voice, “Only the Holy Spirit could have brought us to that place.”

03.  Predispositions for Discernment

What, then, needs to happen within us and among us if we are to enter faithfully into communal discernment? What predispositions of the mind and heart can ready us for God’s leadership of our shared life?

I find four matters essential, and I expect that others, out of their own experience, will rightly add to what I mention here.


We need to trust that God yearns to work in our group with all its diversity and giftedness. And we surely can have this trust! “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). We are not abandoned or cast off on our own. We will find the living Christ in our midst if we but turn to him. The guidance we seek is not buried in a distant place, nor is it accessible to only a select few. “No,” declares the Book of Deuteronomy to the whole community of faith, “the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deuteronomy 30:14).

To grow in the practice of communal discernment, we also need to trust one another. This can be a challenge when members of a group differ widely in their views or even their personalities. It is precisely the need for mutual trust that makes it so important that those engaged in communal discernment spend time together in prayer and faith sharing. I have seen this repeatedly: the groups that grow in the blessings of communal discernment take the time for prayer and the telling of personal faith stories, even if such efforts seem awkward at first.


Gerald May noted our human tendency towards willfulness. When we practice willfulness we “attempt to master, direct, control, or otherwise manipulate existence.”Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1982) 6. Willfulness can become a major dynamic in group deliberations. It exerts substantial force through attitudes that say, “I want my way” or “Our view must prevail” or “We have the vision and the wording to express it.”

Group discernment can arise only when we abandon willfulness and embrace willingness.For a fuller treatment of the interplay between “willingness” and “willfulness,” readers may be interested in Gerald May, Will and Spirit, 5–7. Our collective prayer needs to echo Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane: “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). For many groups this prayer may come only after struggle, just as Jesus’ prayer came after struggle. Danny Morris and Charles Olsen suggest that groups engaged in communal discernment spend time in silent reflection, then name “the baggage, investments, or passions each person brings to the issue,” and then release whatever they need to so that they may fully open to God’s will.Danny E. Morris and Charles M. Olsen, Discerning God’s Will Together (Bethesda, MD: Alban Publications, 1997) 120.

Deep, Prayerful Listening

To discern faithfully in community, we need to listen deeply, both to each person in the group and to the loving One who seeks to lead us all. This means that when another is speaking, we do not focus on our response. We listen with the prayer, “Help me understand.” From our hearts we ask, “What are you, kind God, saying to me through this other person?”

Prayerful listening also means that we practice simplicity in our speech. We need to avoid following the dictum, “If it hasn’t been said in my words, it hasn’t been said.” It is not how much we say but what we allow to speak through the entire group that ultimately speaks in times of communal discernment.

Openness to God’s Time

To fully receive God’s leadership for our life in community, we need to live from God’s sense of timing, not ours. Rose Mary Dougherty notes, “It is helpful to remind the group that since the spiritual life is ongoing, there does not need to be closure in any one session.”Rose Mary Dougherty, Group Spiritual Direction: Community for Discernment (Mahwah:, NJ Paulist Press, 1995) 51. Dougherty writes here specifically of group discernment around issues relating to the spiritual journey of an individual in the group. Her insight, though, applies fully as much to communal discernment on issues and opportunities affecting the life of the entire community. God leads us step by step in our communal life, just as God does in our individual journeys. As a group, we may want to know the answer by 3:30 in the afternoon, or at least at the end of next month, but God’s work in us is often deeper and more surprising than our preset timetables allow.

04.  Practices for Discerning God’s Will in Community

Clearly, we do not manufacture or “cook up” our communal discernments. Discernment arises in our life together just as it does on our personal journeys: it comes as a gift from God. And the key question is, “How can we position ourselves to receive this gift?” In response, I find several group practices particularly helpful. Together they suggest the range of communal practices open to us. They also show us how close at hand, and how inviting, the life of communal discernment really is.

Living With a Long-Term Question 

Physician and author Rachael Naomi Remen once noted, “An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eyes for the road.”Rachael Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, 293. If we live with an open question in our minds, we begin to see fresh details and dimensions in whatever we are looking at. We may begin to spot more facts, more stunning wonders, and even new mysteries to explore. Hang on to a question long, and unanticipated visions start to emerge.

I knew a church board that wanted to discern what God was doing in the congregation and in the community around it. Board members agreed to start each monthly meeting answering the question, “Where have I seen God’s love active in our church and in our community since we last met?” For two months the answers came slowly. By the fifth month eyes had grown sharp. Responses grew plentiful. That church board had become a discerning community. They grew deeply aware of God’s work in their midst and caught fresh visions of where God was calling the congregation.

When public services to the poor faced severe threats in my home state of Michigan, the late Bishop Kenneth Untener asked that all committees in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saginaw begin every meeting by asking, “How is this meeting going to help the poor?” Scores of committees and hundreds of persons repeatedly asked that question. Faith communities throughout the region discerned how they could respond to Jesus’ call to reach out to the hungry, the homeless, and the outcast.

Seeking God’s Guidance Together in Silence and Images 

Silence and images are readily accessible channels for opening to God’s leadership in communal discernment. Their use is not complicated, though employing either requires a commitment of time and prayerfulness from the group.

A few years ago I was invited to help a gathering of church leaders address a major pastoral concern in their denomination. We met for three days. By the second afternoon we had grown tired and irritable. People started sniping at one another. Then a few of them went after me as facilitator, and I didn’t like it one bit! One gentle soul, who had said very little, asked that we enter a time of silence. “I mean everyone,” she added with a slight smile. The half hour of quiet that followed became a time of prayer. Some of us headed outside. Others stayed at their seats. That time of quiet also became a turning point.

I thanked the woman at the close of what had transformed into a fruitful day. She responded with words I have cherished:

“Silence lets us restore God to the center. God brings us into a wider, calmer place. There we begin to live from God’s lead again, not our fatigue and our narrow attachments.”

Prayerful reflection on images can similarly open a group to God’s leading. Like entering silence, the practice of using images can take place at the start of a group’s work or right in the middle of it. Sometimes it is helpful to have one visual image, or several, and ask the group to reflect prayerfully on how God is speaking to them through what they see. After quiet reflection, all share. At other times, it is helpful to state the issue that the group is considering, and then ask persons to reflect quietly on the question, “What image do you see as you think on the issue before us?” After silence, all share, and all listen. Repeatedly, I have seen groups move into new, God-led ways after such sharing.

05.  Engaging in More Extended Processes of Discernment

Recent years have seen the publication of a number of helpful resources offering extended processes for communal discernment. No two of these resources are alike, but all lift up a series of practices that can assist faith communities in opening to discernment. In varied fashion, these practices include such key elements as Scripture study, faith sharing, and prayer. They urge that time be spent in clarifying the question before the group, shedding attachments, and gathering information from a variety of sources on the question at hand. They draw participants into speaking the emerging vision they see, testing that vision, and ultimately celebrating it. These resources are practical and down to earth, and I happily recommend them.Among the resources currently available are Charles Olsen, “Seeing With Spiritual Eyes: The Practice of Prayerful Discernment,” chapter 5 of Transforming Church Boards (Bethesda, MD: Alban Publications, 1995); Farnham, Hull, and McLean, op. cit.; Morris and Olsen, op. cit.; and Stephen V. Doughty and Marjorie J. Thompson, The Way of Discernment (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2008), a ten-week group experiential study of personal and communal discernment in the Companions in Christ study series. The Participant’s Book is by Doughty, the Leader’s Guide by Thompson.

At the same time, I believe it important to stress that the practice of communal discernment is as immediate and uncomplicated as the next moment of God-centered silence. It is as near to us as our shared yearning to follow in God’s way amid all the challenges the entire Christian community faces today. With respect to communal discernment, we are in a season of rediscovery. It is an exciting and graced time. Far beyond the few words of this article or anything else that has been written, our faith communities all have something to contribute.


Steve Doughty ( is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He served many years in the pastorate and also in denominational roles. The author of five books, he frequently leads retreats and conferences.