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.”