Practicing Discernment Together as a Church

About a month ago we began a Wednesday evening meeting at Camas Friends (the Quaker meeting I pastor). The goal of these meetings are to build our friendships with each other (so we eat together before the class begins), as well as add to our being a learning community. The first book we decided to work through is a book on discernment and is called, Practicing Discernment Together by Lon Fendell, Jan Wood and Bruce Bishop. The book was written by three Quakers here in the Northwest and is a really useful guide and introduction to learning about the practice of discernment. While the book draws heavily on the experience and wisdom of the Quaker tradition, it is not an overly Quaker book in the sense that it is not bogged down with jargon or insider-speak. It would be beneficial for anyone interested in learning more about this topic. And it does seem that there is a growing interest in the Quaker practice of discernment. I have had a lot of people interested in knowing more about the way Quakers make decisions together without voting.

As a group we practice listening to God’s Spirit together as a community and seek to find unity with God’s one mind. We realize that the process of this kind of listening and sharing and adjusting our own desires and expectations is really the most important part of the process. Coming to some final decision is the by-product of us working through a process that, as the authors suggest, actually helps us become “the people of God.” We often say the final decision, whether or not we do this one thing is ultimately not the real point; the real point is: were we faithful to God and one another, did we become a community and were we transformed in the process?  When we do make a decision it is through what we call a “sense of the meeting,” it is not voting nor is it consensus, though I am sure it may seem like the latter to those on the outside looking in. But for Quakers, there really is a difference between a lowest common denominator approach, which all to often is what consensus becomes, and what we see as working toward a unity with God and something that emerges out of worship. Consensus is a secular version of something we hold to be very sacred work. That said, I think consensus is a worthwhile pursuit for any organization and is a better alternative than what most people are used to, while the “sense of the meeting” is a more nuanced practice and should be understood as something done within the context of worshiping community.

The book “Practicing Discernment Together” lays all of this out in better detail and speak about what discernment is. It also helps to frame an understanding of what it means to listen to God and how to look back through your personal or group’s life and see places where they have entered listened well to God. The book also covers the biblical grounds for discernment, as well as the nuts and bolts of the practice: how to run a meeting where a group is practicing discernment, each step of the process, what to do when there is conflict, how the leaders are to present the issues, how those in the group are to participate, and what to do once unity has been reached.

I can’t recommend this book enough (you can preview it here). It’s not only great for individuals to read and consider how to practice discernment better in life’s big decisions, it’s even better for, and really geared for, how do to this in groups.

A Discernment Blog Series?

What I would like to do in the next however many posts is discuss some of what I’ve been learning about discernment as a pastor, participant in a worshiping community and as a parent. I am by no means an expect on this, in fact that’s kind of the point, I have really been getting schooled on all of this over the past two years and I’m loving it! So this will be a little bit of a blogging series though I don’t have any plans for how long it will go. We’ll see what sticks and go from there.

Finally, I’ll write these posts in a way that they might be useful for the person who’s not a Quaker and doesn’t know a whole lot about practicing discernment but would be interested in how it’s done, or how a group might go about learning how to do it.

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

3 thoughts on “Practicing Discernment Together as a Church”

  1. Oooh, a series! I keep kicking about a general Quakers series as a way of outreach and getting beyond the insider baseball posts that are too easy (though perhaps more fraught given my higher profile).

    Discernment is definitely one of those Quaker gifts to contemporary spirituality that I think would have a wide appeal and usefulness.

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