We are very excited to welcome our first guest blogger, PVP Leaderhip Team member Dana Hlusko, who has been working with her parish leadership to understand discernment in common. What you will read here she has shared with her parish leadership as they embrace synodality. A Protestant by upbringing, I bercame a Catholic my first year of college. But I REALLY became Catholoic in my 40s. I went on my own conversion journey with an RCIA catechument that blew me away. Sin ce then I have read all things Catholic, served as an RCIA Coordinator, a Consultant with ConSpirita Consulting Network and just completed a Post Master's Certificate of Advancred Graduate Studies in Theology at St. Joseph's College of Maine. I'm still waiting and praying for what God wants of me with this advanced education. The Pentecost Vigil Project is, so far, where I've landed. WIth the Spirit, who knows what may be next? To Infinity and Beyond!
At the beginning of Solomon’s reign when he was given the chance to ask God for anything, anything, in the world, this is what he said:
“Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may
discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this your great people?”
What did he mean, “discern”?
Discernment means to recognize, distinguish, or make judgments by taking time in making decisions, using both the head and heart, and assessing important values involved in the situation. Some synonyms are insight, perception, sageness, wisdom. Christian discernment surrenders to the Holy Spirit’s lead. (Merriam Webster and Dictionary.com)
So how do Christians wishing to discern “surrender to the Spirit”? Here are some ways.
Christian discernment is infused with prayer of varied type: prepared, spontaneous, individual, and communal. After all, if you’re doing God’s work, it would be good to invite God to participate.
Christian discernment is patient. It is not fast. “Let’s get this done so I can go to dinner” is NOT something you’re focused on.
Individual discernment takes to God whatever you are struggling with and then you have to listen to what God says. The same thing applies to communal discernment.
What should be my fundamental disposition if I am part of a communal discernment?
You must surrender your will to the Spirit. That means there is no place for individual, personal agendas. You must come to the discernment with an open heart and mind, determined not to get what YOU want because you know best, but to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead.
Why is it important that we let the Spirit lead? Here the Holy Father says it beautifully :
Yet there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide and direct us, leading us wherever he wills. (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, 2013. §280)
Here is a short list of additional reasons:
Because the Holy Spirit is Christ’s gift to leaders. The Spirit offers wisdom, knowledge, understanding, right judgment, wonder and awe, prudence, and courage. Ecclesial leaders need these gifts.
Because the Church belongs to Christ and so must follow His lead if it is to carry out his mission, His way.
Because the world God so loves desperately needs to hear God’s voice and see God’s hand through the people he set apart to be salt, light, and leaven.
I hope you are coming to see why the Spirit’s lead is so important. Now let’s turn our attention to how to discern.
General Guidelines for Discerning
Ask the right questions. Even when you think you know what the question is, take time to discover the larger question that may be lurking just beneath the obvious one. Questions about the physical plant may hold larger questions about mission, stewardship, and values. Questions about strategic planning might reveal the deeper question of “Is this my agenda or God’s?” Questions about scheduling programs might lead to a much bigger conversation about keeping Sabbath, the pace of life, or mission connection and fruitfulness. The right question is critical.
Gather the right people. This doesn’t mean just your friends or people who will agree with you. Subject matter experts, those with direct responsibility for the area, those with organizational authority, those with the gifts of wisdom and discernment, those who hold organizational history, and those who can assist in communicating the process and the outcomes are some of the people who belong around the discernment table. Make sure the right combination of people gathers to discern. The Spirit is speaking through all the Baptized, so being intentional about gathering many voices makes it possible to have a fruitful, Spirit led discernment.
Look to your guiding values and principles. Intellectual, emotional, and spiritual safety, clarity around inviolable values, Christ-centeredness, which means considering Christ’s inviolable values, truth-telling, and not rushing (which includes waiting on one another so that we have both deep understanding and maintain unity) are some of the guiding values and principles of a communal discernment process. You may need to articulate others. Clarity about and agreement around values and principles is crucial BEFORE discernment begins. And remember, just because we call ourselves Christian and gather together as Christian people, doesn’t mean we will look to Christ’s values, and not our own.
Get in the rhythm of continuous prayer. This means that prayer punctuates the process, continuously and openly trusting that the living Spirit of God is trying to guide the process. This may mean stopping in the midst of a discussion to pray. It will mean going off to pray as individuals. Prayers for quiet trust, for silence, for gifts of the Spirit, for detachment/indifference to anything but the will of God, and for the gift of wisdom are some of the prayer content discernment in common requires.
How do I know it’s the Holy Spirit speaking?
“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” (1 Kings 19: 11b-12) And that was God.
God speaks through different venues, nature, people…Listen to the voices of the people gathered. You may have someone in the gathering you don’t like, who disagrees with you or everyone, who you know has only one point of view…listen to them as well as the people you DO like and those who work harmoniously with others. A discernment in common gathering cannot be a “Yes Man” kind of group. People who can be the most cantankerous and hard to work with may have kernels of truth to share. And you need to listen, again with an open heart and mind. Take advantage of the tools God gives us: prayer, wisdom of the group, knowledge of those gathered, the leading of the Holy Spirit. Use them to listen widely for that still small voice that is God-with-us.
How do You Know the Spirit was Involved in your Discernment?
1. Run the project through the lens of the vision you are reaching for and its subordinate themes and ask yourselves, collectively
a. Does this outcome conform to God's law and the mind of Christ and is it revealed through Scripture, Tradition, and the Teaching of the Church? If it doesn't, we simply cannot do it.
b. Does it foster personal conversion and growth in holiness? As we make decisions that deepen our union with God, the life of Christ will become more evident in our own lives. This is true for individual discernment as well as discernment in common.
c. Is it consistent? Many of our decisions will flow directly from previous decisions — providing, of course, that our previous decisions bore good fruit! God may give us new challenges and take us in new directions, but he tends to reveal them in a manner consistent with how he has spoken to us in the past.
2. What confirms it? After we make a decision, God usually sends some confirmation, maybe by opening doors that were once closed, revealing needed resources, or through affirming words spoken by a trusted friend. What we might call a coincidence can be the Spirit affirming our direction. Of course, there are times when we just have to decide on something and then examine its fruit. Remember, experience isn't the best teacher; evaluated experience is!
3. Are you at peace with what was discerned? What would it take to reach peace? (More time, information, prayer?)
You also have to include practical considerations like time, talent, treasure, human resources, building resources, and the calendar when determining if the discerned decision is able to be implemented. And if you do this, will something else have to stop or change?
What should or could be the outcome of discernment?
I know you want me to say that the Spirit will ensure that you come to a decision because you have engaged in discernment. Not necessarily so. When God pours God’s Spirit upon us, there are visible signs of conversion, of community and of impact…but we have to also recognize that none of those listed are actual decisions…they are gifts of a relationship with God. So with that in mind, what should or could be the expected outcomes?
1. You have been faithful to the process. This should always be the case.
2. It may be that you can’t arrive at a decision. You may have to delay a decision because there is passionate resistance to one or more elements within the decision.
3. You may need more private and communal prayer before any decision can be made, which means you may have to pause and regather.
4. It may be that a recommendation, plan of action, actual action or delegation to the responsible party is decided… or not. So the result depends on who is discerning with what authority and with what responsibility.
5. Break, pray, both private and communal and regather at a later time. This is especially important if participants are tired, the process is taking longer than first thought and so there is some frustration, or it becomes clear that some crucial voices are missing. Remember, this is a slow, deliberative process.
To close, here’s a list to keep in mind as you begin to practice discernment in common, which is foundational to the embrace of synodality.
Discernment should be an intentional exercise in faith , the searching for the voice of the Spirit revealing God’s will in this place and time.
Discernment should be immersed in prayer.
Discernment is a process with designated participants, steps and recognizable outcomes.
Discernment might result in no action being decided – which is a decision itself.
Discernment might result in a decision and work assigned.
And in every place that discernment in common happens, there is the possibility of having a Solomon-like experience, hearing the voice of the God’s Holy Spirit, in this age. What a wondrous gift that is!
Photo courtesty of Unsplash/Annie Spratt