When we at CHC do a visioning process with churches, we always start by explaining to the congregation that the work we are doing together is more profound than corporate strategic planning or the visioning exercises with which they may be familiar from their workplaces. The primary difference is that the visioning process into which we are inviting them is a prayerful engagement in spiritual discernment.

Rather than leading the congregation to ask,
What is it we want for our church in the years ahead?
we instead ask them to be open to the question
What is God calling us to become in this next season of life together?  
The focus is not on what we want, but what God wants for us.

Most of what I know about spiritual discernment I learned at a School for Discernmentarians led many years ago by Chuck Olsen and Danny Morris.  These two ministers – one Presbyterian and one United Methodist – dedicated most of their ministries to helping Christian leaders listen more carefully for the voice of the Spirit in their church boards and judicatories.

Olsen and Morris started from their experience that when American Christians make decisions about the lives of our congregations, we far more often enter into a parliamentary process than into the rich Christian tradition of spiritual discernment. We are more apt to turn to Robert’s Rules of Order than to scripture and tradition to find our way forward.

If we want to be more open to the Spirit in our decision making, they suggested, we are going to need a guide to help us along the way.  Just as a deliberative body needs a parliamentarian to lead it through its decision-making process, a body seeking to discern the will of God needs a discernmentarian to help it notice the movement of the Spirit in its conversations.  And so they developed their School for Discernmentarians.

Olsen and Morris gleaned most of their insights for that School from the discernment practices of the Jesuits and the Quaker tradition of “making a minute.”  They merged the two traditions’ insights into an easily followed discernment process that can help us be more attuned to the voice of the Spirit as we dream together about the future God already has in store for us.

One of the most important steps in that process (detailed in their book Discerning God’s Will Together) is what Quakers refer to as the process of “shedding.”  If the goal of discernment is “listening for God’s voice: nothing more, nothing less, nothing else,” then we need to let go of all the other voices clamoring for our attention as we enter that process.  The voice we typically most need to silence is the voice that expresses our own desires. Shedding, then, is primarily the process of silencing the voice that speaks when we ask the question, “What do I want?”

The way the Quakers engage this step is to wrestle with the question, “What would I have to let go of in order to be open to nothing more, nothing less, nothing else than God’s will?”

Imagine what going through a shedding process together might mean if your church wanted to undertake a discernment process about its future?  What if you invited people to ask themselves even the question, “What is the one thing I’m going to find it hardest to let go of as we listen for God’s voice together?”

When I have asked people to engage that question, I get responses like

  • I’m open to our changing lots of things, but you’d better not touch the pews in the sanctuary.
  • I’m willing to be open to what God wants us to do, but I sure hope it doesn’t make us change the kind of music we sing on Sunday morning.
  • I want us to do what God wants us to do, but I don’t want it to make me feel uncomfortable.

Naming that one thing that is most likely to get in the way of our being fully open to God’s will for our church is helpful for a discernment process in at least two ways.  First, each of us can catch our self when our “hardest” issue comes up in the congregation’s conversation. We can remind ourselves to breathe deeply and hold our issue more lightly as the conversation continues.  Second, when other people say, “I’m totally opposed to that” – and we remember that what they are opposed to is what they said they would have the hardest time letting go of, we can discount their resistance just a bit.

There is no perfect way to be attuned to the “still, small voice” of God when we do our visioning work together, but actively engaging a shedding process can go a long way toward helping us silence the voices that make it difficult to hear God’s clarion call.

Jim Kitchens
A native of Mississippi, Jim has served Presbyterian churches in California and Tennessee for almost 35 years. He loves helping congregations prayerfully discern how the Spirit calls them to adapt to changing cultural contexts. Jim is the author of The Postmodern Parish published by the Alban Institute. He is a consultant for CHC and the coordinator for CHC-West.