The Process of Discernment: Group vs Individual

Make Room for New Saints

Today’s Alban Weekly post is back to that most popular topic among modern church leaders—discernment. 

They know what they mean.

Today’s author is Consultant Susan Beaumont. She opens her post by telling about the stunned looks she gets from congregations when she uses the word discernment.

It’s not that people don’t know what the word means. It is more a sense that the choice of that word over more common words leads us wondering, “What are you up to?”

Beaumont acknowledges this distrust with a perceptive quote.

Thomas H Green, S.J., says, “Many people today express well-grounded misgivings about community discernment, and even feel uncomfortable with the word, ‘discernment.’ It can easily be a polite and pious name for a ‘tyranny of the majority,’ a way of attaching the Lord’s name and authority to what most of the group want, or believe he [sic] must want. If this happens, then, as we have seen, ‘discernment’ becomes a way of manipulating God to agree with our convictions concerning action and decision-making.”

Even so—knowing that the language is not trusted—church leaders keep at it. They enjoy the confusion and the sense of need it creates.

Every church governing board wrestles with where the congregation’s idyllic mission statement meets the facts of life—the paying of the mortgage, property upkeep, utilities and staff. A lot of attention must be on immediate needs. But wise governing boards know they must look to the future. They know they are the business arm of the Church.

Perhaps the “discernment” process needs to develop its vocabulary with a couple of other concepts.

  1. Business is not a bad word. Most church members live in the “business” world five or six days of the week. Treating “business” as a bad word devalues the self-image and expertise of the laity and minimizes their importance in the life of the church.
  2. Discernment is not always a group dynamic. The modern era has given tremendous power to the individual. The church might find some answers to their discernment processes by focusing on the power of each member rather than trying with futility to agree upon “group think” that validates the squeakiest wheel and leaves the other supporting wheels wobbling.

We don’t remember much about the group efforts of the churches in Corinth, Philippi, Jerusalem, Rome, New York, etc. But we do remember what Paul, Peter, Timothy, Mary, Martin Luther, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. did.

Does the church have room for new saints?