In 2014, a seventeen-member group representing the breadth of the United Church of Christ came together to envision how the Church is called to live into the Ministry Issues Pronouncement of 2009 and re-vision the Manual on Ministry. This work literally defines institutional church leadership for the United Church of Christ, and the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) ministry team on which I serve has shepherded this process faithfully. Taking as our guide the prophet Habakkuk, who urges us to “write the vision and to make it plain” (Habakkuk 2:2), our work has been bathed in prayer and the presence of the Holy Spirit at every step as we have sought to discern what new thing the Holy Spirit is calling us to do for the Church.
The central word that has defined our work is “discernment.” Discernment is fundamentally about uncovering the work God is doing in the world and how we are called to join it. Discernment is the practice by which the Habakkuk Group has tested ideas, faced our discomfort, humbled ourselves, de-centered and de-privileged our own (varied) experiences, and spied glimpses of the handiwork of the Spirit. Discernment is the roadmap by which we have traced a path, started walking, discovered we were on a wholly different path, and traced a new way. Discernment is the means through which we said “No,” “Yes,” and “We aren’t sure yet.” Discernment is the tool we have used to crack open our assumptions, mess everything up on the table, rearrange it, flip the table over, cry, walk away, pray, and try again.
The Church needs appropriate resources to identify, empower, support and hold accountable faithful, effective, excellent, and healthy clergy leaders. The hardest part has been waiting for the unfolding of that vision to be made clear in the midst of the Church’s urgent need for us to complete this work. We are comforted by Habakkuk’s reminder: “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Habakkuk 2:3).
Does this sound familiar to you? So much is changing in our churches. If we are lucky, we are in the mess itself, praying and wondering and shepherding and questioning as we go. Sometimes it simply feels very scary to have all this cracking open and messing up and rearranging and flipping over happen in our midst. Discernment is what allows us to realize that all this change in the world and in the institutional church isn’t happening TO us, but WITH us – and we can choose how we participate in that.
Discernment is not about a set of answers that will solve our problems. It is about mystery, discovery, journey, hope, and community. It is about doing the ordinary, everyday work necessary to understand where God is calling us to go.
Sparking Ministry Conversations
Where do you catch a glimpse of what the Holy Spirit is doing in your church and in your community? What is hardest about waiting for the vision to be made clear? What are you doing as you wait?
If you’d like some tools for discernment, the Habakkuk Group created the Discernment Travelogue for churches, individuals and small groups. It’s available here in English, Spanish, and Samoan.
Elizabeth Dilley serves as Minister for Ministers in Local Churches on the MESA ministry team in the national offices of the United Church of Christ.