May 2020 COMma: Discernment By Distance
Rev. Dr. Tony Clark, Minister for Committee on Ministry Development and Leadership
The core competencies and essential functions of a Committee on Ministry and its membersi instructs Committees on Ministry (COMs) to practice discernment and prayer and to model discernment to the rest of the Church. Discernment is a process of aligning with God’s will in order to make choices that reflect God’s will. Discernment is key to assessing ministerial readiness, fitness and competency.
Discernment is an experience that integrates body, mind, and soul, and relies on the intuitive sensations we feel in our guts or our hearts, in the tingle of goose flesh, and the sense of calm or excitement or anxiety present within our bodies, as well as assessing more concrete data. Discernment requires removing distractions as much as possible so that our attention can be brought to the intention of God.
The Discernment Travelogue, available from UCC Resources, offers an overview to the process of discernment. Succinctly, the Rules of the Road described in the Travelogue include: be fully present, listen generously, practice hospitality and inclusion, author your own story, and appreciate many ways to hear God. These Rules offer guidance for discernment at any distance.
When Committees meet by video, the sensations received from the others in the room are removed: a face becomes one square in a checker-board of faces, body language that subconsciously fills out normal conversations is diminished to the size of a thumb-nail picture, and it becomes much more difficult to sense the energy in the “room.” With glitchy and erratic technology, it is taxing to watch people become pixelated, patchy or frozen mid-sentence. These distractions make it hard to be fully present, and there are some things that every COM member can do to reduce distractions in the work of discernment by distance.
Prepare before the meeting, have COM members join earlier than the interviewees, and use the waiting room feature so that interviewees do not arrive before the Committee is ready. Designate one person as a “video sentry,” whose job is to mute or unmute participants, read the chat or Q&A comments into the meeting, and guard against unwanted or malicious visitors. If some people are physically present and others are on video, create a tech check list and a tech kit that includes common cables and adapters, full surround microphone, speakers and a good camera. Use hotspots where Wi-Fi is intermittent.
Pay attention to the Spirit’s presence, even over the distance. Name the intention of the meeting early, and set a covenant to be solely in this meeting without distraction, perhaps using the Rules of the Road as the basis for a covenant. Thoughtfully craft rituals to anchor video meetings in the faith, and pay attention to the length of video meetings, recognizing that bodily discomfort can divert the soul from its work of discernment.
Individuals are encouraged to check in with their bodies and ask: “Am I tense? Am I squinting at the screen or straining to hear? Do I need speakers, earbuds or a headset to be better engaged? Is my screen at a comfortable height and distance from my body?” If some people are physically present and others are on video, be attentive to those not in the room; watch facial expressions and body language as signals of engagement. If members have joined by phone, regularly engage them in the process. Be mindful of video backgrounds; brains work less hard when people are in recognizable settings rather than a head floating over a false backdrop.
Discernment takes practice, trial and error, successes and failures. So, too, does the use of video to conduct meetings. Practicing both at the same time is challenging, but committees will get better at discernment over distance.
As Committees gather to do the work of discernment while social distancing, remember the last Rule of the Road, “Believe that it is possible to emerge from our time together refreshed, surprised, and less burdened than when we came.” God is in this process, with all the hope and promise of the Sacred One, even in the struggle with the newness and humanness of this necessary switch to discerning from a distance.
Questions for Reflection
• How has your Committee on Ministry adapted to digital forms of meeting? What has been the most challenging? Have there been
any unexpected blessings from this time?
• How has this season clarified practices of discernment for your COM? Are you finding it easier or harder to discern God’s will in
Other COM News:
Coronavirus Resources from MESA
MESA has created a number of resources for the Church on behalf of the national setting during this pandemic which are specific to Committees on Ministry, transitions, and search and call. Please share these widely. These links will also be available shortly at the UCC’s Coronavirus Resource Page.
• MESA Revised Guidelines for Committees on Ministry in a Pandemic Season – offers general resources, special notes for Fitness Reviews, Members in Discernment, and Ministers in Specialized Settings.
• Pastoral Ministry Beginnings and Endings in a Pandemic Season – offers some notes for ministers and congregations beginning and ending ministry during this season.
• Conducting a Pastoral Search in a Pandemic Season – offers tools and practical tips for search committees seeking pastoral leadership during this time.
MESA Zoom trainings return in June
Given the continued global pandemic related to COVID-19, the MESA team has returned to offering live Zoom trainings for Committees on Ministry and others. All trainings require advance registration; a confirmation email will then be sent to registrants with additional information. Here are the upcoming offerings, which are also available here:
June 17, 3:30pm ET
Leading and Attending Committee on Ministry Video Meetings with Rev. Tony Clark
The sudden shift to social distancing has increased the use of video platforms for COM meetings, and video changes how we
interact and communicate. This training is designed to give you tools to lead and participate in video COM meetings differently
than meetings held in person.
June 24, 12:30pm ET
Clergy Care Webinar with Rev. Tara Barber
Join us for a conversation on ways to support care and mental health practices for our clergy. In these days, it is difficult to find
a rhythm of work and rest, incorporating Sabbath and ways of finding renewal. In addition to the regular rhythms being
disrupted, this time of increased pressure and stress makes it difficult to attend to our mental health needs. Let’s spend an hour
naming the challenges and working toward increased care so that our beings can be sustained for all that these days require.
This meeting will also be resourced by partners within the UCC.
July 8, 3:30pm ET
Search and Call During a Pandemic with Rev. Jeff Nelson
Search and Call During a Pandemic –Rev. Jeff Nelson, Minister for Ministerial Calls and Transitions, will share best practices on
how to navigate the challenges to the search and call process that the COVID pandemic presents, including offering highlights
from a new MESA resource on this topic. This webinar will be for ministry candidates, search committee members, and
Conference search and call staff. It will be offered on Wednesday, July 22nd at 3:30 ET.
July 22 at 7:00pm ET
– or –
July 29 at 4:30pm ET
Book Study on Saying No to Say Yes with Rev. Tara Barber and Rev. Stephen Boyd
Recently MESA offered two Zoom sessions on Pastoral Relations Committees. The response from Committees on Ministry and
Pastoral Relations Committees (PRC) was significant, which indicated that there is a need for conversation and information
about this important committee in the life of our congregations. One takeaway from those presentations was that there was a
need for ministers to participate, share their experiences and have input into what a healthy PRC would like.
We would like to start this conversation with a denominational-wide conversation around the book, Saying No to Say Yes (David
C. Olson and Nancy G. Devor, authors, available online and from local sellers). After reading the book, we are inviting ministers
(limited to 25 at each session) to join us for a discussion. Following those conversations, MESA plans a latter opportunity to
reconvene with interested parties to discuss boundaries, parameters and expectations for healthy Pastoral Relations Committees
in their ministerial settings.
i Manual on Ministry (Cleveland: Local Church Ministries, A Covenanted Ministry of the United Church of Christ, 2018), p. 16-17.