If you want . . .

to become better at the process of discernment

Understanding and Practicing Discernment
with Individuals

A Resource for Committees on the Ministry

The Ministry Issues Pronouncement recasts the traditional in-care model of authorizing individuals for ministry. The new model begins with an assumption that individuals come to the COM with only a sense of call and a desire to engage that sense of call with others. The new model, therefore, requires that Members in Discernment and committees be open to and practice discernment with one another. This will be true even with those MIDs whose vocational trajectory seems clear. All MIDs deserve a period of thoughtful discernment.
This resource is designed as a workshop that takes about two hours.

I. History and Background

The Ministry Issues Pronouncement has required a reevaluation of the traditional in-care model. For some time, “student in care of an Association” has referred to both the designation and the process through which an individual seeking authorization for ministry has been in covenant with the authorizing body of an Association during his or her period of preparation. As the most recent edition of the Manual on Ministry indicates, the purpose of this relationship has been “to provide support, counsel, and assistance to the student during the time of the student’s academic preparation for the ordained ministry” (Section 2, p. 1). This traditional model has assumed that a person in care “has been called by God and . . . is preparing for the ordained Christian ministry” prior to coming to a Committee on Ministry (Section 2, p. 1). The Manual’s current terminology of “applicant” and “student in care” has embodied and assumed that a person has a well-defined call, an academic orientation, and a trajectory toward ordained Christian ministry. It has assumed that formation simply means meeting uniform requirements according to an agreed-upon schedule.

Does this history and this language characterize the past work of your own Committee on the Ministry? If not, what examples come to mind of individuals who have varied from this model?

II. A New Model

The new model begins with the assumption that individuals come to their local congregations and then to COMs with only a sense of call and a desire to engage that sense of call with others. The new model, therefore, requires the individual be open to discernment with covenant partners around the nature and direction of that call—even if the vocational trajectory seems clear initially. “Member in Discernment” more aptly describes the individual not only in the initial phase of their relationship with a COM and home congregation, but also throughout the process toward authorization—and beyond.

The new model maintains that discernment of call is itself the primary task of the Committee on Ministry. It is the task, moreover, throughout the covenantal relationship between the COM and the Member in Discernment, not just during the initial phase. The task of ongoing discernment will expand the responsibility, training, and focus of mentors, advisors, and Association committees. It will also necessarily involve the local congregation in an ongoing intentional relationship in which call can be explored. It will, finally, require potential MIDs to remain open to the movement of the Spirit in their evolving self-understanding of call without predetermination of a particular form of ministry and, consequently, authorization. A key characteristic of the new process of Covenant of Discernment is, therefore, continuing openness to a variety of outcomes, even ones that are unexpected.

In general, there will be an opening period of discernment of call, followed by a period of assessment, followed by ongoing formation for the rest of life. An opening period of discernment lasts for as long as is necessary for all three covenant partners (MID, COM, local congregation) to become satisfied that the MID is indeed called to some form of authorized ministry. The questions are: “To what form of ministry is this Member called? Is this Member called to authorized ministry in and on behalf of the United Church of Christ?” It is important that the COM and local congregation be active partners in listening for a call at this early stage. If they simply “take the word of” the MID that a call has been heard, they will become little more than a credentialing body during the rest of the process.

The COM may discern at this point that the MID’s call as a baptized Christian is not to an authorized ministry. Therefore, since authorization is not required, no further relationship with the COM is necessary (though the COM may act as a resource to the local church to help the individual find a means of acting on her or his particular call). If the COM does discern that the MID has a call to authorized ministry in and on behalf of the UCC, the work of discernment turns toward a determination of whether that call is to licensure, commissioning, or ordination. In addition, discernment may yield consensus about the potential setting and type of ministry to which the MID is called, e.g., word and sacrament in a local church, educational work, missionary work.

Finally, the COM will eventually assume the responsibility of following the authorized minister’s ongoing formation and lifelong learning.

The new model of discernment necessitates changes in terminology:

 From:  To:
 Applicant/Student In Care  Member in Discernment
 Preparation for Authorization  Discernment of Call and Formation
 Meeting Educational Requirements  Developing and Assessing Marks
 Preparation Ending in Authorization  Ongoing Formation and Lifelong Learning

Study this change in terminology and its implications. Discuss: How will they change the work of your particular COM?

III. What is Discernment?

Fundamental to the intent of the new model is a clear understanding of what discernment is. The dictionary defines “discernment” in two ways: (1)”to perceive or recognize” and (2)”to separate one thing from another.” Similarly, the Greek language has two words for the English word “to discern”: anakrino, meaning “to examine or judge closely,” and diakrino, meaning “to separate out, to investigate, or to examine.” Accordingly, your work of discernment with MIDs seeks, first, to examine their existing and developing marks for ministry and second, to separate out whether there is a call to ordained, licensed or commissioned ministry (or a call to some form of ministry that does not require authorization).

But discernment is not a mechanical process; it is also an ancient spiritual practice in the life of the church. The Hebrew word for discernment, bin, meaning understanding and judgment, appears 247 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Discernment was a spiritual practice used by the early church to settle fundamental disputes (Acts 15:1-35) and to choose and “authorize” new deacons (Acts 6:1-7). Paul identifies discernment as a spiritual gift given by God through the Holy Spirit for the good of the whole Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:10).

Read and study Acts 15:1-35, Acts 6:1-7, and 1 Corinthians 12:10. Discuss: In these texts, which is primary—discerning the good of the isolated individual, or discerning the common good of the community? How would these understandings of discernment shape your work as a committee?

IV. Practicing Discernment

There are a variety of traditions upon which committees in the UCC can draw and make their own. They include the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola and the Quaker practice of the clearness committee. See A Clearness Committee Process, pp. 41. Regardless of whether you adopt one of these traditions, you will benefit from learning how to practice four things: listening, keeping silence, thoughtful conversation with partners, and becoming comfortable with spiritual questions.

Listening: Adopt a practice of prayer and meditation so it becomes part of the fabric of your committee and you can listen to God.

Silence: Learn to avoid the need to rush the process by becoming comfortable with silence.

Talking: Covenantal partners can help one listen for God’s desire by talking over decisions.

Spiritual direction: Individual committee members may develop a comfort level with spiritual questions by working regularly with their own spiritual directors, receiving support and/or guidance and encouragement from them.

Discuss ways that your Committee can better develop these practices and incorporate one or more of them into your work.

V. Recognizing faithful discernment

Sometimes discernment is best known or recognized in retrospect, when individuals or groups look back on directions they have taken and recognize their “fitness” or lack of fitness. Yet discernment is an act of faith, one in which we are called upon to trust the Holy Spirit and our opening to the Spirit’s stirrings even as we move forward. How, then, do we know if we have truly discerned God’s desire? Here are several criteria, adapted from Frank Rogers, Jr., “Discernment,” in Practicing Our Faith, ed. Dorothy Bass (Jossey-Bass, 1997).

  • Fidelity to scripture and tradition: Directions taken are in harmony with the essence of the scriptures and our own faith tradition. Faithfulness to Scripture is about more than citing biblical passages but rather about knowing the whole Scriptural witness. Nor is it about adherence to dogma but rather about seeking continuity with our faith even as we await “more light and truth to break forth from God’s holy word” and listen to our Still Speaking God.
  • Fruit of the Spirit: Directions taken are in line with God’s desire as evidenced in the lives of those involved. As it says in Galatians 5:22-23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
  • Inner authority and peace: Directions taken “feel right” as indicated by a deep sense of calm certainty, though always open to revision.
  • Communal harmony: Directions taken lead to a feeling of harmony among participants, achieved not by placidness but by the Spirit’s presence. Decisions enhance clarity and commitment to the mission of God in the UCC.
  • Enhancement rather than diminishment of life: Directions taken contribute to the well-being, empowerment, and health of those involved as opposed to diminished self-insight, creativity or functioning. They also contribute to the overall health and well-being of the church and do not diminish or place the church in jeopardy.
  • Integrity in the process: Directions taken arise out of a process wherein alternatives are considered, advice heeded, issues of faith attended to, and emotions welcomed.

Name some times in the past when you think your committee has recognized faithful discernment with respect to a person’s call to ministry. Have you experienced these criteria? How? You might also name some times when, in hindsight, your committee feels it has not recognized faithful discernment and then reflect on what happened in light of these criteria.