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Congregational leaders flock to seminary program on how to do “discernment” in the face of difficult issues

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Hundreds of people filled to capacity the 2014 School for Leadership Training at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, interested in exploring “discernment processes” to address difficult issues in congregations, conferences and denominations.

“Discernment together begins with love for one another and is informed by knowledge and insight,” said keynote speaker Ervin Stutzman, executive director of the Mennonite Church USA (MC USA). “We put the interests of others above ourselves, yielding ourselves to the group and to God. If we already know the answer, we are not in the place of discernment.”

Under the topic “Discerning Together, Shaping the Future,” the seminary’s annual leadership school attracted a record number of 340 registrants, who could partake of 15 workshops and talks Jan. 20-22.

The topic had gained momentum in the previous few months within MC USA congregations and conferences, partly fueled by two new developments: (1) Eastern Mennonite University’s announcement of a six-month listening process regarding hiring practices for non-celibate homosexuals and (2) a decision by the Mountain States Mennonite Conference to license a pastor in a committed same-sex relationship.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth Haley Barton

The pressing need for discernment on same-sex questions was broached in a surprisingly touching way – with an “elephant in the room” worship service, in which participants quietly offered their fears and hopes to God in a ritual that brought tears to the eyes of many.

One of the featured speakers, Ruth Haley Barton – author, teacher and founder of the Transforming Center in Wheaton, Ill. – described discernment as 75 percent preparation, 25 percent practice. “A common mistake in discernment processes is to take undiscerning individuals and expect them to be discerning,” she said. “Just because a person is a successful lawyer or business owner does not mean they have the skills for discernment. Discernment begins with spiritually formed leaders who are intentionally attuned to the Holy Spirit.”

Barton said that corporate discernment needs leaders who spend time in prayer, scripture, solitude, self-examination, and their own personal discernment. These leaders should share with each other their individual experiences of discernment as they prepare for corporate discernment.

“No matter what else we do,” said Barton, “we exist to do the will of God.” She said discerning leaders are able to pray the prayer of indifference, being willing to let go of their own agenda in order to seek God’s will.

“Spiritual discernment is a concrete activity that opens us to what is beyond ourselves,” Barton said. “Many aspects of God’s will are already clear, like unity, love, truth-telling, kindness, respect and confession of sin. These serve as guiding principles and values for discernment.”

Barton outlined a process for discernment in meetings that is very different from secular models of decision-making like Roberts Rules of Order.

“Discernment is like standing outside before the sun comes up,” said Ervin Stutzman. “You see something in the distance. Is it a dog? Is it a coyote? Is it a wolf? You need to shed light, to distinguish what it is. Discernment is seeking the light to distinguish what is best.”

Barton and Stutzman agreed that the process begins with information gathering, as with most decision-making processes. However, then the group spends time listening to God and to each other through honest sharing, listening, prayer, and time spent in silence.

Often, according to Barton, the time spent in intentional silence is key to the decision-making process. “After 30 minutes of silence when each member of the group spends time seeking God, often a way forward emerges,” said Barton.

“If the group is ready to respond, each member is asked to voice their level of agreement, either completely agree, agree with some reservations, don’t agree but will defer to the process of the group, or don’t agree at all. If people don’t agree, then the process begins again. Unity is the marker that God’s will is being done.”

“Discernment processes can be difficult, messy and very painful,” said Stutzman. “But they can also be very rewarding and exciting.”

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