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Discerning Godís Will:

The Basics of Discernment

For Call Committees and Church Councils

by the Rev. Thomas L. Weitzel

 

The Call Process: Discerning Godís Will

The process of seeking and calling a pastor to serve a congregation is one of discernment. For Christians, the goal of all discernment is seeking the will of God in each situation. The call process therefore seeks to know Godís will for the future mission and ministry of a congregation and who God chooses as pastor and shepherd for that ministry. It is God who chooses. It is the work of the Call Committee, the Congregation Council, the congregation, the pastors interviewed and the Office of the Bishop to discern Godís choice and the Spiritís leading.

When a congregation enters into the call process, they enter into a process of discernment that has its roots in the New Testament community described in the book of Acts. In Acts 1, when it was time to fill the vacancy left by Judas among the Twelve Apostles, the disciples all prayed, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry..." (Acts 1.25-26). It was a prayer of discernment.

In Acts 6, when it was time to expand the ministry of the local church in Jerusalem, the leaders called the membership together and asked them to nominate seven men "full of the Spirit and of wisdom" for this new task of ministry. And when the seven were chosen, the Apostles then prayed and laid hands upon them. The seeking of candidates "full of the Spirit" was a seeking of the Spiritís leading and calling, and seeking of Godís will. It was a process of discernment. (Acts 6.1-6)

Throughout Acts, at every point of development of the new Christian Church, the Spirit was there doing the leading with the church members seeking the leading and following the Spiritís bidding. The Spirit led Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch to interpret Godís word and baptize him (Acts 8.29). The Spirit led Paul and his companions to each and every city of his missionary journeys, even forbidding entry to some (Acts 19.21; 16.6-7).

Even at a crucial point in the development of the Church, when the earliest leaders and members had thought that God had only given salvation to the children of Israel, it was the Spirit who made it known to them through a careful process of examination of evidence and conversations and deliberations and reports that "God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life" (Acts 11.1-18). This led to further discoveries of Godís will for the Gentiles that did not require their observance of Jewish laws regarding food and circumcision (Acts 15). A decision by church leaders was made about this and a report of that decision sent to Gentile Christians in Antioch that stated very clearly how that decision was reached: "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials..." (Acts 15.28).

The Church lived its life as a life of discernment. And as a result, "Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, the church increased in numbers" (Acts 9.31).

How did the Spirit lead? How was Godís will known? From Acts we see the Spirit coming to both individuals (11.12) and groups (2.1-4; 21.4). In Acts, the Spirit comes during worship and fasting (13.2), during prayer (10.9-16), in answered prayer (10.31), during the preaching of Godís word (10.44), at baptism (19.1-6), in the laying of hands (8.14-17), in visions (9.10-12; 10.3-6), as a voice heard (8.29; 10.19), as an insight (11.28), as a matter of reading the signs and interpreting events (11.1-18; 16.6-7; 20.22-23), and as reported above, within group processes of deliberation and conversation (Acts 11 and 15).

As it was for these first Christians, so it is for those in the Church today, whether seeking Godís vision and will for ministry or seeking a pastor for that ministry. And just as God came to a variety of members in a variety of ways, so also the Spirit will continue to come to those who believe and trust in God and listen for Godís voice.

 

Some Basics about Discernment

Through Holy Scripture and faith experience, all Christians have come to realize that knowing and doing Godís will is the best possible thing that can happen to them. And so Christians pray to God frequently, even daily, "Your kingdom come, your will be done," as Jesus taught in the Lordís Prayer.

While realizing that the Spirit will come and lead as the Spirit chooses, Christians over the centuries have come to know that there are some basics that can help in the discernment process:

1. Knowing our identity and calling will provide a foundation for being open to the Spiritís leading. We are Christians, called into relationship with God and fellow believers and living in the unity of Spirit by the grace of Jesus Christ. Our identity and name not only says who we are, but Whose we are as well. We are Christís, and therefore children of God.

2. Knowing our mission and purpose will also provide grounding and focus for the task of calling a pastor. The preparing of the Congregational Mission Profile will help to detail both this congregationís identity and purpose.

3. Shedding is a most important step for the success of discernment. The goal of discernment is to seek Godís will, not the will of any one person or group. Therefore shedding occurs in faith and trust and asks each participant to lay aside those things that would hinder the following of the Spiritís leading. Shedding does not mean leaving behind oneís gifts, but rather allowing those gifts to be used by the Spirit. Shedding leaves behind personal gain or agenda for the sake of Godís will and the common good.

4. Rooting is important to discernment as it connects everyone with the word and activity of God. Rooting asks, "How does the Bible inform us regarding our mission and ministry and the calling of a pastor and shepherd? How does our tradition and history also inform us?" Rooting connects us with God and Godís work among us at the beginning of our task.

5. Listening is a premium in discerning Godís will. Listening hears the prompting of the Spirit, as well as the voices of all in the discerning community. Listening hears those who might be affected by decisions made. God will speak through these voices. But in order to hear them, oneís own voice may need to be silent more than heard. Listening is not confined simply to call-related meetings and conversations. As was witnessed above in the book of Acts, the Spirit came at many times and in many ways and to many people, even at unexpected times. Therefore a whole posture of listening becomes important during the discernment and call process Ė in worship, in prayer, in conversation, in deliberation, in private devotions, in group Bible study, in preaching and teaching. Listening is a premium in discerning the leading of the Spirit.

6. Exploring is what will occur within the call process itself, especially at the time of the interviews by the Call Committee, the council and eventually the congregation. Exploring is how Christians come to know Godís leading and includes sorting through options. As exemplified in Acts 6, exploring goes beyond skills and gifts to seek the spiritual. During an interview, exploring will ask, "Is the Spirit clearly evident in this candidate? Is this pastorís inner call and personal faith evident as well? Is the hand of God evident in the life and past ministry of this candidate? Is the Spirit leading this candidate to minister in this congregation and setting?"

7. Weighing is what comes after the interviews. In addition to the normal positives and negatives, pros and cons, that are identified, the Call Committee, the council and congregation seeks foremost to know what comes from God. What here leads toward God and not away from God? What is filled with human novelty or invention? Does the Spirit seem to rest on a particular individual or path? Weighing is not about democratic practice. Weighing is the spiritual process of identifying the Spiritís leading.

8. Deciding moves the process to the final test: is this choice the choice of God? Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the monastic order of the Society of Jesus in the 16th century and wrote a great deal about discernment, suggested that a decision based upon discernment will be filled with one of two things. Either it will be filled with consolation and movement toward God, assisting in loving God more. Or it will be filled with desolation and movement away from God, pulling people toward things that are other than godly.

In the end, the goal of discernment and the goal of the Call Process will be much as it was for those first Christians in the book of Acts. A Call Committee, council and congregation will want to be able to say, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us..."

Resources persons are available through the Office of the Bishop to assist congregations, Call Committees and congregation councils to learn more about discernment in scripture and in Christian practice.

Leaders of the congregation might ask the interim pastor to lead a study of the book of Acts during the early part of the interim period.