Friday, February 11, 2011

6 Killer Group Discernment Tips


Last Spring an elder from our church and I drove the 8 hour journey from Boise to Newberg to learn about group discernment- how groups make decisions. The thing I remember most is that I had a hard time sleeping because my sheets felt damp. They weren't, I had just gotten used to a dryer climate.

I came into the seminar really hoping to get some wisdom and understanding in this area because (confession) I don't really enjoy meetings. My natural inclination is to try to just get things done, make decisions quickly, delegate tasks, and go home. I sometimes get impatient. When people tell long, personal stories that aren’t really relevant to the business at hand, I start doodling or fidgeting. When people start sharing their end times predictions, I get really uncomfortable. Please God, let there not be any new people here today, I silently pray. And then, when the meeting ends, I’m usually the last one to leave because I want to stay talking and swapping long, irrelevant, personal stories.

So, why am I drawn to the Friends way of doing business? It’s a bit of a mystery even to me. Primarily, I love that friends take very seriously the idea that God is present in the midst of the business. In fact, the actual term Friends use is meeting for worship for business. Although most denominations would agree to this truth in principle, we, at our best, actually create space in the process to truly seek the heart of God.

Friends, from the beginning of their movement have made it clear that Jesus is in charge. Jesus is the boss, CEO, pastor, superintendent, parent. We are not a monarchy, or a democracy. We are a Christocracy. Group discernment is how we organize ourselves to most effectively listen to and obey the will of God in our churches.

At the seminar a majority of the men and women attending were Friends, but many present represented diverse theological and denominational backgrounds. They were intrigued to learn how the Quaker group discernment process could help their churches listen to God’s voice in a way that would help them move forward in love and unity.

Some of the questions that folks raised were: How do we know if what we think we are hearing from God isn't just my opinion? What do we do when our group is strongly divided on an issue and both sides think they are right? How do we keep this process from just becoming church politics?

Of course all churches would hope to listen to the will of God, but the reality of actually practicing this as a group can be scary and challenging work. Sometimes feelings get hurt, people get frustrated, conflicts arise. Sometimes it seems easier to just delegate decisions to a few people (who take the blame or credit for the results). Often people think of the pastors or the elders as those who make the decisions. And those people often make those decisions based on what is logical, popular, expedient, trendy, or most closely resembles his or her opinions and values.

When opinions collide, how does that get resolved? Often, the loudest voices win, or perhaps those who can gather the most support, or those who are in positions of power. This is when church politics occur, people get disillusioned with the church, and things can get ugly. One group tries to discredit the other. We hear ourselves thinking, they’re just saying that because they’re those kinds of people. We tend to write people off, get defensive, and we gather people around us who agree with us.

But this is not how Christ would have us be the church together. As we discern together, one of our first priorities must be to trust and respect one another. We need to feel safe to speak or not speak and to trust the group with that which is sacred to us. We need to be able to trust the group with our truest motives, deepest feelings, scariest fears, biggest hopes, and best ideas? If we can’t do that, it doesn’t take long to retreat back into defensiveness or completely check out if the process. In fact, if things get decided based on the loudest voices, or the squeakiest wheels, before long, the only people who will stay involved in the process will be those who either thrive in conflict or those who feel like they have the most to defend and protect. Those who are vulnerable, powerless, open, honest, radical, or passionate may become discouraged, check out, or completely break fellowship with the local body.

I have provided some tips (borrowed, stolen, remixed) to help really discern together as a community.

1. Turn to God first: “Discernment requires that we focus and refocus on what God is doing, rather than on what we think should be done.”

2. Be attentive to God’s voice: We should all be encouraged to listen to God’s voice before a meeting, to relinquish our own thoughts, fears, opinions, ideas. We should expect that we might change our minds. We should be ready to discover that we were wrong. We should anticipate that collectively we might discover a third way.

3. Hold your desires very loosely/Cultivate a holy indifference. This doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion, or be passionate about an issue. It means we bring our best thoughts and insights and set them in the middle of the group, and trust that the group will seek understanding and listen to God about all that you have offered.

4. Listen: Really listen to what people are saying. This likely means we need to do some work beforehand to forgive, respect, and reconcile with those people who have hurt us, or who are different than us. We should be ready to hear the deeper need behind someone’s anger, fear, reactivity. We listen attentively to what the Spirit might be saying despite your opinion of that person, or how articulate she is, or even if they speak in a way that rubs you the wrong way.

5. Make community building our first priority/nurture an environment of worship: If discerning together is worshipful and community building, we can take our time. If it is primarily life draining, conflict oriented, painful work, we will want to “get it over with.” We need to continually remind one another and call one another back to the present voice of Christ. We should use the discernment process as an opportunity for spiritual formation, worship, and community building.

6. Courageously carry out God’s plan: Once a decision has been made, we move together. This means we don’t stand back and wait for others to fail. It means we don’t get to say later on, I never wanted this. It means we don’t call it so-and-so’s thing. It becomes our idea, our ministry. We take ownership. We move forward together with courage trusting that God was in the group discernment process.

Now for (funny) 6 Killer Community Tips check out this video...

1 comment:

  1. I do love how the Friends do polity. I've shared this with a few people. The most common reaction is, "That would take forever!" And yet, how much time and energy is wasted on divisive issues and their fallout? Hmm...

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