Discernment is about listening. Listening carefully. Listening with curiosity. Listening without agenda. Listening with the understanding that messages come in many forms, delivered by means of unexpected messengers.
As you listen to your life, you may be tempted to strive toward decisive action. That too is part of transformation, but discernment is more about living into the questions. Exploring new missives even when they seem contradictory or obscure.
The resources here can support a life of discernment, one that is characterized by plasticity and ongoing growth, one with the flexibility to stretch as it seeks wellness and light.
A Life of Discernment
Life is always speaking to you. It may be in an odd and unexpected encounter at a coffee bar soon after your return from your CREDO conference. It may be in a search committee telephone interview or in a nudge you felt in prayer. It may be in the pain in your lower back that just won't abate or in the fear you experienced when your spouse got a call about a medical test. At first brush, the telephone interview may seem like the only one of these situations that involves discernment.
That’s because you may be accustomed to thinking of discernment as a decision-making activity. But discernment is really about listening to your life, paying attention—discovering things about yourself that are trying to emerge.
One of the most grace-filled elements of a CREDO conference is being in a space where you are living a life of discernment in a safe community. If you think of your own CREDO, you will probably remember that you not only heard information about discernment, you were also given time to listen to your life. You were invited to ask others, perhaps in your small group or in consultation with faculty members, what they thought about certain aspects of your life. You were able to steep yourself in worship and prayer and listen to God speaking in your life. You were able to walk, and rest, and write about what you were hearing. Out of all that living with discernment, you were able to craft a CREDO Rule of Life that held the hopes and plans that you carried forward into your life back home.
When you returned from your CREDO conference and settled into your daily routine, discernment may have begun to feel distant, as if it were eluding you altogether. You may have some feelings of being dissatisfied with your progress on your CREDO Rule of Life. You may have the impression that certain aspects need further reflection or should be abandoned.
Sometimes, this can feel like you failed at what you set out to do. In truth, it’s just another aspect of discernment. Most of us know when we are simply being lazy, and when our life is telling us to move more slowly or chew more before swallowing some new goal we've made.
Our task is not to berate ourselves for failing, but let even the inaction be a piece of our on-going life of discernment. When you listen closely, as you did during your time at CREDO, you will find that your life will point the way to what needs to be done.
Perhaps you came home from CREDO with keen resolve to alter your ministry situation in order to be in an environment of potential and possibility. Yet when you returned to work, you jumped into your established patterns with renewed energy. What happened to that desire for change that you felt with such intensity at CREDO?
Remember, making a change can present obstacles that are not easily overcome. Such a situation provides a place for beginning to listen and watch your life with earnestness. You might ask yourself, for example,
- Where is the source of my renewed energy?
- What fears might be keeping me from exploring something new?
- Where am I feeling God’s presence or God’s absence?
- What am I thinking about on my commute to work?
- How much enthusiasm am I bringing to my family?
These questions are not directed toward making a decision about anything. They are pulse-taking questions—questions that open our hearts so we can more easily read what is written there. As you read your heart, you may find that you need to enter a decision-making process, but that is distinct from being in discernment. These questions are merely a way to intentionally listen to your life attentively and well.
As part of paying attention to your life, you might also review conversations you’ve had in the past month, odd occurrences that have surprised you, questions that you have been asked, feelings that haven’t gone away, things you have been sent that others thought you would find interesting. All of these seemingly unrelated conversations, feelings, and events are actually the discrete ingredients that make up the feast of discernment.
As you listen, consider where you feel energy and passion. Where do your thoughts and imaginings tend to go? You may begin to notice that you are energized by some unexpected and surprising aspect of your ministry. You may find your spouse or partner affirming your gifts in that particular arena. You may find yourself dreaming up creative ideas for becoming more engaged. All of this is listening to your life, to your soul, to God in and around you. All of this is the fruit of discernment. When done faithfully and well, you will know when it is time to make some kind of decision.
We can all be successful at discernment. It takes no special skills, no magical knowledge, no heroic effort. It asks only that we open ourselves to what’s going on inside us and around us, and to listen to what is being said.
All Shall Be Well: An Approach to Wellness.
William S. Craddock, Jr., Editor (Morehouse Publishing, 2009) In two-dozen personal reflections exploring the hallmark CREDO cycle - Identity, Discernment, Practice, and Transformation - CREDO conference faculty members and researchers present an approach to wellness and vocational and personal transformation that has affected and changed the lives of thousands.
Listen to a Meditation on Discernment by Renée Miller.
To be a human being is to have the ability and privilege to make choices. Yet, decision making is often an overwhelming and onerous task. It's not that the actual process of deciding is so difficult. The difficulty lies in the emotional component that surrounds the decisions we make.
Uncertainty and fear can crowd out the feelings of excitement and anticipation that decision making offers, and staying in a predictable situation can seem preferable to facing the risks of change. At times we can convince ourselves that situations that need to be re-evaluated are okay because the decision-making process seems so much more complicated than just accepting what we are already doing. We feel there is too much data to sort through, or not enough data to make an informed choice, or too many people to consider, or that the importance of the decision is so critical that we are uneasy about making any decision at all.
"What if we make the wrong decision? What will be the effects on ours or others' lives if make too hasty a decision? How can we know for sure what God wants us to do? What if we misread the cues?"
It is important to make the distinction that discernment is not decision making. Discernment is the process of attentively being aware of our lives; noticing where energy has waned, where passion is trying to grow, where boredom has set in, where anticipation is trying to increase. In other words, discernment is listening to the whole of our lives, paying attention to the fullness and the edges of emptiness, considering the voices of those who have a word of God to share with us.
Decision making, on the other hand, is a much more systematic method of making choices for change. Since it is systematic, it can be a more predictable exercise than we think. When we confuse discernment and decision making or lump them together, we are more likely to find ourselves resisting or feeling uneasy about making a decision even when we know one is needed.
Once we are able to separate discernment from decision making, we will find that the systematic approach to making decisions in our lives minimizes anxiety and allows decision making to become an activity of surprise, joy, and excitement.
We will find ourselves less concerned about whether or not the decision we make is the right one. We will be more trusting that others in our lives will have the capacity to support and encourage us in the decisions we need to make. We will be more confident that God's direction will be clear. We'll worry less about misreading the cues, and be more certain of our ability to decide with strength and clarity.
And, we will come to the realization that if we do make an imperfect decision, we can trust that we will be led in a new direction that makes it possible to make a fresh decision that will aright the one that was imperfect. In other words, we can go through the steps to make a decision and relax about whether it's perfect or not!
Judd Miller, a writer and entrepreneur, offers a systematic approach to decision making that helps take the fear and anxiety out of the process by giving clear and achievable steps to follow. A logical process such as this can invite us into the activity of making decisions with a gentler hand, so to speak. We can be less anxious and more trusting in our ability to navigate through the empowering task of making choices in our lives. He suggests the following steps as a pattern to follow when decisions need to be made.
- Declare what you want. This may seem elementary, yet Miller contends that until we are clear about what we really want, decision making will remain a complex and uncertain process. Gaining clarity about what we really want or hope to accomplish is the first step in making a proper decision.
- Establish a decision frame. Determining the boundaries of the decision we are trying to make is a necessary element of the process. How we think about our decision defines the depth of our understanding of it, and gives us the tools to recognize what other options may be open to us.
- Come up with alternatives. Miller writes, "The heart, and ultimate quality, of decisions are lodged in the vast array of alternatives from which we make our choice. Strong, high-quality alternatives can guide us toward making an excellent decision, while few or poor alternatives can leave us with very little choice but accepting what is in front of us whether or not it is proper for us at this moment in our lives."
- Investigate and Research. When it comes to making decisions, impulsive action is not preferred action. Right decisions require due diligence—an adequate amount of time spent in investigation and research of what we think we want or need. The more we understand the nuances of the decision we are trying to make, the more likely we will be both able to make a good decision, relatively secure that the results will match what led us to the decision in the first place.
- Do it! This is the moment for action—the moment to bring to fruition all the work done in the previous steps. It is a time of unfolding, excitement, and possibility. But, it is not where the process of decision making ends!
- Evaluate. Miller writes, "Every decision results in only one thing: feedback from the outside world. The feedback is not always exactly what we wanted or intended, because we do not control the universe or other people. But the feedback is always enlightening and informative; it’s up to us to be willing and able to notice it and apply it!
"The ongoing loop of feedback you get from your decisions, and the actions to which it leads, are how you reach any goal."
Judd Miller's approach to decision making is covered in his book Decide! - 6 Steps to Great Decisions, copyright 2014.
Listen to a meditation on Decision Making. Written and read by Renée Miller.
The Stay-Leave Continuum: A key component in vocational discernment has to do with the decisions about staying where one is or moving toward and into change. The Stay-Leave Continuum offers a concise snapshot of six distinct possibilities for leaving your present situation or remaining, but with new awareness of your motivations and goals. Downloadable as a pdf,the Stay-Leave Continuum is modified from New Visions for the Long Pastorate (Alban Institute Incorporated, 1983).
Unless otherwise noted, websites referenced herein that are outside the www.cpg.org domain are not associated with The Church Pension Fund and its affiliates (collectively, the Church Pension Group) and the Church Pension Group is not responsible for the content of any such websites.