During the coming year many congregations should be asking an important question as they engage in long term planning, “How can we discover God’s will for our future ministry in the second half of 2014 and beyond?” Although nothing more basic can engage our attention, many church leaders may not know how to find the answers they seek. A valuable study guide that provides excellent direction (one I have used personally) is found in “Living Into the Answers, A Workbook for Personal Spiritual Development” by Valerie K. Isenhower and Judith A. Todd.
Isenhower is an ordained American Baptist pastor and Todd is a teaching elder in the PC(USA). Their book might be used in a number of different ways.
1. As a personal study guideline for the pastor(s) or a few church leaders who can share their experiences with the rest of the congregation;
2. As a workbook for all interested church members for the weeks around Easter (following the book’s ten chapters);
3. As a resource to be used throughout the year at meetings of the session, board of deacons and trustees.
What does it mean for a congregation to try to discern the will of God? As the authors put it, “Discernment is a process of listening and choosing based on the understanding that God is to be at the center of decision making.” Their definition is not limited to the pious, believers who are fundamental or charismatic, or disaffected congregations looking for ways to exit their denomination; it embraces anyone who wants to discover what a loving God wants most for us as individuals or churches. The focus is on God’s positive desire for us, not what we think we need. “Spiritual discernment is about finding God’s yearning for the direction of our life. It is not a once-and-for all answer to our questions but a continual seeking for God’s longing as we accept the invitation to live into the abundance God so freely gives us.” The process they have developed centers around prayer, sharing and reflection on Scripture and circles seven basic steps (path building, sifting, resting, naming and framing, centering, remembering and listening) that are visualized as part of an ongoing journey that takes us continually into the divine presence.
A few warnings need to be noted. This process is not easy and it can be somewhat painful. It forces individuals (or a congregation) to face strengths and weaknesses that characterize our own personality types with honesty. It is not designed for people with severe emotional problems or churches in the midst of crises, but for those who dare to look at their own beliefs and actions with open minds and are willing to receive constructive feedback and criticism. The “naming and framing” step, for example, can be especially useful for a church trying to discern a new direction for ministry because it forces us to face issues of tradition and control as we try to discover whether or not we really want God’s guidance (or are more interested in reaffirming what we already decided to do). “If we leave ourselves open to God’s leading, even in the midst of asking questions, often God sends us into areas we have not considered.”
The authors’ second resource for congregations (“Listen for God’s Leading: A Workbook for Corporate Spiritual Discernment”), though out of print, is still available through their website. Additionally, they are teaching a web-based interactive class on discernment through the Upper Room, March 17-28, 2014.
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired pastor living in Johnstown, N.Y., and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.