The desired end of most any discernment process is a clear choice; a decision made. Our goal is for the decision to feel right, for us to feel confident and assured that we have followed God’s leading. But what I have preached before and will likely preach again is that faithful discernment does not usually lead to just a single, correct decision. I don’t believe that God only calls us to one solitary way. I believe that in most things, God urges toward a few possibilities and God goes with us in whichever path we choose. Our experiences and our experiences with God would certainly be different on each of these paths, depending on which one we take. But I cannot imagine that God has laid out only one correct way for us. If that were true, it would ensure that us sinful, easily distracted humans would often fail at our discernment.
With God guiding us in at least a few directions, then there are always faithful paths that simply were not taken. At the end of a discernment process, there will be other doors of possibility that went unopened. Tomas Tranströmer writes about these alternatives in his poem “The Blue House.” He calls it the “sister vessel” of our lives, which takes “an entirely different route.” It is possible to agonize over those other routes, living in fear and regret about the turns we didn’t take. We can also wonder in healthy ways about the other routes, where they might have led and what adventures we might have seen on them.
I recently completed serving as an interim pastor in Kentucky, and the church’s discernment focused on their identity as a community of faith and their call process for an installed pastor. The nominating committee there recently completed their discernment about nominees for their pastor nominating committee (PNC). They began with 40-plus names and through discussion, prayer and listening, they arrived at seven individuals who said “yes” to God’s call to serve. There were certainly more than those seven who were interested in serving and gifted for the calling. I am grateful and excited for all those who agreed to serve in this task, which can be both daunting and exhilarating. I feel confident in the discernment of the nominating committee and certain that these folks will serve the congregation well.
There are certainly some sister ships, though. Perhaps if another group of folks had been elected, their path forward would be quite different. Who knows what decisions they would make, which candidates they would be drawn to and what pastor they would eventually call? As with most decisions, we cannot know the shape of that entirely different route. Instead, we sail with confidence the ship we are on and the course we have set.
That is, really, the third way of viewing the sister vessels of our lives. Besides worrying and wondering, we can simply view that sister ship with gratitude and a sense of peace. We can look out toward the expanse of sea, knowing that there were certainly other ways to go. But when we have prayed and discerned carefully, then by the grace of God, we have chosen well. God goes with us on the path we have selected, continuing to lead and guide the way. So we need not fear or regret those other routes. Rather, we can continue on our journey with the breath of the Spirit in our sails.
EMMA NICKEL serves as parish associate at First Presbyterian Church in Northville, Michigan. She is passionate about congregational ministry, trying new recipes and learning about each new phase of toddlerhood. She lives just outside Detroit with her husband, Matt, and their daughter.