Putting intentionality back in our discernment

January 10th, 2023

In this season after Epiphany and the Sunday after the Baptism of the Lord, we remember our own baptism and that covenant we share to participate in God’s mission to boldly communicate and embody the gospel. In baptism, we are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation. We commit to nurturing one another in the Christian faith and life, and to doing all in our power to perfect one another in love. 

That is a beautifully high calling for each of us, and a new year—with many challenges behind and before us—seems like an important moment for us to reflect on how we can nurture one another in this faith and life. When so much about our current divisions center on doctrinal teachings and theological difference, we need to refocus ourselves not on the goal of particular doctrinal commitment, but to discerning how to live together well as the body of Christ.

One of our most essential and controversial practices as Wesleyan Christians is our commitment to conferencing. While there is still so much debate as to what conferencing is and how we practice it, John Wesley was clear that conferencing is an essential means of grace. And maybe part of the confusion is that conferencing is not a one-time or occasional practice, but instead needs to become a regular part of our life together.

Ideally, a congregation participates in these and/or similar practices characterized by Wesleyan conferencing annually or at regular intervals. Conferencing in the Wesleyan tradition is more than decision-making. It is how we learn to support one another in love and move together into the perfection that the Holy Spirit is working out in us. 

Our conferencing in order to discern how to move forward faithfully can connect to the liturgical seasons and themes such as baptismal remembrance, Lord’s Supper, Advent preparation, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, the New Year, and/or church/charge conferences. In the Wesleyan tradition, the Covenant Prayer and service composed by John Wesley and practiced since early Methodism are an excellent starting point for our discernment: 

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen. 

While the Covenant Prayer highlights our individual commitment, it should also shape our congregational life. And as many congregations and their leaders enter a time of discernment around disaffiliation, I want to offer some resources to help guide that process. Too often it seems, the discussions around disaffiliation have been hurried along and treated perfunctorily, and many leaders may feel ill-equipped when responding to congregants calling for discussion and votes. I hope that this framework can be helpful to those leaders and to their congregations as they conference, listen, hope, and discern together.

Step 1: Inquiry from laity regarding participating in discernment process

Congregational leaders should start talking with informal leadership to share the inquiry and discuss a possible process. These conversations are an opportunity to listen and gather input from people who have influence in the congregation—not to persuade. A steady non-anxious process that incorporates regularly scheduled meetings and liturgical themes is an opportunity for discernment to clarify and strengthen identity and mission. 

Step 2: Include the possibility of a discernment process on the Council agenda

If possible, share the inquiry at a regularly scheduled leadership gathering. If necessary, call a special meeting of the Administrative/Church Council. If the latter, compose and send a letter to the members of the committee narrating the opportunity for discernment and possible next steps. 

Include the inquiry on the agenda of the meeting in new/other business late in the meeting to allow time for consideration. Describe the situation in the denomination, conference, and district. Focus on events and numbers, not opinions or feelings and reactions, while also naming there are strong feelings. Narratives and information from all sides can be misleading. In our process, we want to prayerfully listen to the Holy Spirit and each other. This is an opportunity to reflect on and discern our congregation’s identity and participation in God’s mission. There will always be matters and doctrine about which individuals will disagree. The coming months are not about winning/losing a campaign, but rather deepening our knowledge of God and one another to participate in God’s unfolding work. No decisions made at this meeting, only prayerful conversation as we practice conferencing. A task force may be named and given a specific commission and timeline at this meeting or a subsequent one.  

Step 3: Outline possible next steps

At a subsequent meeting either a task force may share options for next steps or the group may discern from possible choices for next steps presented from trusted leadership. Next steps ideally include an integration of individual and community prayer, liturgy/worship, survey(s), research, and conversation in smaller groups over a set period of time consisting of several weeks and months. This is a journey, not a race.  Affirm the outline of a process with assignments for shared leadership and timeline. 

Step 4: Communicate with the congregation sharing a description of the process

Send a letter from the clergy and lay leadership to the congregation that includes: a description of the process that will shape the discernment journey, an outline of the process including timeline and a contact for any questions or input. 

Overall, your congregational process may include: 

  • Resources for individual and community prayer opportunities
  • Reflections and teachings on baptism—this would be a great opportunity for bite-sized video teachings
  • A period of regular participation in the Lord’s Supper, particularly if your congregation does not celebrate communion each week
  • An intentional sermon series (see Will Willimon’s resource to accompany Don’t Look Back)
  • Bible study
  • An accessible collection of materials related to the discernment questions (not persuasive or secondary material, but primary material consisting of statistics, doctrines, etc.)
  • Survey(s) to gather data, not just anecdotes, on the needs, priorities, identity, and purpose of the congregation
  • Focus groups/interviews for church leadership to listen 

Communication and transparency are key to the effectiveness of this discernment. Information and experiences gathered from the various components of the discernment process should be shared with the informal and formal leadership at intervals throughout the process. Reminders and descriptions of the process may be shared throughout, especially any revisions to the process. 

Step 5: Discern and implement next steps with the Council and if necessary congregation

Toward the end of the process, a task force and/or the leadership committee should prepare and present a number of options for resolving the process to the Admin/Church council. Each option needs to be informed by clear feedback gained through the process. At that or a subsequent meeting a decision-making method is discerned. Following this meeting the decision-making process is implemented. It is most helpful if there are no dramatic surprises—put differently, conversations to listen and follow the inclinations of individuals and groups may occur throughout beyond formal meetings. These conversations are primarily to listen, not to persuade, count votes, or negotiate and bargain. 

When invited and when appropriate to inhabit the shared baptismal covenant, clergy should share their ongoing discernment while emphasizing their role to lead and facilitate the discernment of the congregation. This is a careful balance between not keeping secrets and persuasion, even manipulation whether intentional or not, while also allowing clergy to act as the spiritual leaders and fellow members of the body that they are.

Step 6: Communicate the outcome with the congregation

Following any subsequent steps and the resolution of the decision-making process discerning the congregation’s identity and purpose, another letter is sent to the congregation. This letter directly follows any previous correspondence. The letter may repeat previous information, including a summarizing description of the process. The letter also communicates the resolution of the discernment process, including any opportunities and support for all related to next steps.  

Subsequent conversations to listen to responses to the process and decision are important. The process will provoke feelings among all participants. Constructive space to process these feelings and responses facilitates God’s healing and helps the community focus and fully participate in God’s mission. 

Step 7: Integrate discernment of mission and purpose into congregational life

The purpose of conferencing is the ongoing discernment of God’s call to love God, neighbor, and creation. As we remember our baptismal covenant and God’s love for all, we remember our initiation into the body of Christ. As members of the body we are called to love one another and the world in the midst of our different gifts. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he describes the body of Christ with many members all needing one another. Through conferencing we learn not only about God’s call for the body, but how each member is called to practice our different gifts and callings within the one body. Life and ministry in the body of Christ is not always smooth or easy, but it is full of grace, love, and joy as we participate in God’s unfolding work in the world. 

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