Deciding Versus Discerning

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


I am a youngest child. There are basically two types of youngest children: One says, “Help, I can’t do it!” The other says, “I don’t need your help, I can do it myself.” I’m the second type! My drive for competence and control is what led me to take Home Economics (so I can wash, iron, and cook without anyone’s help!) and obtain a doctorate degree (I’m smart enough to do it without anyone’s help!). Sometimes I think the Presbyterian church is filled with oldest and second type of youngest born children. These are the take control, independent thinking, highly competent, decision making type. Our polity is designed for order and efficiency; it is a polity that works hand-in-hand with a “we can handle this” personality.

Yet God calls us to silence. God calls us to stillness. God wants us to let go of the controls. God speaks to us in prayer and meditation through a still small voice. At a time when meeting to make decisions is the norm, perhaps God is calling us to ancient practice of discernment. In her book, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, Susan Beaumont quotes Ruth Haley Barton in defining discernment as, “. . .an ever increasing capacity to ‘see’ the work of God in the midst of the human situation, so that we can align ourselves with whatever God is doing.”

Discernment can be done individually or as a committee, team, or group. In either context, discernment means letting go of what we want- what we desire to happen. We then open ourselves up to what God wants as we seek God’s will for the situation or problem. This process is called shedding or letting go. Beaumont writes, “Shedding invites personal indifference. Discerners suspend personal preferences because they don’t value anything as much as they value honoring the soul of the institution and knowing God’s will.”

There are many more elements to discernment in Beaumont’s book including framing the question, grounding in principles, listening, exploring, weighing, choosing, and testing. Discerning is a lot of work! It is not practical to use this process for every decision. But it could be used for individual critical decisions (like when I sought God’s will for becoming your presbytery leader) and group decisions (such as “Should we lease our space? Change our worship? Reorganize our department?”). 

Advent invites us to a reflective pause as we ponder the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. This is a good time to reconnect our spiritual disciplines which are the foundation for discernment. Advent reminds us that no matter how talented or gifted we are, we cannot do it by ourselves. We do God’s best work when we are not in control. And that we need the hope, peace, joy, and love we find in Jesus Christ and in one another.  Amen.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

7 Responses to “Deciding Versus Discerning”

    • Paul Bembower on

      This is an excellent observation, and I heartily agree. It is not new to the Presbytery, however. In my twenty-two years with the Presbytery, there have been a number of times when “deciding” has given way to “discerning.”
      In fact, the very structure of our Presbyery as it is today came out of a long and serious time of prayerful discernment, followed by equaly prayerful decision-making and thoughtful attention to what God desires us to be and doe
      Thank you, again!

      Reply
  1. Carleton Stock on

    I like it! I pray every day for the winds of discernment and wisdom to blow through my life and the life around me! Sometimes I do it right and sometimes I don’t!

    Reply
  2. Rob Dyer on

    Great post. We made it part of our devotion at Session last night and each elder left with a copy of it. The framework of deciding vs discerning helped us frame some challenging issues later in that same meeting.

    Reply
  3. Ellen Gurnon on

    I, too, am a youngest, type 2. And I have 2 workbooks from about 10 years ago: “Listen for God’s Leading (for Corporate Spiritual Discernment) and “Living Into the Answers (for Personal Spiritual Discernment), both by Valerie K. Isenhower and Judith A. Todd. I especially appreciated their emphasis on seeking God’s “yearning” for us, instead of God’s “will”.
    Thanks, Craig!

    Reply

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