This approach is based on the premise that all of us are in a relationship with a God who is ever more ready to communicate with us than we are to listen, a God who is ever more ready to bestow grace on us than we are to receive it. This God is also willing to offer us direction and perspective if and when we are ready to surrender our willfulness and be open to receiving such direction.    

When we say our God is ever more ready to communicate with us than we are to listen, we also need to say that God will rarely overwhelm us with a message so clear and blatant that our freedom to choose is eliminated. God created us with a free will. We will always have the option of either rejecting God or accepting God’s invitation to servant-hood. Hence, we will rarely experience God speaking to us in such a clear, loud voice that there is no mistaking that this is God’s voice and that God wants us to do such and such. From time to time, we will feel a gentle nudge moving us in a certain direction, or we may feel God wooing us to consider coming home. Occasionally we will feel a presence that is almost palpable, yet when reflecting on it later we might wonder whether it was merely our imaginations. Sometimes we might feel God within us, coaching us to yearn for God. And like Elijah we might occasionally hear God talking to us in the “still small voice.”   

These mystical experiences are certainly not the only way w e will come to know God because God will speak to us through Scripture, tradition, community, relationships, and events and experiences. What is needed in all cases is the gift of discernment so we are able to distinguish between messages from God and messages that stem f rom our own willfulness, our ego, or even our shadow. At all times we need to be aware of the fact that we will always be tempted to think we have a “word from the Lord,” when in fact the word comes from our desire, our hubris, our dark side, or the shadow side of other people and comunity.      

There is a saying that when we are in great difficulty or turmoil, the presence and suggested way of the evil one will always appear to us first as an angel of light. In our desperation we will see the easy way out as a message from God. The need to distinguish between messages from God and other messages shows us the importance of the gift of discernment and the importance of always testing our options with a community of faith. Not only do individual Christians need to be connected to a community, but communities of faith need to be connected with other congregations to establish a built-in source of guidance and correction.   

A Theology of Discernment   

At the very heart of the Christian faith lies one fundamental question: How can we understand and live the will of God?   

When Jesus sought a way to identify who was of the family of God, he determined that a member of the family is whoever does the will of God (Mark 3:35). And when he was in agony in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of his betrayal, his prayer was simply and profoundly that God’s will be done (Mark 14:35). This desire, this longing to seek to do God’s will, is “discernment” and is a hallmark of the Christian faith.   

No one person knows fully the will of God. In our sin and finitude, we are not able fully to comprehend or to accomplish God’s will. Yet, reconciled to God in Christ and led by the Holy Spirit, we participate in God’s own being and will. We trust that when we are faithful and open, God’s will is disclosed to use that we may follow. No one person can discern the will of God, but each of us can glimpse an understanding of what God desires. By sharing these understandings in the community of faith, we can enable the wisdom and way of God to emerge among us. Through prayerful reflection and empathic sharing, we can let the Spirit move within us and among us to build a consensus about what is the will of God.   

In our sinfulness, we can never be assured that we have truly and fully comprehended God’s will, let alone acted on it. But we can trust that the Holy Spirit will lead. Thus, a discernment process should never be seen as closed. In faithfulness, we make and act on decisions for the service of God, but we are ever open to God’s further guidance.   

Gladly we accept the cost of discipleship, and joyfully we strive to follow in God’s will and way. Truly, it is our duty, privilege, and fulfillment as followers of Christ to strive to live the will of God in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.   

Prayer and Discernment    

The etymological basis of the term discernment comes from the Greek word that means “to sift through.” Very early it was seen as sifting the wheat from the chaff, sifting through our own interior experiences, ideas, thoughts, and feelings, all of which are brought about by the circumstances we are in.   

Discernment is not simply having the pastor offer a prayer and then going about working out a solution using the best of our rational skills. Discernment does not mean we simply go along with the prayer—because that is what we are supposed to do—and then we get down to the real work of deciding through rational discourse. Discernment means just the opposite. Our real work is in the praying prior to our board work, with the rest of the meeting flowing out of that. What follows prayer is not so much a reasoned approach to things as a genuine listening to one another, being open to a solution to an issue that is not very rational but that instead just feels right to the entire group present.   

There is nothing rational or prudent about the Paschal Mystery, the sacrificial life and death of Christ. It is a stumbling block to some and folly to others, yet it remains the heart of the Good News. Either we believe that, or we are not Christians at all. As we try to discern the will of God for our congregation, our focus will not be on doing the rational, prudent thing but rather on doing the faithful thing. In short, when a Christian congregation tries to discern the will of God for its future, it most likely will be choosing to continue in the path of Christ—of entering suffering and brokenness in order to do the sacrificial, life-giving thing.   


Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog   


Adapted from Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach  by Roy M. Oswald and Robert E. Friedrich, Jr . Copyright © 1996 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved 



AL176_SM Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach  
by Roy M. Oswald and Robert E. Friedrich, Jr.        

Drawing on extensive consulting experience with congregations, the authors provide a step-by-step guide to congregational planning that grounds strategic planning techniques in a process of spiritual discernment. The result: members will own the vision and be eager to participate in the congregation’s calling, life, and ministry. You and your planning committee learn the theory behind the techniques, along with receiving help for addressing specific situations .          

AL276_SM Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations           
by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann       

Gil Rendle and Alice Mann cast planning as a “holy conversation,” a congregational discernment process about three critical questions: Who are we? What has God called us to do or be? Who is our neighbor? Rendle and Mann equip congregational leaders with a broad and creative range of ideas, pathways, processes, and tools for planning. By choosing the resources that best suit their needs and context, congregations will shape their own strengthening, transforming, holy conversation. .        

AL387_SM Holy Clarity: The Practice of Planning and Evaluation           
by Sarah B. Drummond      

 In Holy Clarity, Sarah Drummond explores the most basic reason leaders of religious organizations conduct evaluations: To find and create God-pleasing clarity regarding the organization’s purpose and the impact of its activities. Leadership and evaluation are not separate disciplines, she argues. Effective leaders evaluate because they need to know what is happening in their organizations and how those activities are effecting change.       

AL266_SM Projects that Matter: Successful Planning and Evaluation for Religious Organizations           
by Kathleen A. Cahalan

Projects That Matter is a primer for project leaders and teams about basic project planning and evaluation. Intended for the nonexpert, the book introduces readers to the five basic elements of project design and describes in detail a six-step process for designing and implementing a project evaluation and for disseminating evaluation findings. Project leaders in congregations, colleges and seminaries, camps and other specialized ministries, and other religious settings will find Cahalan’s guidance clear and invaluable.  


Plan now for Ed White to guide you through an exploration of the skills and behaviors that lead to a long, effective relationship with a single congregation. 

Take advantage of the $30 Early Bird discount,
available through August 23.

White,Edward 120x 
New Vision for the Long Pastorate 
Leader: Ed White, Alban consultant and author 
October 23-25, Roslyn Retreat Center, Richmond, VA




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