Discernment—A New Word for an Old Process

Today’s post from the Consulting Group that was once the consulting team of the Alban Institute is by the Rev. Dr. John Wimberley. Dr. Wimberley served an urban congregation for several decades. He knows about the challenges of the urban church scene and overcame many of them.

His post today talks about the discernment process—a current hot topic in the Church.

He points out that when he was engaged in ministry in Washington, D.C., he didn’t know anything about discernment, but he and his congregation engaged in the process without the big word.

Most congregations engaged in discernment WAY-Y-Y-Y long before church leaders labeled it. Assigning this big word to the decision-making process makes it more formal and more formidable. Now we tend to think we need help from the outside to make group decisions. Official help. Paid help. Help that will keep the faithful in line.

Pastor Wimberley points out that the discernment process requires abandoning personal agendas.

There are other agendas in play in the church discernment process.

  • There is the personal agenda of each member.
  • There is the personal agenda of each clergy.
  • There is the corporate agenda of the denomination.
  • There is the personal agenda of each corporate leader. 

Oddly, this process with the big name promotes a hands-off stance. Everyone thinks a system is in play with which they should not interfere. This discourages member involvement and empowers the corporate agenda.

Personal agendas are not all bad.  Sometimes, people with personal agendas are actually thinking about other people!

Personal agendas created many a church here in the Land of the Free. They are still creating modern church movements and storefront faith communities in neighborhoods abandoned by mainline denominations that discerned that ministry was no longer economically feasible. When people can’t pay for a church with all the modern expectations, they don’t deserve any church at all.

When immigrants began flocking to America in search of religious freedom, many were fleeing the threat of jail for daring to dissent in the Church that had the power of State. There was no money for full-time pastors. Labor and land were donated. Personal agendas overcame the lack of resources.

These churches started small. Some never grew to be very large.

The large church is a fairly new concept. It gained ground in post-industrial America. Consolidation was the order of the day.

Church leaders saw advantages. Big churches could better support clergy and hierarchy—a new and continuing agenda!

Back when we, who live in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave were both freer and braver, the discernment process usually took place seamlessly at the local level. Today, many congregations turn to outsiders for help. Denominations encourage this with the “interim pastor” concept.

Here’s what can happen.

  1. The denomination assigns a leader to oversee a discernment process.
  2. Those with agendas that support the denomination’s agenda gain prestige.
  3. Those who disagree will be silenced—one way or another.
  4. Most of the faithful will not want to engage in the resulting clash.
    • Some will take sides.
    • Some will take a back seat.
    • Some will take a hike.

How much force is used in the discernment process is up to the regional leaders.

We, at Redeemer, have experienced the worst with the regional body attempting to lock out the congregation and suing local leaders, forgetting the reason many immigrants came to America—and forgetting the admonitions of the Bible. They gained support among other churches with an effective and ongoing defamation campaign, easily implemented with clergy gossip.

We’ve seen the discernment process take place with NO involvement of the congregation. But the denomination spreads their story of how they worked with Redeemer in a process of discernment. TRUTH: None of us were invited.

The discernment process can become a manipulative tool. The big word helps with that — makes it seem righteous.

Dr. Wimberley is correct. Selfish agendas must be put aside.

Easier said than done.