We’ve all been there. The meeting baptised with a quick prayer at the start, followed by ‘let battle commence’ as opposing views are passionately voiced and common ground fades into the distance. The business-like efficiency that completes the agenda but leaves us wondering, “What does God think?” The group discussion where those saying the most aren’t those with the most to say, and quieter voices go unheard. The debate on a complex issue where most of us see nuanced shades of grey, but the vote demands a black and white “yes” or “no”. Is God always on the side of the loudest voice or the biggest vote? Encounters like these, whether in meetings, groups or personal conversations, might leave us with the dissatisfied feeling that there must be better ways to listen well, dialogue sensitively, and discern God’s mind and will.
Some Christian traditions other than our own take a different approach to decisions. The Quakers and the Jesuits deliberately position themselves as communities who seek God’s leading, and they have developed communal discernment models which are intentionally designed to facilitate hearing together what God is saying. Their decision-making processes feature discussion rather than debate, seeking consensus rather than the polarising vote. It’s their core belief that everyone in their community is valuable, and brings their own unique contribution through which God can speak.
That simple assumption makes a profound difference to how they listen, dialogue and discern.
It means listening, really listening to each other rather than just waiting for your turn to speak. What does this person bring to the table, what’s their insight or angle that illuminates God’s wisdom? This mindset looks to affirm the positive in each contribution, rather than pouncing on the negative with a sound rebuttal. Seeking and articulating what seems good builds a growing consensus on what are key values in the way forward. This perspective also requires us to be similarly modest about our own contribution. Rather than assuming that I know the answer and it’s my job to persuade everyone that I’m right, I must more humbly ask: “God, what insight are you asking me to bring to this? And what can I learn from everyone else?”
Arising from that listening comes dialogue, but not debate. One simple way to structure a discussion is to raise each proposed solution in turn. Everyone in the group then says what they think in its favour, then everyone speaks against. This avoids the adversarial practice of people lining up on sides to speak for or against. Usually, the weight of evidence in favour of one proposal becomes clear; where it doesn’t, further prayer, waiting and discussion will be needed.
The desired outcome is discernment – a clear sense of which, among competing or confused possibilities, resonates with where the Holy Spirit is leading for the next step. That’s often easier to identify than it sounds, especially where people are regularly praying, reading the Bible and worshipping as individuals and together. It also helps if regular prayer, both individual and corporate, is part of any formal decision-making processes. Probably we’ve all also been in those gratifying meetings which find the solution arising from the unifying elements in everyone’s contributions, or the “aha moment” when an inspirational suggestion dawns from the dimness. It’s far better than any one contributor could have envisaged alone, and carries the unmistakeable sense that we have heard God together.
There’s probably never been a time when our congregations, Presbyteries and national church have so many decisions to make, uncertainties about the future, and problems to resolve. It needn’t be a battle. At least none of us can claim to have been here before, or to have tried and tested solutions! That humility might help us towards creative new ways of listening, dialoguing and discernment.
Rev. Dr. Lynn McChlery is minister of Auchterarder Parish Church. She is author of a new book ‘How do I know it’s God?’