Thursday, January 13, 2011

Discernment and Call

Lizard Eater has been talking about Group Discernment on her blog.  Peter Bowden recently talked about UU Spiritual Gifts and discernment on his blog.  And others have been blogging about this kind of stuff recently as well.  It got me to thinking, and led me to post this (edited slightly here) as a response to Lizard Eater's questions on her blog:

On the start of my going-to-seminary-to-pursue-ordination journey, I had a whole series of lengthy and numerous conversations with family members, friends, and the ministers (ordained and otherwise) in my life.

Once I got accepted into several seminaries, I held a conference call with a handful of these folks to discuss my next steps. While the decision at the time was less important than that of actually discerning a call (and really was mostly about which seminary was the best fit for where I was in my journey), drawing on the wisdom of a community of folks felt important to me.

When I set up the structure for the conference call, some family members gave me a hard time because I did things like ask folks to leave a minute or two of silence between each person talking. We didn't end up sticking to it exactly, but I feel that just by sharing my hope that we could really hear one another, it created sort of an open, ongoing silent prayer in the conversation that was ultimately important to the level of clarity reached.

In an ideal world, the communal discernment is really what the MFC process would be. I am not confident that's what it is (it may be in part, but I doubt it is in whole), yet I do think it should be. Communal discernment looks, feels, and is much different than gatekeeping, standards-measuring, determining, evaluating, or testing. 

For one thing, it has the power to lead to something much more powerful than a "yes" or a "no..." it can lead to a "here's what..." 

For UUs, the call comes from community (even if it also comes from God). We call one another into ministry. Unfortunately, in current form, I think that all too often seems to translate into more of a reality of people trying to discern their call on their own.  Or heading off to seminary, ready to pour all kinds of money into it, without a clue of what they are getting into.

I can imagine an ideal world in which, when a person first is told or begins to feel that they have a call to the ministry arising, and they want to explore that, a community of folks -- both people who know them and people who don't -- are gathered to walk with them in the continual discernment required to uncover a true calling and then refine it. The end result may or may not be ordained ministry in any of its current forms (community, RE, or parish). But no particular outcome is a goal in the beginning except to help the individual uncover the nature of his or her call.

This could be the start, middle, and end, of the credentialing process.

Can you imagine, for example, after you get the required career assessment, and you get your evaluation back, being able to go to this community whose soul purpose is for you to uncover the nature of your call, and really *process* it with them in such a way that more and more the specificity of your call emerges. There is so much rich stuff in the assessments, why not?

It would be a whole different form, and much more powerful. I also think it would make room for the emergence of other uses for the spiritual gifts of UUs in the world, other than ordained ministry (along the lines of what Peter Bowden has suggested).


  1. Communal discernment is a difficult process, indeed. I think it's absolutely necessary that our congregations begin doing it, no matter how difficult, especially around mission and missional activities. It's just not a model that UUs are used to, unfortunately.

  2. Oh, Phil, good point regarding the application to mission and missional activities. Thank you so much for that!

  3. What you describe reminds me of a similar process I used when I was discerning whether to go to seminary (which I did). I based in on the Quaker clearness committee model, which Parker Palmer has articulated. I completely agree that our UU process is too individualistic and not focused enough of ministerial formation, which of necessity happens in communion with others.