Making the Tough Choices
Decision-making Led By The Spirit
The Church is the body of Christ: the incarnation of God in the world. And every vestry is called to be Christ-alive in its parish and in the conduct of the business of its congregation. This is not an impossible dream. Any vestry that understands and embraces this concept can find the spiritual vitality that transmits God's love and truth throughout the parish and outward into the community and world.
Even simple steps can set things in motion. A vestry, after reading this issue, can reflect on a passage from Ephesians: “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” The group can then take the further step of sitting silently to visualize and feel itself as embodying Christ. That in turn can lead to an effort to articulate this vision, to express a desire to pursue it, and to pledge itself to live into the vision. Then all will be in place for the actual quest.
Any vestry that commits itself to following these three spiritual discernment practices in its meetings will find its members growing closer to God and to one another, even when wrestling with difficult and painful issues.
- Centering in God.
- Deep, prayerful listening.
- Decisions by consensus.
Centering in God
A group seeking to live as the body of Christ must center itself in God’s presence. A good way to start is to begin each meeting with a period of silence. People often arrive preoccupied and tense; a period of quiet allows them to slow down and let their thoughts and feelings come to rest. Each person can then become attuned to God at his or her own center and at the center of the gathering. A silence of about ten minutes is usually optimal. But if anyone is uncomfortable with silence, it is better to start with a two-minute silence and gradually increase the length over a series of meetings.
This centering silence is not an end in itself. It is a means to establish a centeredness that is then maintained throughout the meeting. If anyone senses that the group may be losing touch with God at its center, that person is obligated to suggest a few minutes of silence to become centered once more. A vestry immersed in God’s presence is prepared to enter into deep, prayerful listening.
Deep, prayerful listening
We do not listen with our ears alone. We can listen with all that we are. People communicate thoughts and feelings through facial expressions and physical demeanor, transmitting peace, joy, anger, and fear verbally and non-verbally. People reveal themselves not only in the words they utter but in what they refrain from saying. And to listen with one’s whole self means to loosen the grip on one’s own agendas, opinions, and convictions.
Only when we open our minds and hearts to others without blocking the channels of communication can we hear all that is being said. A group must also allow a pause between one speaker and the next to give everyone an opportunity to absorb what has been said and to feel its impact. This focused, respectful listening allows consensus to spring forth.
Consensus means sensing together. In consensus, no votes are taken. Ample opportunity is given for all points of view to be expressed, with each member of the group sensitive to the concerns of every other member. Everyone looks for common ground, identifying it, solidifying it, building on it. Consensus does not ask for compromise or bargaining (“If you will give on this, I will give on that.”) Neither does it require unanimity: not everyone will necessarily be in full agreement with the decision, but no one will be vehemently against it.
When everyone concurs that the stated position reflects where the group as a whole is in relation to the issue at that moment, such consensus indicates a next step. This does not prohibit those who advocate proceeding in either a bolder or more moderate way from revisiting the issue later; it is permissible to test an evolving sense of the group if the moment becomes ripe. A central quality of consensus is that no one wins, no one loses, no one is ignored or left out.
In the name of Christ
Groups meeting in the name of Christ look for an additional dimension, seeking to be guided and drawn together by the Spirit of the living God. Signs of the Spirit — joy, love, persistence, convergence, unity, energy, the peace of God — reveal the movement of God in the meeting. Spiritual consensus is consensus laced with signs of the Spirit. The followers of Jesus experienced that consensus when “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” (Acts 4:32)
A vestry can best cultivate these practices by maintaining constant vigilance. It can sharpen its attentiveness by setting aside a few minutes at the conclusion of each meeting to reflect on how well it sustained prayerful listening. At the beginning of the next meeting, a designated person can summarize these observations to reinforce the group’s awareness of attentive listening. The vestry that follows this path will find its meetings becoming more energized, focused, and efficient. It will work in a setting that fosters the development and maturity of faith in its members. It will find itself becoming that holy temple which is a dwelling place for God.
Suzanne Farnham, the founder of Listening Hearts Ministries (www.listeninghearts.org), is co-author of “Grounded in God,” a book of particular value to vestries incorporating discernment into their proceedings. She leads vestry retreats that teach the use of spiritual discernment in group deliberations.