July 5, 2019

Discernment and the Holistic Approach

I recently visited a parish that was considering embarking on a capital campaign. During our conversation, members of the committee shared that they had engaged in a series of visioning, clergy search, and strategic planning initiatives over the last several years. The initiatives included one-on-one meetings, group conversations and surveys. In two cases they hired consultants to facilitate these initiatives, each of which included some form of discernment. However during our conversation it became very apparent that the committee’s level of clarity regarding the processes they used and the practices they engaged in were unclear. So were the outcomes they had hoped to achieve. Given that, there was a general level of frustration as well as a strong desire to bring something tangible to the congregation that showed forward progress. Moreover, there was a reluctance to engage in what they perceived to be another redundant process of discernment. With deference to the best intentions and heart-felt contributions of everyone involved, their collective efforts proved to be less productive than expected. Hope and enthusiasm shifted to frustration and caution, and I felt a genuine feeling of concern for their predicament.

It’s safe to say that this parish’s experience is not an isolated one. Running a parish is a full-time job that often brings with it a multitude of responsibilities and limited staff resources to address them all. Prioritizing projects as well as discerning the most appropriate approach to employ that will ensure a successful outcome can be time-consuming and difficult. In addition, there are a variety of secular and religious resources available to faith communities, each with varying emphases, practices, levels of training, and support. Therefore, it’s not unusual for a parish or religious institution to engage in a series of compartmentalized initiatives that serve their immediate needs, but lack the cohesion to ultimately integrate the scope of their mission, ministries, and congregational development needs.

There is, however, a solution - one that transforms the legitimate need for funding into a holistic opportunity that can address other areas of need within a religious community. That solution can be found in ECF’s capital campaign discernment phase. The discernment phase is essentially a platform for proactive parishioner engagement that by design invites every parishioner into dialogue with parish leadership and with one another. The process is not haphazard, but rather an organized approach that is intended to deliver tangible outcomes. For clarity’s sake, when I use the term “holistic” I am referring to an initiative that by its very nature has the ability to connect disparate parts, or in our case addresses multiple aspects of community life.

Let’s take a look at some practical examples where the discernment phase provides added value.

• Communal and Individual Discernment
Discernment asks a faith community to re-examine its common mission and the expressions of that mission through faithful action in ministry. Because the process is reflective, it fosters emotional and spiritual connections between each parishioner’s understanding of mission and their individual involvement in ministry with the common mission and ministries of her or his religious community.

• Congregational and Ministry Development
As the answers become clear, the meaning of faith and its impact in the individual and corporate lives of parishioners becomes relevant. Parishioner’s connection to their faith tradition becomes strengthened, as does their connection to their faith community, and their willingness to participate in the mission and ministry of their community.

• Community Building and Fellowship
Because discernment is a conversational process that promotes deeper opportunities for dialogue, the conversations that occur in cottage meetings and in subsequent one-on-one conversations often nurture existing relationships and establish relationships where none existed before.

• Spiritual Formation
As parishioners participate in the process, they reflect, discern and inevitably gain insights into their roles and responsibilities as people of faith. In these moments transformational events occur.

• Fundraising
From a fundraising perspective, discernment creates a solidarity that makes visioning more realistic, goals more attainable, parishioners more engaged, and the asking for and receiving of financial support much easier.

• Strategic Planning and Communication
Lastly, the clarity that emerges from discernment provides valuable insights that can be used in strategic planning, to create a parish profile, engage in a clergy search, update a website, or communicate with more confidence the vision, work, and impact of your commitment as people of faith.