Building a Discerning Team

Most teams in congregational settings assume they are being Spirit-led.  They believe that God will be self-disclosing and guide the work of the team, so long as good people gather with good intent.  They expect that discernment will happen automatically in the context of good decision making. And so, they demonstrate little intentionality when it comes to being Spirit-led or God-centered.

compassDiscernment doesn’t just happen.  It must be intentionally nurtured within the culture of a team.  A team that is grounded in God’s spirit, and open to authentic discernment, will cultivate its presence, its process, and its practices.

The Status Quo: Typically, groups trust each member of the team to be prayerful and discerning about an issue, and they expect each person to bring their private discernments into group decision making.  They rely on the spiritual depth of individuals to carry the team.

Certainly, a team will not be discerning if individual members haven’t developed their personal prayer and discernment muscles. You can’t simply show up and expect to engage in holy listening as a group, without having cultivated a prayerful spirit among members of the group.

However, personal prayer work isn’t enough for creating a group culture of discernment, because the team has a spirit of its own that engages the discernment process. The group has a history of carefully cultivated roles and relationships, habitual ways of seeing things, and established patterns of interaction.  To break through our entrenched behavior patterns we need to work on group presence, process and practice.

Presencing: The group must “presence” itself if it wants to do the work of discernment. Presencing is what the team does when it connects to its deepest source.

Otto Scharmer says that this is the place from which the field of the future begins to arise. The team has entered this state when it sits fully in the presence of these questions: Who is our Self? What is our Work?

Presencing happens when the team looks honestly at its past patterns of interaction, and suspends those patterns long enough to see with fresh eyes, and sense the organization from a new perspective. The team lets go of its attachments to personal agendas and the way that things have been done before, and enters the conversation with open mind, open heart and open will.

In a traditional decision making process there is little room for the concept of “presence”. Presence requires an attitude of unknowing. It takes time and intentionally. We can’t show up, say a prayer, and then dive into work as usual. We need to engage in deeper disciplines of prayer and silence in order to invite the team into a presencing state.

The more we cultivate this state, and the more frequently we enter into it, the easier it is to access presencing, when the need arises.

Process:  Group discernment involves a process that has many parallels to, but is distinct from traditional decision making. A team that is discerning will adopt an intentional discernment process. Let’s compare.

 Steps in Group Problem Solving   Stages in Group Discernment(Morris & Olsen)
Defining the problemLooking for root causesGathering the  dataInterpreting the dataBrainstorming alternatives/optionsEstablishing decision criteriaEvaluating alternativesAssessing risk and return

Selecting an optimal solution

Allocating resources

Framing the focus of discernmentGrounding in guiding principlesShedding ego & biasesRooting in the tradition & valuesListening for the promptings of SpiritExploring through imaginationWeighing options

Closing; moving toward selection

Testing the decision with rest

Decision making assumes that problems are solvable if approached carefully and logically, and that we have the capacity to understand and solve our own problems & embrace our own opportunities. Decision making seeks to maximize available resources and to maintain and restore the status quo.

Discernment, on the other hand, assumes that logic, attitude and ego stand in the way of effective problem solving.   Divine will is the ultimate value. Discernment relies on vulnerability, humility and unknowing. It opens up creativity and compassion. It requires patience, perseverance and fluidity in practices of dialogue and prayer. It works on God’s timing and not in accordance with human time frames.

Practices: Teams that are spiritually grounded generally have a deep toolbox of spiritual practices at the ready, for use as needed in the course of teamwork. These practices extend well beyond a simple prayer at the beginning and end of each meeting.

Spiritually grounded teams regularly engage such practices as:  lectio divina, contemplation/desolation, reflective story-weaving and biblical-theological reflection. Teams sharpen these practices outside of problem solving contexts, so that when they need to call upon the tools the practices are already well understood and practiced.

Spiritually grounded teams cultivate their capacity for silence. The team regularly enters into silence together and discovers a place of authenticity at the core of its stillness.

Some teams appoint a sage or discernmentarian. These are people with particular gifts of discernment and a capacity for wisdom, who are asked to guide the team’s discernment practices.

We cannot take the soulfulness of our organization or our teams for granted.  Our desire to be grounded in God’s spirit does not automatically make us a discerning team.  Tending to our presence, our process, and our practices leads to a rich, life-long journey of intentional spiritual discovery.