the unfolding path of discernment

So what exactly do vestry members do on retreat? Do they sit by the pool and tan? Do they enter a 24-hour period of meditative prayer? Do they break out the cigars and port and decide how to run the church for the next 12 months?


The 2017 Vestry, in its Retreat Habitat

The answer, of course, is none of the above, though I think that there’s a lingering belief that the last one (the port, cigars & central planning) actually happens. I assure you that it doesn’t.

Central planning is doomed to failure because “top down” doesn’t really work so well in a church. Sure, there are ways that a rector and the vestry can and must offer guidance, but the only things that are going to work are those that reflect a grass-roots passion for ministry. So the work of the vestry is a lot less “let’s set the plan” and a lot more “how do we listen for the Holy Spirit, and how do we listen to the members of the church?”

What we’re talking about, of course, is discernment. Canon Earnest Graham led a thoughtful presentation on the work of discernment: it is a kind of holy listening that leads to faithful action. It is grounded first and foremost in prayer, then sends us on a path that is far from a straight line. (In fact, the line is usually quite squiggly). As we carry out our work together, if we are really listening, things will change: new challenges will arise, new people will step forward with ideas we hadn’t thought of before. Will we get to our


There it Is: The Squiggly Path of Discernment

destination? Of course, if we are faithful and open to the Spirit. But our idea of the destination will almost certainly change along the way.

Sometimes discernment happens at a major scale: the strategic plan, the hiring of a new staff member, the decision on how to use a major gift. But I would argue that discernment is most effective in the long term as an unfolding and years-long process of listening,  adjustment, and incremental change.

When we go too long without practicing the skills of discernment, and making  small changes along the way, those changes that come tend to be bigger, more difficult, and a lot more painful.  Discernment helps us to stay ahead of that curve, indeed to help us to thrive in a changing world. Discernment isn’t about avoiding pain: it’s about listening for the ways that the Holy Spirit is moving, for the new energy that’s percolating just beneath the surface of what we can see.

That’s what the St. Andrew’s Ministry Survey is about: listening to the parish, gathering feedback on where the energy is (and where it isn’t) and making the incremental changes to how we see our life together that will help us to grow and thrive into the future.

Where will all this listening and discernment lead us? Who can say? Sometimes it will indeed take us to places of big and courageous change. Sometimes it will lead us to listen more closely to the wisdom of the past. Through it all, God will be with us, challenging us and nurturing us us and nudging us along this path. That journey, of course, is the whole point.






About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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