Tuesday
Oct232012

Morris and Olsen, Discerning God's Will Together

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Danny E. Morris and Charles M. Olsen, Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church. Revised and Updated. Alban Institute, 2012.

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LifeandLeadership.com Summary

This is a revision of the 1995 work, Transforming Church Boards Into Communities of Spiritual Leaders. The spirit of the original volume is maintained, but several of its unique pieces deserve mention here.

First is Four Practices of Worshipful-Work, now called Discernment-Work.

1. History giving and story telling - Each congregation has a “thick history” and present reality of stories of God’s leading, provision, and grace, and boards need to rehearse these stories. They establish a kind of “sacred space” from which boards engage their responsibilities. Sharing stories helps to clarify and generate vision and enables discernment. Some stories should emerge “from the edge” to challenge complacency or misunderstanding.

2. Biblical-theological reflection - Olsen calls this “distilling wisdom” by understanding and employing biblical, theological and church traditions or values in order to inform current ministry.

3. Prayerful discernment - This is to perceive what God has already decided and have the courage to pursue it. The spiritual ethos of a church board requires a process that integrates elements of rationale decision-making, with the prayer-filled activity of biblically-informed reflection. It requires the church board to relinquish personal and corporate ego and be willing to take hold of the direction God is giving. This involves being selective in the number of issues to be discerned, beginning with corporate and private self-surrender (indifference such that each person only desires God’s direction), gathering information from many sources, including scripture, agree on what the corporate prayer is in relation to the matter, and seeking consensus by clarifying what is good about each option until board members perceive what is “the weightier good.” He describes five stages in the discernment process: rational stage (data gathering); communication stage (enabling all to understand); guiding principle stage (what is the issue); analytical stage (focus on options that only relate to the guiding principle); intuitive stage (coming to consensus). (95-96)

4. Futuristic visioning - Olsen insists “vision is connected to history and stories” (biblical and otherwise), “vision is connected to biblical-theological reflection” (a prophetic sense of what God is about), and “vision is connected to discernment” (discernment sees things as they are in the present; vision has eyes for the future). (104-106) He says it is critical that vision is only implemented when it “is worn or embodied by the vision holder.” (107)

One of the most enduring features of the first edition was Olsen’s “Ways to Pray in a Board Meeting,” which is excerpted in an article on the Alban Institute website, and adapted here:

Frame the agenda with prayer - Focus on the image of God and openness to the Spirit’s leading.

Glean for Prayer - Assign individuals to identify items throughout the meeting as the subject of prayer in four areas: thanksgiving, intercession, petitions and praise.

Offer Prayers of Confession - Confession includes weariness, frustration, confusion, elation, boredom and fulfillment as well as sins and errors. Naming “how things really are” and “what is left undone” is healthy for leaders, but be certain there is a safe place to work through the issues.

Sing Prayers - Assign each member to bring one verse of a hymn that captures the most appropriate prayer for the congregation at this time. Sing the hymns throughout the meeting.

“Time Out” for Prayer - After 20 minutes of divisive discussion, the egos take over. Take three to five minutes of silence for personal refocusing and prayer. Ask members to consider how they may be closing themselves off from information, what image of God is needed then, and how they can be present and act as servant leaders.

Rotate Prayer - Assign each person a 15-minute segment of the meeting during which they should pray silently for each person present and for the group’s work.

Draw upon Model Prayers in Scripture - Use the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ prayer for his friends in John 17, Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving (Philippians 1:3-11) or his prayer for the church (Ephesians 3:14-21) or Jesus’ invitation to agree on what to pray for (Matthew 18:19-20).

Acknowledge Subliminal Prayer - Prayer may be ceaseless and just below the conscious level, even during active work or deliberation.

Remember: Meetings Are Worship - Resistance to infusing meetings with prayer comes from the idea that worship belongs in the sanctuary and prayer belongs to worship. An inspirational moment in a meeting does wonders in loosening the strings of resistance.

It also offered Ten Spiritual Discernment Movements intended to provide a better way to make decisions and do church business.

  1. Framing the question to which we seek God’s answer.
  2. Grounding the search by listing the key values or principles which will guide our search.
  3. Rooting the search in the Biblical story.
  4. Shedding our personal desires and prejudices toward or against a particular outcome.
  5. Listening to the voices of all those who may be affected.
  6. Exploring all the available possibilities.
  7. Improving three possibilities that seem to have the most merit.
  8. Weighing those after they have been improved.
  9. Closing on the option that seems to be the one toward which God is pointing us.
  10. Resting with that choice to see whether it brings feelings of consolation or desolation.

The first edition is credited with introducing discernment among mainline Protestant denominations, even in establishing a new vocabulary with words like indifference, self-death, listening hearts, exploring, improving, weighing, resting, consolation, desolation, etc.

This revised edition integrates Olsen’s background in Roman Catholic Ignatian and Benedictine practices and Morris’s experience with Quakers, but through the filters of their own Presbyterian and Methodist traditions. Since the first volume, the authors have had experience both practiting and training others in discernment, and have discovered some of the more common difficulties leaders experience in this work. These include struggles in integrating discernment with parliamentary procedure, impatience with a prayerful process, “assurance” of God’s will that actually results in practical failures. This has led to a deeper humility about the discernment process, and a realization that the path toward indifference, “not my will but thine be done,” is often corrupted by personal preference, cultural conditioning, and logical consistency with the past. As the authors say in a promotional article.

Somehow God is not going to let us rest with the assurance that we have some kind of iron-clad formula for discerning decisions. That is not always the way the Spirit works. The mystery remains and infiltrates all of our best human efforts.

This leads to an acknowlegement that all dynamics inherent in the deliberating processes for churches and religious organizations, as well as all the pathways, are indeed limited. They survey several of these factors - reasoned discourse, attempting to obey God’s will, individual discerment, decision making, ascetic spiritual sight, procedures and rules, consensus gathering, any single way of leading meetings such as parliamentary procedure or Robert’s Rules, and definitely business-as-usual - and conclude that all are necessarily impaired. 

Add to these the hard-to-admit resistance we have to knowing and doing God’s will, which is borne out in the authors experience with churches.

They fear that if God’s will is done, it will result in hardship, that God’s will has cutting edges and unhappy results. They fear that God’s will may be the worst thing that could happen. Many people fear that God may require them to do almost impossible tasks. If a person asks God to reveal the divine will, he or she may have to quit his or her job, become a missionary, or sell the boat. An uneasy feeling lingers in the church.Don’t get too close to God. God will only make life difficult.

But they beckon us to consider:

  • How different would your life be in you had frequently and earnestly asked the question, “God, what is your will?”
  • What would your church be like if at every important juncture, you and other members of your faith community had consciously asked, “God, what is your will?”

The book is divided into five chapters:

  1. Discernment: What? - Defines discernment as that which gets to the essence of the matter, encouraging a larger perspective of problems in the context of God’s kingdom vision, and a commitment to work together and act decisively.
  2. Discernment: Why? - Upholds the importance of desiring to participate in God’s activity, seek God’s guidance, and listen for his call, especially in distinguish between God’s voice and the other voices that beckon us. “Likethe gold miner, we test for real gold.”
  3. Discernment: Who? - While discernment “engages the person in the depths of his or her soul and therefore in a profound relationship with the Spirit of God,” it also “involves the person in the community of faith and brings the community to decisions that order its life and ministry.”
  4. Discernment: How? - Given the ancient Christian traditions of discernment, we do not need to reinvent the wheel, but we must recognize our vulnerabilty to the way the world makes decisions, and refrain from mechanical “ten-step” processes that presume our capability of fathoming the mind of God such that we always achieve desired outcomes.
  5. Discernment: Where? - Discernment requires the interplay of personal solitude, small group, and large, deliberative assemblies.

Publisher’s Description

Bible study, research, and fieldwork merge in this book of practical principles for decision making by spiritual discernment. The step-by-step approach can be used to help any size group learn a new way to make decisions—a way that is interactive, spiritual, and rooted in faith practices and community. Small groups, committees, church boards, church leaders at all levels, and seminary professors will find this book valuable.

This is a revised and updated version of the book, originally published in 1997. This new version inclused revised and updated material, as well as a new introduction by Charles Olsen.

About the Author

Danny E. Morris was a pastor in Florida for 22 years, was the director of developing ministries for Upper Room Ministries for 25 years, and developed The Upper Room Academy for Spiritual Formation and the Five-Day Academy. He is the author of sixteen books, including Yearning to Know God’s Will.

Charles M. Olsen has 22 years of pastoral experience in the Presbyterian Church USA and was the founder of Worshipful-Work: Center for Transforming Religious Leadership. His book, Transforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders, was selected as one of the top ten religious books in 1997 by the Academy of Parish Clergy.


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