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Discerning God’s Will Together

Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church (revised and updated)
by Danny E. Morris and Charles M. Olsen
Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2012
145 pages
Reviewed by Lilian Whitney

Small groups, committees, faith community boards, and leaders will find valuable resources in the updated and revised Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church, by Danny E. Morris and Charles M. Olsen. Originally published in 1999, Olsen writes in the preface to this new edition, “A new decade of leaders is emerging. Large megachurches and not-for-profit religious organizations widen the audience of seekers. And individuals continue to seek a way that is spiritually centered and productive” (xvi). Constructed in five sections—“Discernment: What?” “Discernment: Why?” “Discernment: Who?” “Discernment: How?” and “Discernment: Where?”—the book includes an appendix, glossary of terms, and resources on discernment.

The introduction explains: “Today is an in-between time for the church, between the past, when the church was firmly established in Christendom, and an unclear future for the church. Today is a time for redefinition; it is a time for the church to listen to its stories, to talk about its direction and identity, and to patiently discern the shape of its future life and ministry. Yet people are weary from church business as usual, from church gatherings that do not connect with the deeper meanings of their life and faith” (4). Thus, listening and evaluating how decisions are made is crucial. Investigating biblical citings of discernment, the authors write, “Without spiritual discernment, the prophets would have been silent; they spoke what they discerned” (14). Discernment engages “hearing,” “sight,” “speech,” and “the presence of God” (14–15). Morris and Olsen write, “The conviction that divine guidance operates in the human world invites us into a process of discernment” (18). Moreover, that conviction, together with questions such as these, prompts seekers to find a spiritual guide, groups to grow deeper, and governing bodies to approach future actions with a broader perspective: “God, what are you up to in the world? What is my part in it?” (18).

Chapter Two extrapolates: “The purpose and goal of spiritual discernment are knowing and doing God’s will. We can easily become enamored with discernment definitions, strategies for holding meetings, the emotional rush of doing something new, or even self-adulation for attempting to do something spiritual. The newness of our endeavor may compromise our vision if we fail to see the urgency of knowing and doing God’s will. Nothing is more urgent in our lives or in our congregations than yearning to know and do God’s will” (37). A helpful section of twenty ways that “cultures of decision making operate in church circles” (42) describes “autocratic; conciliar; consensus; debate; delegation; democratic; desire; emotion; intuition; mystical; lottery; mediation; origin; parliamentary; political; strategic planning; silence; wisdom; worshipful-work; and visioning” cultures (42–47). The descriptions are helpful in order to interpret which models are most influential in a church circle, or for a spiritual director who listens to a spiritual directee describe something transpiring in his or her life.

The “how” of the discernment process is comprised of ten movements “appropriate for our day” (59). In-depth commentary is offered for these core phases: “Framing; Grounding; Shedding; Rooting; Listening; Exploring; Improving; Weighing; Closing; Resting” (60). A process to utilize these movements for an individual, group, or assembly is included.

The book is insightful, well-organized, and practical. The appendix includes several subcategories and short lists of tips or points to ponder. In particular, the reminders in “Reality Checks for the Practice of Spiritual Discernment” are excellent. Here are a few: “Spiritual discernment takes time. Death and resurrection are involved in the discernment process. The process calls for mutual vulnerability. The adversarial style of debate is transformed into dialogue and complementary relationships. Discernment involves testing a decision, such as, what fruits does it produce” (123). Spiritual guides, leaders, small groups, and individual seekers will discover gems in Discerning God’s Will Together.

Lilian Whitney is a spiritual guide who lives in South Laguna, California, USA. She is particularly interested in world cultures and ocean horizons.

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