Two Models of Discernment Process

August 22, 2011

Today I simply offer two different methods for equipping the saints with discernment skills:

 Hot Off the Press—A Sunday School Class for Adults

The idea is to engage in discussion of world and national events from a faith perspective.  The agenda is to model and teach “ordinary” Christians how to think, in a world that often values feelings more than rationality.  Each week the facilitator brings a current news story that begs for a Christian response.  We read it together and brainstorm the issues it raises. 

• What are the facts of the situation?—We try to distinguish between information and biases.

• How does this situation look from different perspectives represented in the article?—We try to hear the various points of view that make up the dilemma.

• What biblical input is relevant to the case?—We try to consider “the whole counsel of God.”

• What are the options for action or response?—We take seriously the charge to be doers of the Word and not just hearers.

In classes I led, we talked about the Palestinian/Israeli question, human cloning, religion in political life, parenting issues, just war, and “What would Jesus drive?” Participants’ development was evident in their reverting less often to unsubstantiated biases, asking better questions, turning to the Bible appropriately, and loving each other better. Their skills spilled over into session and congregational meetings, which became less reactive, more thoughtful and prayerful, and more thoroughly informed by Scripture than ever before.

My favorite discussion revolved around the case of a young boy attending a church nursery school, whose mother was a lap dancer or stripper at a local club.  The 4-year-old boy was expelled from the school three weeks before classes ended in June, because his mother’s occupation was discovered by a church member browsing the web.

Did we have fun with that one!

The Clearness Committee—The Quaker Model of Problem Solving

A “focus person” has a problem that must be sorted out. He or she invites maybe five friends or colleagues to serve on a clearness committee. In preparation for meeting, the focus person writes a few pages of explanation: a clear statement of the nature of the problem itself, some relevant background, and implications for the decision at hand. The committee meets for up to three hours of uninterrupted, undivided attention on the focus person. The goal, interestingly enough, is not empathy so much as caring for the stymied person.

After the focus person restates the issue, the members of the committee follow the cardinal rule to speak only in the form of an honest, open question. The process is taken slowly and deliberately, allowing ample time for silence between questions. The result is that the focus person is given the freedom to hear what God is saying, how God is informing the conscience, getting the person in touch with “the inner teacher,” as Parker Palmer puts it.[1] As the committee’s time closes, there is an opportunity for reflecting back to the person what was heard or observed (not advice giving). The process does not necessarily yield a “solution,” but often plants the seed for insight later. Nevertheless, clarity can be expected, and when it comes, the whole committee can enjoy the celebration or relief of knowing the focus person can move forward.

Hot Off the Press focuses on the more external question, “What is the best way to handle this situation in my environment?” The Clearness Committee focuses on helping an individual gain insight into a personal issue. But in both, the Holy Spirit plays a role to give sight and clarity (not, as we have said before, to invent new doctrine). A biblical example of this dynamic is found in Acts 15, where Paul presents the saints in Jerusalem with the question, “Would you please bless my efforts to evangelize the Gentiles, without requiring them to become Jews first?” The Council at Jerusalem considered both sides of the issue, dug back into Scripture, and made a decision. At the end, the conclusion was framed with, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .”

This is what I would like to see happen in Minneapolis this week.

[1] Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 156-61. See website of Center for Courage & Renewal, at


2 Responses to “Two Models of Discernment Process”

  1. William L. Goff Says:

    Dear Friends and Family,
    As I recover from the rigors of travel, I am trying to sort out the meaning of some of my experiences in Israel. Here is my reflection on one minor incident.
    On our last Sabbath in Jerusalem I had a brief experience that reflects one of the persistent questions in Israel: Who is a Jew?
    Tanya and I had walked down through the Armenian Quarter and entered the main open square in the Jewish Quarter. On one side of the square we saw several young men standing behind a little table on which were about twenty
    small plastic cups of wine. I asked one of the young men what they were doing.
    He responded in good American English that he was honoring a particular rabbi by
    having people bless the Sabbath.
    “Could I participate? I asked.
    “Are you Jewish?” he responded.
    “It depends on your definition” I replied. “My mother was not Jewish,
    but I believe in God and the Scriptures.”
    Two of the young men then started to discuss what to do with me. The
    first young man thought I couldn’t participate, but another man (who spoke with
    an Australian accent) thought I could. The crux of the debate was how I could
    read the blessing from the prayer book which was in Hebrew. They assumed
    (rightly) that I would not be able to read the Hebrew text. Then the Australian
    said he could find an English language prayer book and left to look for one.
    After a few minutes he returned with the English language prayer book and had me
    read aloud a brief section that expressed praise to God for the Sabbath and the
    fruit of the vine. At the end of this reading, I was allowed to drink one of
    the cups of wine. Then I thanked the men; we all shook hands and Tanya and I
    continued our walk.
    The entire incident took less than ten minutes, but in that brief time I
    was in the center of major theological issues: What does it mean to be a Jew?
    and To what extent can non-Jews participate in Jewish religious life?
    Orthodox rabbis have political clout in Israel. Being one of the
    factions of the coalition government, they are the ones who determine the
    official policies regarding Jewish identity and practice. They control the
    Western Wall and created a separate section there for women. They determine who
    can get married. And they determine Jewish identity for purposes of
    immigration. The dominance of Orthodox rabbis creates many social problems and
    inequities for Jews in Israel and around the world. Many Israeli couples go to
    Cypress for their weddings rather than submit to strict Orthodox practices.
    Non-orthodox Jews do not qualify to immigrate. For instance, Rep. Gabriel
    Giffords, who is a faithful Jew active in her synagogue, would not be regarded
    as a Jew because her mother was not Jewish.
    So the little debate that I precipitated in the Jewish Quarter was
    part of a much larger issue for the State of Israel and the Jewish people. It
    was also reminiscent of another much more important debate held by Jews in
    Jerusalem in the first century. Then the question was this: can Gentiles who
    believe in Jesus the Messiah and who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit
    be admitted into the assembly without undergoing circumcision and adhering to
    kosher food laws? In other words, did Gentiles need to become Jews to be
    regarded as followers of Jesus?
    All of us who are Gentile believers in Jesus can be grateful that the
    outcome of this ancient debate, reported in detail in Acts 15, was that Gentiles
    did not have to become Jews to be accepted in the congregation of believers.
    Sadly, as Gentiles became the majority in the Church, they were rarely
    as gracious as Peter and Paul. Through most of the history of the Church Jews
    had to renounce their Jewish heritage and practices to join the Church. I have
    not done extensive historical research on this subject, but my impression is
    that only since the founding of the State of Israel have significant numbers of
    Jews asserted that they don’t have to become Gentiles to be followers of Jesus,
    the Messiah.
    Aside from this larger historical context, I felt grateful that the
    young men in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem allowed me to participate in a
    meaningful ritual. And I am thankful that long ago a meeting of Jews in
    Jerusalem allowed believing Gentiles to join their congregation.
    Best wishes to all,

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