One of the advantages of my seminary is that it is interdenominational. My professor for Spirituality was an evangelical Friend, or Quaker.
I learned so many things from her, both from the class syllabus and from how she lives her life. One of the big things came at the end of the semester. It was one of those unplanned things. Being a Friend, she has great respect for the Spirit moving in amongst our days, and so she is flexible in letting it guide our discussions.
On this particular day, it led to her telling us the story of how she wound up at our seminary. Or specifically, the discernment process involved.
Friends place great value on communal discernment and there is a tremendous amount of trust and respect in these discernment meetings. Cutting and pasting from my notes:
The Role of Leadership
• The leader finds a responsible place within the process, as part of the group
• Leadership is one of the gifts given to the community
• The community takes seriously the perspective, skills, and gifts of the leader
• The leader listens to the community and to the voice of the Spirit through the community
The Voices of the Community
• Each member plays a significant role
• Communal discernment seeks to affirm the appropriate voice and contribution of each person, corresponding to each person’s giftedness and role within the community
Gift of discernment
• Individual contributions that enable the group to discern well
• Varieties of expression
--- Seeing beyond the immediate (vision)
--- Understanding the issues and facts (critical analysis but beyond rational analysis)
--- Identifying the emotional dimension
--- Sharing of wisdom and insight (sage)
Conditions for Communal Discernment
• Common Purpose
• Resolve to Decide Together
• Mutual Regard and Acceptance
• Clearly Framed Matter for Discernment
• Good information and good research
Now. getting back to my professor's story:
She and her husband were pastors in another state. She received the invitation to teach at our seminary. What to do?
She called for a "Meeting to Discern," with her Board and church leaders. They went through the Friends' process:
* Open Discussion (Threshing): The person calling the meeting explains just the facts. Then, all individuals in the meeting may express any and all concerns. Issues, concerns, fears of the members, perspectives, etc. It's all open -- no need to pretend to have no selfish interest, we all do. Here is where it is honestly exposed, rather than being hidden away.
* Prayer and Silent Reflection (Meeting for Clearness): an extended time of listening prayer. This can be done in different ways. They broke into small groups.
* Discussion toward Resolution ("Sense of the Meeting"): Moderator asks for comments and observations that have arisen out of prayer. A “sense” may emerge that there is more agreement among the group than originally thought possible.
Describing the meeting, my professor explained that the whole purpose was to discern whether the move to the seminary was a genuine God-directed call. After the threshing part of the meeting, selfish concerns (including hers and her husband's) were put to the side. It wasn't even about "what is the best thing to do," it was all on "Is this a call from God?"
They discerned that yes, it was. She said she can't imagine making the decision without that meeting. Even when things haven't been perfect since then, she and her husband can look back on the meeting and say with confidence, "We believe this was a genuine call." The process worked.
I was touched, bewildered, and quite a bit in awe at the process. "That must take a tremendous amount of trust, to put your life in the hands of others," I said. She looked me right in the eye and said, "Absolutely."
I have thought of this often since then, wondering how, and if it's possible, for this to be played out in a UU community. Are the differences between UUs and Friends such that the process would be impossible?
UUs do not necessarily believe in "God," and those who do usually have different definitions of the term. Of those who believe in a force outside themselves, there is a smaller group that believe this force intervenes or can be accessed in any way. So, how could you discern a "call from God" in such a group? How would it need to be reframed?
And then there's the independence thing. We are often so fiercely independent. Is it possible to be that independent and still have such a high degree of trust in others?
Doug Muder writes about a generational difference in UU churches between those who are fiercely independent, and those looking for a mentor, a community, to support their superhero activities. Will younger UUs be more open to group discernment?
If we feel it is of value, it seems we have a great deal of work ahead. I don't know about you, but certain things in my notes jumped out at me, red underlined sentences that shout with disbelief, "Really???"
The community takes seriously the perspective, skills, and gifts of the leader.
Resolve to Decide Together
Mutual Regard and Acceptance
Part of me says, "No, that just wouldn't work in a UU setting. We're too different. Too independent. Too focused on self-sufficiency."
But it just won't leave me alone, this idea. I heard a story filled with humility, interdependence, and love. A story that said, "We don't have to each go it alone."
I guess I am one of those that Muder writes about. I don't want to be an orphan. I want my Scooby gang.