Let’s say the congregation held a threshing meeting where lots of viewpoints and ideas about budget cuts were offered and the leadership team eventually found its way to a tithe. Now the question for discernment becomes, “To what effort do we give this tithe?” Another brainstorming session could be held to gather ideas. Once those ideas were narrowed down to a few, the leadership team would need to weigh the options and make a decision. This is where a spiritual practice from the Quaker tradition called Clearness Committee is useful.
At its inception in Quaker history, Clearness Committee was a way for young couples to gauge whether or not they were suited for one another in marriage. They would gather selected members of the community into a circle for discernment. The circle would spend significant time in silence (the Friends’ form of worship) and out of the silence members would explore possible impediments or ask important questions to help the couple decide if this relationship should proceed to marriage.
The process of asking questions or speaking your truth out of the midst of deep silence (and only when moved by the Holy Spirit) is the heart of Clearness Committee.
Let’s suppose the leadership team had narrowed its tithing options down to three: supporting a homeless shelter; giving to the denomination’s mission agency; or creating a food pantry at the church. They meet on an evening when everyone can devote two to three hours to the discernment process. They select a clerk -- who facilitates, keeps time and reminds members of the guidelines -- and set a goal for either coming to a “sense of unity” around a choice or scheduling another session by the two-and-a-half hour mark.
The guidelines for an effective Clearness Committee are important. Silence is given a high priority, so the clerk begins a session with a brief introduction to both the guidelines and the discernment question and proceeds to a time of silent prayer for at least ten minutes. When that is done, the clerk asks participants to share what they feel the Spirit is saying to the leadership team regarding the options. Committee members are instructed to share only what they feel is inspired by God; silent prayer fills the space between sharing; everyone shares once before anyone shares twice; persons need not share their inspiration if it has already been shared by another; and no one is to criticize, judge, or advise the group about another person’s sharing.
About thirty minutes before the end of the meeting, the clerk asks if there is a “sense of unity” about the discernment question. If several people spoke about feeling a pull toward one of the options, the clerk may ask if there is unity around that one option. Or if the group felt that two options were equally important and manageable, there could be a sense of unity around splitting the tithe. The point is the unity, which means everyone in the group can admit that the Spirit seems to be moving in that direction. With unity, you do not need everyone wholeheartedly in favor of an option, but you need everyone to agree to support the group’s sense of clarity about how God is leading or, at the very least, not stand in the way.
One of the beautiful by-products of congregational discernment is the community it builds. Praying together, learning to listen to how the Spirit is speaking to the church ,and listening to one another is an adventure full of learning, wisdom-sharing, and insight. As a congregation does this important work, it invariably gets to know God and one another a whole lot better.
Resources for Congregational Discernment
There is an extensive bibliography on Discernment Oriented Leadership on George Fox University’s website (www.georgefox.edu).
For more information about using the Examen and Lectio Divina in group settings, see 50 Ways to Pray by Teresa Blythe.
For specific information about Congregational Discernment, see Guidelines for Communal Discernment by Victoria Curtiss; Listening Hearts and Grounded in God by Suzanne Farnham et. al; Sharing Wisdom by Mary Benet McKinney; and Practicing Discernment Together by Lon Fendall, et al.
For more on Clearness Committee, visit the Center for Courage and Renewal and read Spiritual Discernment: The Context and Goal of Clearness Committees by Patricia Loring.
This article was originally published in The Clergy Journal, © Logos Productions. Used with permission.