Deciding and Discerning Distinction

Photo by  Matt Seymour  on  Unsplash

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

In church world, we often do not make the distinction between deciding and discerning. For the most part we favor the word deciding over discernment - if we use that word at all.

To “decide” means to cut away. When we make a decision we cut away the options we do not want or like or deem less appealing. When we decide we tend to assign a judgement or an evaluation of that which we decided against. Once we decide, we consider our choice good and the thing we cut away as less than good or perhaps bad.

To “discern” means to to separate. Separating is value neutral. That is when we separate our laundry we are not saying that “darks” are good and “lights” are bad. We are just separating things into piles. Discerning is a value neutral process where we separate out that which is discovered.

Discernment is like panning in a river. We pull many things from the living waters and look and sort. We may think we are only looking for gold, but when we sort things out we may discover other beautiful things. These beautiful things may not be what was originally sought, however these beautiful things are retained. We do not call the other rocks “bad” or “unworthy.” We only sort in order to see clearly. If we assign some value to things as we sort, then we are not discerning we are deciding.

Discerning is non-threatening and requires patience. We tend to place a premium on having a decisive mind that we fail to appreciate the value, joy and faithfulness the discerning heart.

Giving Way To Being Right So We Avoid Being Wrong

Who does not like to be right? It is satisfying and it is something that is seen as the goal of most debates. The format of the debate is such that one side is trying to defeat the other side through argument. There is someone who “won” the debate, and in this thinking, there is someone who lost. Debate is a wonderful practice, however debate is not set up to further knowledge but set up to fortify previously held positions. When was the last time you were changed because of a debate?

The debate model is alive and well in theology. There is the right way to understand the Bible or interpret a scripture passage. There is the right way to talk about Jesus and the nature of sin. The history of the Church is peppered with councils that are thought of as year long debates in which there was a winner (orthodox) and a looser (heretic).

And of all the things worthy of debate, is not the salvation of the world worthy? Don’t we want to be right about salvation?

My life has shown me that I am rarely right about the most basic things in life much more in the essentials. I think people who drive poorly are idiots rather than consider that the driver is new to driving. My spouse will say something to me that I will mishear or misinterpret and I will think that we are in a fight about our parents when really I just need hearing aids.

The past several years, I have discovered there is a more graceful way to be in the world that is better than being right.

It is the way of avoiding being wrong.

Being right means that I have to convince you and everyone of my rightness. However, to avoid being wrong means that we give others the benefit of the doubt. Trying to avoid being wrong means that we give the most generous interpretation to the actions of others. We are more graceful and grateful, more forgiving and giving. More cautious and discerning. More patient and loving.


Mark 9:38-41

John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

In the story from Mark, Jesus is less concerned about the rightness of the healer. Jesus did not care if the healer was a “follower” or not. Jesus did not demand that this healer should be “right.” Rather, Jesus sees this healer as one who is avoiding the wrong. And as the healer avoided the wrong, people were healed. It was the ones who demanded the healer to be right (aka the disciples") who were unable to heal a demon possessed person in just prior in Mark 9:14-29!

It is my assumption that we would rather live in a world without demons and the first demon to exorcise is the possession of having to be right.

What is was like in the #SCJ16 room when it happens (extended post)

A few posts ago I shared about how I desire to be a person helping move the UMC forward with a sense of God's vision rather than just someone in the room when it happens. While I was only an alternate delegate, I was given the opportunity to participate in the election of bishops for about 25 ballots. Here are a few observations of what it was like in the room when it happened. 

First of all, when a bishop is elected there is a Spirit and an energy in the room that is very unique. This sense of anticipation and possibility seasoned with our culture's fascination with personalities means that when a bishop was elected the room erupts in applause, cheers and singing. Even without a song leader, the body sings the doxology. Many church leaders cannot carry a tune (I count myself in that), but in a corporate body the common voice is sweet as it comes. It is a beautiful Spirit that feels as close to unity that we come as a Church body. The new Bishop is 'pinned' with the Episcopal seal and then taken away to sign papers and have a press conference. After thirty minutes or so, the new Bishop joins the council of Bishops on the stage and the glow on the Bishop is like that of a newlywed. I hope that everyone has the chance to be in the room when this happens.

At the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) there was great gridlock for the next two elections. Here is what I observed in the room when that happened. 

Below is a graph showing the first 18 ballots (excluding Bishop Saenz who was elected on ballot #3). As you can see there is a bit of a horse race and that (now Bishop) Nunn lead the pack for most of it. You may be asking, "if he leads the ballot total for so long, why not just elect him?" There are a few things I heard.

First there is great reservation to elect another Bishop, regardless of qualifications, from the state of Texas. Texas is over-represented in the SCJ council of Bishops. Nunn plateaued in part because he was from Texas. Additionally, there was a concern from others that the SCJ needs greater diversity of people on the council, which might explain why Wilson (Native American) held second and (now Bishop) Farr began to fall off while both Harker and Merrill (women) were introduced late in the voting.

So there are a few things going on, but all in the name of diversity - regional diversity, racial diversity, theological diversity, gender diversity, etc. 

A few ballots later, Bishop Nunn was elected, and it was a good thing, but clearly not as exciting as the room was growing tired. As there was still one more Bishop to call, voting continued. There were a few formal exits from individuals and this was the picture after ballot 24:

As you can see, Wilson was slightly ahead of Farr while Dyke was pulling into the high teens. This would be about as close the SCJ would get to break the long tradition of not electing anyone from the Oklahoma Missionary Conference and Native American - Rev. David Wilson. You may be thinking, "if diversity was the issue and all candidates left were non-Texans then why did the SCJ select Bishop Farr over Wilson or Dyke?" I asked this question to other delegates and quickly realized that was a newbie question.

I thought these elections were about selecting those being called into the office of the Bishop. Put another way, I assumed that these ballots were an attempt to answer the question, "Who do we feel is called to the office of Bishop?" What I discovered is that while this question is asked, there is also another unspoken question being asked when casting ballots for Bishops: "where do we put them?" 

It makes sense. If you elect a Bishop they have to have a place to serve. However logical this question is, I feel it is out of order when it comes to electing Bishops for at least two reasons.

First, those voting are asked to vote on Bishops, not on placement. Placement is the work of the Episcopacy Committee. Loading unstated questions into a vote contributed the gridlock that we encountered. Those in the know, are asking this question and those who don't know are not asking this question. So there is another layer to why those following on Twitter may not see - you may be like me and assume the vote is about Bishops when in reality is it about Bishops AND placements in one vote. 

The second reason this dual question in one vote is out of order is that it undercuts the itinerant nature of our denomination. It is the reason that we have a Board of Ordained Ministry (BOOM) who identifies those who are called and then there is the Bishop and cabinet who puts those pastors into positions. BOOMs do not reject a candidate for ministry because there is not a church "clamoring for that candidate." The BOOM qualifies and then Bishop appoints. Trust me, if the BOOM had to find a church that would have wanted me as their pastor prior to my ordination, I would not have been ordained! 

At long last, Bishop Farr was elected (on ballot #35) and the SCJ's work of election came to a close. Those who desired greater ethnic or gender diversity were disappointed that the SCJ council of Bishops are 80% white males, while those who wanted a non-Texan were excited. It was late into the night, and I left the conference at 2:00pm the last day and did not experience the Spirit of the room when Bishop Farr was elected.

The work of the Episcopacy Committee began their assignments and with these announcements it was clear that I am perhaps too naive for this work because I thought the SCJ was a discerning body when in fact it is a deciding body. Here is what I mean by the difference in discernment and decision. 

This was the map that was adopted as a starting point for future boundary discussions to happen in the coming years. 

This was the map that was adopted as a starting point for future boundary discussions to happen in the coming years. 

These two actions are not opposed to each other. There is often a decision that comes from discernment to be sure and that is a good thing. This is what I expected at the SCJ Conference. The body comes together with a sense of things, but things are not predetermined prior to arrival. The SCJ at times felt less like a discerning body and more like a deciding body, meaning it felt like we came to the SCJ Conference with our minds made up on who we wanted as a Bishop and even who we wanted to send where. When we enter a process with our minds already made up, we are no longer in the process of discernment - we are in the process of deciding. Again, not a bad thing, I just expected less emphasis on deciding. 

There was much more that happened at the SCJ Conference including where conference lines might be redrawn, a report from a volunteer Korean Ministry director who through broken English was so proud to share that one of their own was accepted into the North Texas Conference (he said, "This is BIG news") and even a reaction/response to the election of Bishop Oliveto in the Western Jurisdiction. 

There is a sense that one person can do so little even when the voting happens. If the infrastructure of relationship are not there prior to voting then one can feel helpless and unable to help the body. I am proud to serve my conference in the SCJ Conference and now that I have been in the room, I have a better feel for what it takes to make things happen.

Decision making - clergy style

There are many books on how to make better decisions. Recently I completed the book by the Heath Brothers - Decisive, which was not that bad of a book and in many ways rather fun to read. It is becoming clear to me over time that the best clergy that I have known make decisions in a particular way. Clergy may not have a monopoly on this decision making style, but I share it here as a way to personally strive for it.

It has been said by very smart people that "culture eats strategy for lunch every time". It is a bit of a catch phrase and seems obvious when thought about. However it still does not seem to sink in for most of us. 

The worse clergy have to make a lot of decisions. The best clergy make fewer decisions. Not because the latter delegates better, but because the best clergy made decisions in the past that eradicate future decisions. 

When I was a kid, my parents decided way before I began asking, that my brother and I cannot spend the night at our friends house on "school nights."  This one decision decreased the amount of decisions they had to make because my brother and I knew what my parents would say if we were to ask to sleep at Bobby's house on Wednesday night.  

My parents created a culture with a few decisions and overtime they had to make fewer decisions.

The best clergy operate this way as well. They make less decisions over time because they made certain decisions in their past. Making decisions like: "I will not put anyone in charge of anything if they are not fully on board."  Means that you know right away the number of people for whom you have to decide who will be in charge will be less. 

One decision I made early in my ministry was that I am not called to be the 'Shepard', that is the job of Jesus. I view my calling as that of a sheepdog. This decision ensures that I will not have to make a slew of decisions from how I relate to the laity to how I preach. This one decision lays the foundation for a culture that I hope to live into and, with the help and guidance of God through the Spirit, help usher in. 

Culture eats strategy for lunch every time. Which is why Christians are to be culture makers.