Decision-Making or Discernment Process?

PPDiscernmentIs the pastor search process a decision-making process or discernment process or a little bit of both?

We are familiar with decision-making processes the goal of which is to process a decision based on predetermined values, such as credentials, experience, and other non-negotiable factors. During decision–making processes we compare options in a linear and timely manner. Decision-making processes may or may not be accompanied by prayer for the outcomes are determined by the predetermined values.

I am most familiar with the decision-making process of contracting faculty for schools. The principal of the local high school needs a needs a teacher for the upcoming school year. She would like a signed contract by July 1. Working back from that deadline, she creates a decision-making process that includes a determination of non-negotiable qualities such as training, credentials and experience, an announcement of the position, a time-frame to receive applications, a time and team to review applications, interviews of qualified candidates, a campus visit by the top candidates, and a contract offer to the top candidate.

We may be less familiar with discernment processes the goal of which is to listen for, receive and respond positively to the voice of God. In the discernment process, as Henri Nouwen notes, we pay attention to God’s active presence and obey God’s prompting, direction, leadings, and guidance (Discernment, 5). It is, as the apostle Paul prayed, to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding (Colossians 1:9). Such a gift of grace allows us to please the Lord and bear fruit in our work.

Is the pastor search a decision-making process or a discernment process? They are different! In his introduction to Discernment, Robert Jonas articulates the difference between the two: “Christian discernment is not the same as decision making. Reaching a decision can be straightforward: we consider our goals and options; maybe we list the pros and cons of each possible choice; and then we choose the action that meets our goal most effectively. Discernment, on the other hand, is about listening and responding to that place within us where our deepest desires align with God’s desire. As discerning people, we sift through our impulses, motives, and options to discover which one leads us closer to divine love and compassion for ourselves and other people and which ones lead us further away” (xvii).

Is the pastor search process a decision-making process or discernment process or a little bit of both? The easiest answer is the last, but is it the correct answer? I suppose so, but the point of the comparing the two is to reveal two facts. First, a decision-making process may be completed with or without God – and my observation confirms that many search teams have done just that while convincing themselves otherwise through perfunctory prayers and other pious actions. Second, the most important decision a search team will ever make is to deny itself in order to seek and follow the will of God. Therefore, the search team must passionately and pervasively petition the Lord to break into the process and speak through the conversations, correspondence and circumstances of the search.

As for me and ChapterNext, we approach the pastor search process as a discernment process while involving the best practices of decision-making processes. Our goal is to help the Search Team and each potential candidate listen for the voice of God and, in the process, discover, accept and affirm God’s will. It is our conviction that the best pastor for any congregation is not the one chosen according to our time-table and our predetermined list of non-negotiable qualities or the one chosen by the  majority of team members. The best candidate is the chosen by God – and a Search Team best not settle for anything less.

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