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Congregational Discernment Committee Protocols

Overview:

  • The information that the CDC provides is an essential and unique contribution to the larger process. 
  • The purpose of the ongoing discernment conversations is discovery: a mutual testing of call.
  • The CDC’s task is to know the person; their background, present ministry, understanding of a call, and how that call could be lived out.
  • The CDC needs to look beyond the desires of the individual and to consider the needs of the broader church.
  • Topic content between the CDC members and the discerner remains confidential. The final CDC report summary is shared with the sponsoring clergy.
  • Typically, all members of the CDC experience growth in their own faith.

Episcopal Church Canons require a “careful inquiry into the physical, intellectual, moral, emotional, and the spiritual qualifications” of Nominees for Postulancy. These criteria determine one’s suitability for ordained ministry, yet they are not necessarily confined to ordained ministry. They are also characteristic of Christian life in general and aptly apply to all the baptized.

Although the primary responsibility for helping to discern any call to ministry lies with the faith community (clergy and lay leaders, as well as the governing body), the responsibility also includes the Bishop, Commission on Ministry and the Standing Committee. In fairness to everyone assessing a call to ministry, it is essential that the same criteria be used at all levels of the discernment process and that the discerner be aware of the guidelines applicable to the process.

This process insists that persons be treated with respect as members of the body of Christ and that they are assumed to be called to leadership on some level. The primary task of the CDC is itself a ministry to such individuals, assisting them in the process of discerning whether their ministry will be lay or ordained leadership in the church.

Discernment conversations and reflection 

The CDC assists a sibling in Christ to clarify their call in the community of all the baptized people of God. Meetings of the CDC are therefore NOT interviews, but times of exploration of a person’s spiritual life and require that the members of the CDC remain open and vulnerable to share their own life experience and to be transformed themselves by the Holy Spirit.

The prospect of reflective discussion between the CDC and the discerner can create high anxiety, not only for the individuals seeking discernment, but also for CDC members. Many members may feel inadequate and unprepared to make recommendations that affect the lives of so many people. While nothing can remove such inherent tension, conversation guidelines and orientation prior to starting may help everyone be more comfortable. Because it helps not only to know what questions to ask, but also how to ask the questions, following are some guidelines. They are not to be used verbatim, but with judgment, flexibility and prayer. Each CDC member is responsible for making certain that specific key questions are covered, either directly or indirectly, before the end of the formal discernment period.

General principles for discussions

Try to look at the breadth of ministry in the diocese, not just the specific order (Lay Leader, Deacon, Priest, Religious) to which this person might be called. Remember that CDC members act not only in their own names, but in trust for the people of God in their congregation. Thorough preparation for meetings should assure a relatively uniform process.

Try to create a sense of mutuality or partnership between the discerner and CDC members. When considering topics to pursue, it may help to test them against the following questions: What does this have to do with leadership in the Church? Why do we need to know? Would I be willing to answer the same question about myself? It may help to remember that the purpose underlying any question should be to get at this basic idea: What may happen in the life of the Church and its members through the leadership of this person? CDC members also may consider that any given answer may be less important than the feeling or attitude behind it. Therefore, be attentive to things such as energy level, sincerity, enthusiasm, sensitivity, respect for differences, and evidence of a contagious personal faith.

Some other pointers: 

  • It is important to know not only about the discerner’s prayer life and spiritual journey, but also how they would guide, direct and accompany other people on theirs.
  • In discussing social issues, the ways in which an individual expresses Christian witness may be more important than ideological ideal.
  • Clues about administrative skill emerge in the way an individual has handled correspondence and arrangements during the discernment period. The way they organize and administer their own affairs will tell much about the way they can be expected to organize and administer the life and ministries of a congregation.
  • Remember that individuals are in a discernment process in which they will reflect with many different people in different settings.
  • Feedback to the individual in the recommendations of the CDC may help their personal growth and be of benefit to the Church.
  • When the hearts are open to God’s guidance, there is good reason to hope that God will bless the process, the CDC’s recommendations, and the individual’s reception of such.

Structuring the committee meetings 

Whatever time is allotted to each CDC meeting, care should be given to maximize what can be accomplished, while also respecting each person’s time constraints. Following are some general pointers about conducting each session:

  • Open and close with prayer.
  • Build a good rapport at the beginning.
  • Then, get down to business.
  • One person should be appointed to take detailed notes.
  • Don’t get stuck on one subject, no matter how interesting it might be.
  • End the meeting at the agreed upon time.
  • After each meeting, the discerner can be excused, allowing the CDC members to share their first impressions and plan for the next meeting

Example opening prayer:

Gracious and Loving God, You have a plan for each one of us. You hold out to each of us a future full of hope. Give our Committee the wisdom of Your Spirit so that we may see the shape of Your plan for our discerner, (name), through the gifts You have given them, in the places where their deepest gladness meets the world’s need, and in the circumstances of their daily life. As we open this meeting, we ask that you share with us the wisdom of Your Spirit, so we may love You with all our hearts and choose Your will above all else. We make this prayer through Christ Our Lord. Amen

Example closing prayer:

Holy and Lifegiving God, we thank you for walking with us as we discern the unique ways that you are calling our discerner, (name), to live out their call. As we leave our meeting, good and loving God, we ask that You continue to be with us, and that you be especially close to (name), filling them with Your Holy Spirit, inspiring and freeing them to respond generously to Your call. For we believe in our hearts that it is Your desire for all people to discover their deepest joy so that we may have life, and to have it abundantly. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.

Framing the questions 

The CDC should agree in advance as to what discussion questions should be included in each meeting and note them ahead of time. These become the “discussion core” for the meetings and provide the theme of reflection. They should be based on mission criteria (ministry needs of the diocese, specific leadership qualities, special skills required, etc.) Trick questions have no place in CDC discussions.

Include specific questions based on a previously prepared spiritual autobiography the individual has provided to the team. The spiritual autobiography (5-7 pages) should address the discerner’s:

  • religious background and experience;
  • past and present Church involvement and leadership experience;
  • sense of calling and spirituality;
  • significant relationships;
  • vision of how their ministry will contribute to the Church and community.

It is generally more helpful to focus on how the discerner functions rather than how they express concepts. Try to elicit stories of actual experience rather than a recital of theory or listings of credentials. A rule of thumb: the way a person talks about handling a situation in the past indicates how they might act in future. Remember, these conversations are not actually interviews. Rather, through listening and mutual sharing we seek the best way for an individual to serve God and the Church.

Avoid questions that allow “Yes/No” or short answers. Some examples of good form are:

  • “Tell us about a time when…”
  • “What do you want us to know about…?”
  • “Give us an example of…”
  • “You say… about yourself. How has that been demonstrated?”
  • “Describe an experience where…”
  • “How do you…?”
  • “What is your experience with…?”

Important: There are no right or wrong responses in any area of questioning. There is no political or ideological “litmus test.” Each response contributes toward deciding upon the character of the discerner’s response to the call to ministry. With this in mind, you will want to note whether the individual draws naturally, attractively, and with confidence on the resources of education, experience, and faith.

What is off‐limits? 

A good many personal questions are illegal for pre‐employment discussions and may be deemed discriminatory. While CDC discussions are not job interviews, the Diocese of Los Angeles wishes to respect such a policy. Therefore, CDC discussions shall be guided by the principle: “Don’t ask a question that you would not answer for yourself.” Said another way, if you are not comfortable answering a proposed question, do not ask it!

This does not mean that personal questions are to be avoided. Within the context of the discernment process some personal discussion is not only proper, but also demanded, given the expectations of the Church that this process will afford it extensive knowledge of all individuals seeking further ministry. What is questioned is the propriety of such discussion in a public venue. Needless to say, this is why confidentiality is paramount. Areas of discussion should be sensitively considered by CDC, in advance, and tested by addressing questions to one another.

Appropriate questions may be phrased:

“What do you want us to know about…

  • …your goals for your own personal development?”
  • …how you schedule and use your time off?”
  • …what books you are reading?”
  • …what you do for fun?”
  • …your likes and dislikes about the way your life and ministry have gone thus far?”

CDCs should not use meeting discussions to initiate questions relating to:

  • Marital history.
  • Sexuality or sexual orientation.
  • Personal financial matters.
  • History of substance abuse or mental illness.

It should be left to the individual to initiate any conversation around such matters.

If these are areas of concern to the CDC, a means of dealing with them will be worked out. Generally, the CDC mentor, the sponsoring priest, or the Diocesan Office for Formation can help resolve any such questions regarding an individual.

Proposed outline of topics for CDC meetings

Understanding that each discernment is unique, the below outline may be useful for getting a CDC started and making sure that all the relevant topics are covered.  The unique flow of the particular CDC should be allowed to unfold, and so the order of this outline is not to be seen as rigid or unyielding to the promptings of the Spirit.  Below are suggested seven phases to the CDC process, with sample questions to get the discussion started.  Each phase may take more than one meeting.  Remember that circling back to a previous phase may make sense as new information develops.

Phase 1: Getting Acquainted

This is an important time for both the discerner and the CDC members to tell their stories and begin trusting each other. The discerner orally presents his or her spiritual autobiography to provide insight into their personality, strengths, and weaknesses and includes four or five significant life experiences that have helped shape their present identity and life direction. The CDC members should become sensitive to the following characteristics in the discerner.

  • Communication skills
  • Ability to relate to others
  • Personal integrity and self-esteem
  • Physical health and energy
  • Intellectual gifts and strengths
  • Sense of own strengths and weaknesses

Members of the group are invited to briefly share their own spiritual autobiography. The CDC members and the discerner can reflect on commonalities of the spiritual journey.

Phase 2: Exploration of Gifts for Ministry

The discerner and the CDC members may want to participate in a Spiritual Gifts Inventory, Enneagram Test, Myers-Briggs evaluation, or any other kind of personality/gifts assessment.  Resources for these assessments will be provided on request.  Take some time to share results and responses of the assessments.

  1. Are members using their gifts in their respective vocations? Remember, ministry is not limited to what happens in the church – it’s our whole lives.
  2. What new possibilities for ministry might this inventory open for you?
  3. What limits your exercise of these gifts?
  4. What is the purpose of our gifts and talents?
  5. How does the discerner view their strengths and weaknesses?

Phase 3: The Mission of the Church: What is our Purpose?

The Book of Common Prayer (855) provides our mission statement:

“The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

  1. If the church is to be about restoring right relationship, our very purpose for existence presumes a current state of broken relationships. Name some examples of brokenness you currently see. What are some factors that inhibit people living in right relationship with God? With their neighbor?
  2. How do you see your present faith community working for reconciliation of people with God and with one another? What possibilities could you imagine in the future?
  3. Frederick Buechner defines call as an intersection “where our deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest need.” Take some time to name some of the gifts/resources/passions of your current congregation; identify some needs in your community. Where do you already see engagement as well as future possibilities for intersection?
  4. What particular vision or goals does the discerner have regarding his or her future ministry?

Phase 4: Honoring our Baptismal Vows

Reflect on the promises all Christians make in the Baptismal Covenant and respond to these questions:

  1. How do we honor our baptismal vows in our own present vocations?
  2. How can we be more open to Christ’s presence with us?
  3. Are there areas in your life where it is easier to be faithful?
  4. Are there areas where you struggle to be faithful?
  5. How has your faith changed and grown during your spiritual journey?

Phase 5: Discerning a Call

Discuss what strikes the group in the call stories of biblical figures: Moses, Esther, Ruth, Jonah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, David, Mary, etc.

God never seems to call the smartest, most confident, articulate, gifted people; rather, God equips those God calls. Consider Paul’s testimony in I Corinthians 1 that his definition of “successful ministry” is paradoxically utter failure in the eyes of the world.

  1. How does our worshipping a crucified God shape our understanding of “successful” ministry?
  2. How have you seen God work through human weaknesses and failures?
  3. What difference does it make that it is Christ who chooses us first and not we who first choose Christ?
  4. What are some indications of being called to either lay or ordained ministry?
  5. Discuss the meaning of the discerner’s sense of call: from God, from the community, and in the context of one’s family and friends.
  6. How is the call lived out? Is it lived out in a cross-cultural or bilingual setting?

Phase 6: The Orders of Ministry

Before this phase: The discerner and all CDC members should review the video interviews found here, where members of each order of ministry discuss the opportunities, challenges, and special gifts required for this type of ministry.

  1. Describe the ministry of a layperson in the church. How can a person be a minister if not ordained?
  2. What makes a deacon? What can we learn from Jesus as Servant Lord about the ministry of a deacon?
  3. If we are all called to be engaged in serving others (Diakonia), why should deacons be ordained?
  4. What makes a priest, what can we learn from Jesus as High Priest about the role of priest?
  5. Is there a role for a priest in areas other than specific “parish work” and if so, in what ways?
  6. In what way do the ministries of all the baptized, the diaconate and the priesthood differ from one another?
  7. Why do clergy often get put on pedestals? What are the dangers of this and how might someone avoid the pitfalls?
  8. How do you understand the relationship of responsibility, authority and obedience among ordained ministers?
  9. Invite the discerner to reflect on their personal responses to responsibility, authority and obedience. Of the three, which comes naturally? Which is a challenge?
  10. Invite the discerner to share their understanding of each ministry role and articulate which they feel drawn to and why.

Phase 7: Counting the Cost of Discipleship

The discerner’s spouse/partner is invited to participate in this phase, where specific logistical, financial, and family challenges may be discussed in the context of the discerner’s future ministry.

  1. How are Christ’s instructions to the twelve related to the cost of discipleship and taking up one’s cross today?
  2. How can we differentiate “taking up your cross” and being a self-styled martyr (developing a martyr syndrome)? What are the differences in attitude?
  3. How does one sustain oneself for the marathon and not the sprint?
  4. How do the discerner’s significant relationships (spouse/significant other, children, others) fit into their sense of call?
  5. If following that call would impact another career in the household, what conversations have taken place?
  6. Has there been any reflection on the potential personal and financial stresses?

Mid-Point Check-In

At some point during these phases, when the CDC feels it has reached the middle of the process, or when difficult issues requiring outside help have arisen, the CDC mentor can facilitate a Mid-Point Check-In. Group members will check in with each other, share any discoveries that need to be discussed with the discerner, and perhaps give a general impression of any relational issues that the group has. The discerner can share how discernment is shaping their vocation.  If the committee is being undermined by group dynamics challenges (such as if one person is monopolizing, people stop attending, confidentiality has been broken, or manipulation of some kind is happening), the CDC mentor can suggest some interventions to get back on track.  If there are particularly thorny issues to discuss, the mentor may need to meet with the committee and the discerner separately.

The next steps for the CDC, in addition to concluding the rest of the phases, could include winding down the process and bringing closure to the group, taking some time to address group dynamics, or challenging the discerner with issues or impediments that may affect their future ministry. Suppose, for instance, that the discerner is unaware that they have a mannerism that most people find offensive or annoying. Because committee members love the discerner and want the best for the discerner, their love requires that they gently and caringly speak this truth. After all, wouldn’t all of us appreciate hearing this kind of difficult news in a prayerful and loving way? Speaking the truth in love is an important part of this formative discernment process.

Concluding thoughts 

Although discussions will be personal and unique, it is to be hoped that there will be enough uniformity of process and content so the conclusions about the person in discernment can be arrived at and compared with fairness and accuracy.

All through the discernment process it will become apparent that questions are being raised and answered without being asked, or that the answer to one question comes out in discussing another, or that the thread of the conversation leads to new questions not previously imagined. These are likely to be signs of good process rather than imperfections. No matter how carefully an individual and a CDC prepares their documentation, the interpersonal action is the most likely to bring out what is really important and necessary for the mutual discernment process in which each is engaged.