The word "discernment" is used often in the Episcopal Church. At Calvary Episcopal Church in Ashland, Kentucky, it's been used quite a lot lately as the leaders of the parish are attempting to discern who should be called as the next rector. Those priests who are under consideration have also been discerning if they are called to come to Calvary. We describe it as a process of mutual discernment. But what is that and how does it work?
In attempting to understand the meaning of words, I find it helpful to know something about their etymology. For example, the word discern is directly from the Latin discernere, meaning "to separate, set apart, divide, distribute, distinguish, or perceive." The word is made up of the two Latin roots, dis, meaning "off or away," and cernere, meaning to "distinguish, separate, or sift." So, discernment is a process of sorting that leads to a decision about something.
We use the term very intentionally in Christian circles when the decision has spiritual significance and requires the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For example, we probably would not speak of "discerning" which brand of pet food to buy, which flight to take, or which direction to walk around the park. As important as those decisions may be, we probably don't need much guidance from the Holy Spirit to make them. However, if we are attempting to reach a decision about an action that may be good or evil in the eyes of God, about whether we are called to a particular ministry in the Church, or about which priest will be our next rector, that would be discernment. We need the assistance of the Holy Spirit to reach decisions like those.
Hiring a CEO of a corporation, a member of a company staff, or a lawn service, usually requires a very thoughtful process that includes reviewing resumes, calling references, performing background checks, and interviews. We might pray about it, but it would not normally be a requirement in the secular setting. In this Church, clergy are not hired; they are called. Search committees, vestries, and clergy are all very well aware that there is a distinction and that distinction has to do with the work of the Holy Spirit among us. Remember that God called the prophets, they did not volunteer. Jesus called the Disciples, they were not hired. It is in that spirit that clergy in this Church are sought out and, following a period of mutual spiritual discernment, may be called to a position.
The practices of deploying clergy in different places of ministry varies from one communion to another. However, in every instance I am aware of, there is some discernment on the part of the calling or sending body, those who provide oversight, and the clergy under consideration. These decisions are made after a prayerful, godly process in which there is a sorting out or sifting that leads to a decision.
The process we follow is informed by scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. These are the lenses, as it were, through which we examine one another, all the while asking the Holy Spirit to help us to see what we need to see and hear what we need to hear. After we've done our "homework", following the pattern of St. Ignatius, we ask God a somewhat simple question. "God, is this your will or not?" And God answers with a somewhat simple answer, "Yes or No." Ignatius said we would normally sense the answer as a feeling of consolation or a feeling of desolation.
So, as the discernment process for calling a new rector for Calvary Episcopal Church in Ashland, Kentucky nears its conclusion, I invite you to uphold the nominating committee, the vestry, and the candidates in discernment with your prayers. May they yield to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and continue to rely upon the same Holy Spirit in carrying out the decision they are called to make.
Here are two prayers from the Book of Common Prayer.
Almighty God, giver of every good gift: Look graciously on your Church, and so guide the minds of those who shall choose a rector for this parish, that we may receive faithful pastors, who will care for your people and equip us for our ministries; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in your light we may see light, and in your straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.