The Art of Discernment
Contemplative ministry expert Mark Yaconelli explores how we can access the spiritual gift of discernment as we seek to lead young people, and make decisions about our own future.
David has spent five years building a youth ministry in downtown Los Angeles. He loves the kids and families he serves, but is frustrated by the dismissive comments of the senior pastor. David is trying to decide if he can stay in a job with an unsupportive pastor.
Tanya has spent two years volunteering in a youth ministry initiative and has been considering going on to Bible college to become ordained. The problem is that she and her husband carry a lot of financial debt. Recently her father offered her a well-paying job in his estate agency. Her husband tells her she should turn down the job and attend college. Her friends tell her that this will only increase her financial (and marital) stress. They tell her to take the job and continue volunteering in the youth ministry. Tanya wonders if she should go to Bible college and trust God to take care of her finances…
At a youth leadership meeting, young people complain about the Sunday morning worship service. Why can’t they design and run their own evening youth service? They argue that kids would rather attend a youth service than show up on a Sunday morning. Lynn, the youth pastor, has been told by her line manager that part of her job is to improve youth attendance in Sunday worship. She knows the church leadership will not be supportive of a Sunday evening youth service. She also knows that the young leaders are excited about the idea and will feel hurt and discouraged if she’s not on their side.
In the world of youth ministry, we are faced with addressing multiple decisions, often at the same time: Do I cancel Sunday school for lack of attendance? Should I do an expensive mission trip to Malawi? Should I confront the Associate Pastor about his lack of support? How do I respond to Sheila’s complaints about her parents without encouraging her desire to leave home? Can I continue to work in a job that doesn’t pay enough to support my family?
In the corporate world, problems and decisions are determined through logic: What outcome is the most effective and efficient? In ministry, decisions can’t be reduced to pragmatics. Although logic can be helpful, a Christian’s first move in ministry (and in life) is to be attentive to the Presence of God. This means that in ministry we practice discernment, rather than decision-making, even when it leads to outcomes that may be impractical and even, in the world’s terms, foolish.
Discernment comes from the Latin word discernere which translates ‘to separate’, ‘to sort’ or ‘to determine.’ It is the process of sifting through our interior and exterior experience in order to distinguish God’s presence or God’s call. Discernment is what scripture refers to as ‘testing the spirits’ - seeking to determine the actions and attitudes that best align with God’s yearning.
As Christians, we know how to make decisions between what is life-giving and what is destructive, but most of our decisions aren’t between good and bad. Most of our energy in ministry is spent distinguishing between what is good and what is better, between the movement of the Spirit and the stirring of our own anxiety and expectations.
Buy the July issue of youthwork magazine for a list of things to keep in mind as we practice discernment in life and ministry: