About fifteen years ago, I was in an open parish meeting to discuss long term planning for a particular congregation. People were sharing visions of the future, as well as complaints and fears. After a lot of conversation, a gentleman rolled his eyes and said, “Why does it seem like we’re always talking about discerning? Why can’t we just figure out what we need to do and do it?”
Discernment is a wonderful, positive, necessary thing, but I can understand this fellow’s frustration. Discernment is supposed to be a practice of listening for God’s voice among the many voices of the world, including our own. It is supposed to be about bracketing our own will and being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in community and in our lives. Sometimes, though, discernment can feel like a code word for wheel-spinning and navel-gazing, an excuse for never coming to a decision.
If you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs Personality Types, a useful but much over-used way of talking about our fundamental orientation to the world, an attitude toward discernment is one of the things that defines the J / P scale. People on the “J” end of this particular continuum tend to like to gather information, weigh it, make a decision, and move on (rather like the gentleman in the congregation above). At the “P” end of the spectrum, people like to keep options open, always seeking more information, always ready to reconsider. Neither orientation is better than the other, but the two types of people tend to drive one another crazy.
According to some studies, approximately 70% of Episcopal clergy tend toward “J”. Yet, if I were to think about the personality of our Church as a whole, I would have to say that many of us are of the keep-all-options-open, hold-opinions-lightly, always-ready-to-do-more-discernment “P” orientation. Again, neither type is “more spiritual” and the world needs both, although one or the other may be more effective in a given situation. But it may describe some frustration and misunderstanding that sometimes happens between clergy and congregations.
Some of us may feel like the gentleman in the parish meeting: it seems that our communities have been in almost perpetual discernment for (at least) the last six years. What is the way forward for our congregations? Are we better together? How do we best work together and steward our particular gifts? What are we willing to give up in exchange for the promise of abundant life? It sometimes seems as though we have just made one decision when the situation changes, asking us to enter again into discernment of our part in God’s mission. Some of us “P’s” may be comfortable with this state of perpetual openness, but some of us “J’s” may find it exhausting.
In August, Bishop Lane announced his retirement and called for the election of his successor. This announcement set in motion a process that is expected to take twenty-two months and culminate with the consecration of the Tenth Bishop of Maine in June of 2019. The next twenty-two months will be pregnant with discernment of who we are as the Episcopal Church in Maine and who we are called to be, as well as discernment on the part of those who may be called to present themselves as candidates.
For some of us, twenty-two months sounds like a long time. Why do we need to spend so much time having meetings and doing surveys? We know who we are; why can’t we just put an ad in the paper? For others, twenty-two months feels like a deadline racing toward us. How can we do justice to this important process in less than two years? How can we prayerfully consider every possible option?
For the next twenty-two months, we will need the gifts of those who can look at the data, make a decision, and move on. We will also need the gifts of those who can sit patiently with uncertainty. The Holy Spirit can and does work though both types. During this process, there will almost certainly be times when we will drive one another crazy. That’s one of the ways we know that we’re doing real discernment.