Preconceived Notions and Outcomes

“… a practice of discernment is simply more open-ended, more patient, less activist, more oriented toward silence, and I just think out of that comes a really different culture and spiritual discipline, which we just haven’t cultivated, which is why I was saying when the PUP (Peace, Unity and Purity) report came out and said we should call the denomination to discernment I though well obviously we should do that, that’s the most important and significant thing we can do, it’s just that we haven’t nurtured a people that could do that because we don’t have any common practices that regularly do that.  I haven’t yet ever been in a presbytery meeting that was organized as a communion of discerners”
– The Reverend Dr. Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Theological Seminary

Based on the discernment of Trinity’s Strategic Futures Task Force (SFTF) our session requested to be dismissed from the PC(USA) to ECO A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

I often wonder about the “discernment” that took place prior to this request.  Spiritual discernment is not a discipline many of us are very familiar with or comfortable practicing.  Were the members of the SFTF chosen because they have the spiritual gift of discernment?  We were never told.

Church consultant Susan Beaumont published on online article titled Free to Discern in which she writes,

“Where do we begin to identify the difference between group decision making and authentic communal discernment? We begin with the basic stance of freedom, unknowing, or indifference that underlies group discernment processes. Group decision making typically involves a cadre of leaders who are individually invested in particular outcomes, who come together to iron out and resolve their attachments and differences, to represent the good of the whole. By contrast, authentic communal discernment requires sincere and committed prayers who are unencumbered by preconceived notions and outcomes. To move from deciding to discerning, we must free ourselves from inordinate attachments. We must assume an indifference to anything but the will of the divine One as discovered collectively by the group; setting aside matters of ego, politics, personal opinion, and vested interests.”

Several months before Trinity’s SFTF was formed our pastor and a key leader of the SFTF signed the “deathly ill” letter dated February 2, 2011.  It is hard to imagine their work on the SFTF was unencumbered by preconceived notions and outcomes.  Maybe it is not possible for any of us to be completely free of preconceived notions and outcomes but persons with such a strong position probably should not have been chosen to help discern this matter for the congregation, especially in the absence of anyone with such strong opposing views to counter them on the task force as well.

When the session passed a motion on June 15, 2011 to authorize the formation of the SFTF it was charged to pursue its work in light of the Session-affirmed Confessing Church Standards.  They include…

  • Jesus Christ alone is Lord of all and the way of salvation
  • Holy Scripture is the triune God’s revealed Word, the Church’s only infallible rule of faith and life
  • God’s people are called to holiness in all aspects of life.  This includes honoring the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, the only relationship within which sexual activity is appropriate.

There is no question the majority of members at Trinity would support all three standards whole heartedly.  And because they have been used as a guide when calling our pastors, hiring staff and nominating church officers it is no surprise the leadership of Trinity would also support these standards.

I know Trinity’s leadership and I see this differently but I firmly believe the PC(USA) would overwhelmingly support the first two standards and even the first part of the third.  It is of course the second part of the third standard that causes such division in the body of Christ, and because it causes such division I believe we all need to approach it with a tremendous amount of humility and openness to the other point of view.  How can you begin with the basic stance of freedom, unknowing, or indifference that underlies group discernment processes if you are encumbered with a charge to pursue your discernment in light of a particular standard?

Thomas H Green, S.J., says,

“Many people today express well-grounded misgivings about community discernment, and even feel uncomfortable with the word, ‘discernment.’ It can easily be a polite and pious name for a ‘tyranny of the majority,’ a way of attaching the Lord’s name and authority to what most of the group want, or believe he [sic] must want. If this happens, then, as we have seen, ‘discernment’ becomes a way of manipulating God to agree with our convictions concerning action and decision making.”

Based on the session’s strong reluctance to allow the congregation to hear dissenting minority voices I am concerned that what Trinity is calling discernment has not been discernment at all.  Nothing about the process seems free of inordinate attachments, personal opinions or vested interests.  It seems like the decision to leave the denomination was made several years ago and everything since then has been an effort to persuade others to decide the same.

I think it is interesting, and a little telling, that the session continually points to what they believe are heresies in the PC(USA) as their reason for requesting dismissal rather than to this being the discerned will of God.

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)


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