Board Discernment: Part 3: The Habit of Discernment

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
August 15, 2015

In the previous part of this post, we talked about the Spirit with which we approach Board Discernment.  But adopting this spirit is not enough to assure that discernment will shape the way we make decisions.


We can have a deep understanding of discernment and a willingness to embrace it, but it still comes down to making it a daily part of our lives.  Discernment isn’t like a set of clothes we can put on as the situation requires it.  We get better at it by consistent practice.  If we’ve learned how to discern the daily challenges, we’ll be much better prepared for the more complex ones.

For trustees who want to grow in discernment, both for their work on the board and their personal and professional life, I recommend cultivating four habits: praying for God’s will, cultivating silence, daily practice of the Examen and using the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm.


We do it every time we pray the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer).  “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done”  Even if we don’t think about what we’re saying, our hope as Christians is that indeed God’s will prevails.  But when we say these words, and when we sincerely lift our hearts to desire God’s will, we also open them to his grace.  We prepare ourselves to cooperate with how God wants to guide us to what is best.  Praying for God’s will, as a touchstone throughout the day, is the best way we can strengthen our ability to discern a path that leads us, and the people we serve, closer to God.


Silence and freedom from distraction are a necessary pre-condition for dedicating ourselves to God’s will.  But silence is hard to find these days.  Our lives are extraordinarily busy.  We have so many ways to communicate, and for others to communicate with us, that our responsibilities can seem like walls of water as we cross the Red Sea, ready to deluge us. Given this dread, we may even prefer distraction to silence.  But if we pause and breathe deeply, the silence can call forth from us a deeper awareness of God’s loving presence and the path forward he’s hoping we’ll discover.


When Ignatius founded the Jesuit order with his companions, he wanted them to be as free as possible to engage in apostolic works, unlike the monastic orders which scheduled prayer throughout the day.  Nevertheless, Ignatius exhorted his followers, if they could do nothing else, to pray the Examen at least once each day.

The Examen is a review of our day to become more aware of how God is acting in our life.  It can last a half hour, or even just a few minutes and consists of five parts:  1) Placing oneself in God’s presence and praying for grace and openness; 2) expressing gratitude for the day and for God’s activity on our behalf; 3) Reviewing the day’s events to see where we experienced God’s presence and where God may have been absent from our thoughts and actions, leaving us feeling alone and uninspired; 4) asking the Lord to help us to do better in those areas where we need to do better; and 5) closing with a short prayer, like the Our Father or the Serenity Prayer.

Daily practice of the Examen supports our discernment by making us more aware of God’s movements in our life and more sensitive to his direction in our choices.


Since the mid-eighties, many schools have built their teaching strategy around an understanding of how we learn, based on the spirituality of St. Ignatius.  The IPP, as it is called, suggests that we discern best when we make sure to involve all the steps of the natural learning process, which are: Context, Experience, Reflection, Action and Evaluation.  

Context sets the framework, identifies relevant values and acknowledges the history that got us to this point.  Experience grounds us in concrete reality–what has actually happened that moves us to this decision.  Reflection calls us to find the deeper meaning of that reality, its causes and consequences.  This leads us to take Action to bring about the best possible future.  And Evaluation sets us up for future decisions as we learn from the experience which flows from the action we’ve taken.

These four habits of discernment–praying for God’s will, cultivating silence, practicing the Examen and observing the steps of the Pedagogical Paradigm–can help us be more discerning in our daily lives.  But they can also prepare us to engage in a deeper discernment of the issues faced by our school with our colleagues on the Board.

To understand how the Spirit and Habit of discernment can be applied in a practical way to discernment by boards, please read the next part of this post, “The Six Components of Group Discernment.”

More information, including an Ignatian version of the Serenity Prayer, can be found in the handbook, Discernment for Boards: an Ignatian approach, available from Lulu Press.

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2 Responses to Board Discernment: Part 3: The Habit of Discernment

  1. Pingback: Board Discernment: Part 2: The Spirit of Discernment | Managing For Mission Blog

  2. Pingback: Board Discernment: Part 1: Overview | Managing For Mission Blog

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