Board Discernment: Part 2: The Spirit of Discernment

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
August 15, 2015

If you’ve read the Overview above on Board Discernment, I’d like to delve deeper into the Spirit we must embrace if we want to enter more deeply into discernment.


Discernment using the method developed by Ignatius of Loyola is about a relationship.  It is based on a belief that God loves us and wants to “labor with us,” as Ignatius put it.  God wants to make himself known to us, but doesn’t want to overwhelm us.  God has given us freedom and wants us to choose him freely, just as we would want those we love to choose to love us in return.  God is usually so gentle that we are capable of forgetting that he’s there, or we can assume he doesn’t want to be involved with our lives, and that we’re on our own.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  But to enter this relationship more deeply we have to fine-tune our listening skills, which is the process we call discernment.


The key requisite to any relationship is trust, and it is also the key to discernment.  To enter into the kind of discernment boards must do, three types of trust are required: trust in God, trust in ourselves and trust in our colleagues.

Trust in God

Trusting God means trusting that God wants what is best for us.  Of course God wants what’s best for us Yet when something happens that causes us pain—anything from irritation to tragedy–that trust is put to the test.  We can feel that God’s deserted us.  But it’s hard for us to know the real story.  God may be watching out for our long-term good rather than the short-term.  A young child may think his mother hates him because she won’t let him eat all his Halloween candy.  But she wants only the best for him, as God does for us.  And as much as God cares for us, it’s still possible for bad things to happen because God created freedom and a universe full of possibilities.


Trusting God also means trusting that God will provide the means to come closer to him.  We call this grace: God’s very life poured out to lift us beyond ourselves without changing our human nature.  God is always ready to give his grace if we are willing to receive it

Finally, trusting God means that we believe that God is good at relationship, even if we aren’t.  Even if we fumble in our efforts at discernment, God knows how to lead us to where we need to be.  Again, we just have to be willing to cooperate as best we can.

Trust in ourselves

We also need to trust ourselves.  Since discernment is about finding where our deepest desires converge with God’s, we need to trust our own desires.  Not the shallow ones that tend to distract us or get us into trouble, but the one’s that go down to the foundation of who we are. We need to be willing to make that inward journey.  We need to trust ourselves that we can identify and let go of our biases, trust our ability to handle unexpected outcomes and to work patiently through periods of silence or ambiguity.  I know I have doubts about myself in all these areas, but I’ve come to trust that God’s grace can supply what I lack.

Trust in others

Finally, we need to trust each other. One of my mentors, Fr. Dan Weber, used to remind me that the Holy Spirit can speak through the heart of anyone.  In group discernment, we can’t write anyone off.  We have to trust, even when we don’t agree with them, that they are, like ourselves, trying to find the truth of the matter.  But we also have to realize that even if they’re wrong, they bring important perspectives to the issue at hand.  Just as we have to trust that God is working with us to draw us toward him, he is also working in everyone else.  If God can love and trust them that much, we should be open to doing so ourselves.


Even when we commit ourselves to this posture of trust in our group discernment, it can be easy to slip back into old habits of mind.  Boards have found it helpful to adopt a set of ground rules that will continue to foster the spirit of discernment in their deliberations.  I recommend 4 ground rules built around listening deeply, trusting others’ intentions, sharing our own experience and insights and having the freedom to let go of our own assumptions.


If we want to take the next step, it will be helpful to develop a Habit of discernment.  Not only will this habit make us more effective board members, we’ll see benefits in other areas of our lives.  The next part of this post, “The Habit of Discernment,” will discuss ways to develop this habit in our daily lives.

Again, more information, including sample Ground Rules, can be found in the handbook, Discernment for Boards: an Ignatian approach available from Lulu Press.

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1 Response to Board Discernment: Part 2: The Spirit of Discernment

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

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