Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
August 15, 2015
Having discussed the spirituality and personal habits that underlie Ignatian discernment. I’d like to turn now to how these principles are applied in practice. The challenge of defining the steps of group discernment is that they’re as varied as the groups themselves and the decisions they need to make. Each group must assess its own needs and shape its own process. Still, every discernment will consist of six components:
- Triage of the discernment needed
- Gathering background information
- Individual prayer and reflection
- Group discussion
- Making the decision
TRIAGE OF THE DISCERNMENT NEEDED
Just as a doctor has to assess the amount and kind of treatment needed for a trauma patient, groups need to know the time and effort they must commit to the discernment process. A simple issue, like revision of a board’s meeting attendance policy, will require less time in each of the components than, say, formulating and approving a strategic plan. In the triage component, the group, or someone on behalf of the group, decides how much time and process must be dedicated to each of the other components.
GATHERING BACKGROUND INFORMATION
Good decisions require good information, but there’s a limit to how much information is useful. Based on the triage component, the group will have a good idea of how much and what kind of information it will need to gather. This information could include history, statistics, perceptions and opinions of stakeholders and alternatives available.
INDIVIDUAL PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Regardless of how it may seem, groups don’t really think. Individuals do. So the process must provide the opportunity for members to pray and ruminate, focusing especially on the Context, Experience and Reflection for the matter at hand. This is a time to identify values in play, the impact of one’s own experiences and feelings, and become aware of assumptions and biases. Having brought these to their awareness the individuals can then contribute in a more meaningful way to the next component.
In discernment, Group discussion is not a free-for-all. The group needs to follow Ground Rules, such as the four offered in the second part of this post: listening deeply, trusting others’ intentions, sharing our own experience and insights and having the freedom to let go of our own assumptions. The person facilitating the discussion needs to sense the amount of conversation needed and how to structure it so that members can express their views without fear of criticism—actual or implied. There are several methods for doing this and many ways to apply them. The important point is that thought must be given to how the group will deliberate so that it has maximum openness to the wisdom of its members and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
MAKING THE DECISION
In some cases, the group will agree that it will discern until it can reach a consensus. In other cases, it will be clear that it will be put to a vote and not everyone will agree. But even when it comes to a vote, the process should be such that all the group members feel it has been open, fair and sufficient to surface the important issues. All should be willing to support the decision, even if it isn’t the one they would choose, because they trust that the Holy Spirit was able to guide the group as a whole.
Strictly speaking, implementation is not part of discernment. But decision-making groups would be well advised to think about how their decision will be implemented. In the first place, envisioning implementation will shed light on the decision itself. Ignatius advises us to imagine looking back on our decision to become more aware of its consequences. Secondly, whether the decision is a good one will ultimately depend on how it is implemented. Those responsible for implementation will want to have a clear idea of how the decision-makers intended it to be carried out. This is important even if they are the same people.
Much more can be said about each of these components of group discernment. Even without a deeper understanding of the various methods and tools of group discernment, just by giving advanced thought to these six components—triage, background information, individual reflection, group discussion, decision-making and implementation—groups will put themselves in a better position to make a sound discernment.
The next and final part of this post on group discernment will focus on Four Core Tools that groups should use in their work even if they’re not able to do anything else.
More information, including a sample worksheet to guide Individual Prayer and Reflection, can be found in the handbook, Discernment for Boards: an Ignatian approach, available from Lulu Press.