Faith-based School Boards 2

4 Best Practices for Becoming a Great Board
May, 2016

Your board is contributing in important ways to the success of your school.  But if you’ve already read the first blog post in this series, The Role of the Board, it means you want, not just a good board, but a great one.  

In this tutorial, we’ll focus on best practices for becoming a great board: new member recruitment, formation, self-evaluation and the board’s Policy Manual.


Being on a board is a little like coming down off a mountain.  If you get started in the wrong direction it’s harder and harder to get back to the right one.  If new board members aren’t properly identified, recruited and oriented, the board will deal with the resulting mismatch of expectations and skills for years.  Here are some important ways to avoid that.

First, Identify needs and potential candidates. The board should maintain a profile in spread sheet form that identifies current Board members’ term expiration, committee assignments, association with the school, gender, ethnicity, profession, and skills.  Using this profile, a nominating committee can identify any coming gaps that will need to be filled and compile a pool of potential candidates to fill them.

Second, carefully Recruit new Board members.   Think of recruitment as the beginning of the orientation process.  Involving the chair, the chief administrator and one other board member in the ask will alert the prospective trustee that he or she will be joining a high-functioning team.

Having prepared materials that answer the nominee’s questions will demonstrate the Board’s commitment to the new member and its own processes.  The common questions nominees have are:

What is the school’s Mission Statement?

What are the expectations of board members?

How much of a time commitment is it?  When does the board meet?

Who else is on the Board?

What are the school’s strategic goals for the next few years?

But the most important thing they want to know is “Why are you asking me?  What do you expect me to bring to the Board?”  Don’t be afraid that being honest about expectations will scare them off.  The right person will be attracted by your enthusiasm and the serious way the Board approaches prospective members.


The recruitment process is a good start, but a formal orientation process will help bring the new trustee up to speed quickly.  In this orientation he or she is introduced to school leadership and key processes and documents, like the Mission Statement, the Strategic Plan, expectations of the sponsoring religious body, school history and current issues the Board has been grappling with.

This orientation can begin during a dinner meeting at the start of the school year, but on-boarding should also include opportunities over the course of their first year.  Some schools assign a mentor as a resource person for the neophyte trustee.

The process just described is applicable to any board of any organization.  Faith-based schools need to take this a step further with what we call Formation.  Their mission, which the board is in place to support, is to foster not just the intellectual growth of its students, but their spiritual growth as well. Trustees must not only understand what that means, but be committed to their own spiritual growth.  There’s a difference between information and formation.  Formation needs to be experiential, regular and geared to the needs of trustees as they grow on the board.

For our students, we think through a curriculum to guide them during their years in our school rather than just present unconnected lessons and courses.  Similarly, we need to think through how a trustee will grow over their 3 or 6 years on the board, and design a formation program to foster that growth.  Maybe, for instance, the second year trustees have already been trained on group discernment.  So you don’t want to repeat it for them.  But the first year folks still need it. An effective formation program has some common elements for all trustees, like the board retreat, and some elements geared to the needs of each cohort.


An important element of any growth process is evaluation. We learn from experience, but only if we reflect honestly on that experience.  An individual might be able to do this for herself in an informal way, because there is only one self doing the evaluating.  But that won’t work for a board because each trustee would know only his own feelings about how the board is functioning.  A regular, formal process in which everyone participates is needed for the board as a whole to learn from its own experience how things are going and how they can be improved.

The questions should ask trustees to rate the quality of their meetings, decision-making processes, agendas, the presentations and information they receive, committee effectiveness, their relationship with the administration and whether the board has the kinds of members it needs.  It should also ask trustees to rate their own participation and effectiveness, as well as how the experience has gone for them and how it could be better.  The results of the evaluation should be discussed in a meeting where the board can prioritize the improvements it wants to make and set goals for the coming year.

Board Policy Manual

The by-laws provide general rules within which the board and the school must operate.  But over time, the board will develop its own policies to govern itself and the school.  As trustees join and leave the board, it’s important to have one place they can find all board policies currently in force.

These might include the processes for electing officers, approving new members, approving the budget, conducting a self-evaluation or evaluating the chief administrative officer.  Having a Policy Manual spares the Board from reinventing processes once it has developed them, but it doesn’t prevent the Board from modifying them as its needs change.

Board Policy Manuals can be kept in hard-copy form, but schools are finding it more helpful to maintain them on line, often on a trustee webpage linked to the school’s website.  This allows access to them from anywhere and assures that the manual trustees are looking at is up to date. The Board Policy Manual comes under the purview of the board secretary but is usually maintained by a school staff member.

These best practices around recruitment, formation, self-evaluation and the board policy manual– will strengthen your board’s effectiveness if you’re not already doing them.  If you are, be sure to review them periodically to make sure your board is receiving their full benefit.

More information on how boards can best carry out their crucial role is available several places on this website,, by clicking on our SERVICES and RESOURCES tabs.  Or go to our MfM YouTube Channel, where you’ll find tutorials on best practices particularly appropriate for faith-based schools.  You can also find a video version of this blog post.

In the third blog post in this series, Doing the Board’s Work, we’ll look at four other areas where best practices can strengthen your board’s effectiveness: committees, strategic planning, evaluation of the Chief Administrative Officer and Board philanthropy.   

I encourage you to keep learning more about effective boards and working to make sure your school’s board is one of them.

Posted in Managing For Mission | 1 Comment

The Board’s Unique Role

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
February 15, 2016

Boards are funny creatures.  We give ultimate authority for an institution dearly important to us to a group of people who have little expertise in the core work of education, who spend only a precious few hours working together, and who must guide the school from within the cumbersome framework of group decision-making.  Why would we do this?

As unwieldy as school governance can feel at times, it’s critical to accomplishing the school’s mission over the long run.  

For school administrators, governing boards can sometimes feel like a necessary evil, something that just complicates their job and their ability to manage the school.  Unfortunately, this can be a self-fulfilling assumption.  The more we ignore the board and try to minimize the board and its impact, the more problematic it becomes.  Administrators will be able to do their jobs better if they invest time in supporting the board, in its proper role, and helping it become more effective.

So what is the board’s role?

We’ve all heard the word “fiduciary” to describe the role of trustees, as in “boards have a fiduciary responsibility.”  I used to think this word meant “financial,” that the board’s responsibility is relegated to the financial solvency of the school.  But fiduciary simply means trust.  It means that the board holds the school in trust for the community it serves and for the mission that comes to it from the greater church.

While administrators know their professions and their school’s mission well, they need this group of trustees to connect their work and the mission to the community they serve.  When boards are working well they bring three indispensable benefits to the school, often characterized as wisdom, wealth and work.


Trustees are a rich source of wisdom for shaping governance level policies and for assisting administrators in shaping administrative level policies because they’re drawn from a range of professions and backgrounds.


When we say they bring “wealth,” we don’t mean simply that the trustees themselves are wealthy.  We mean that, because they connect well with the community, they help the school access resources it never could without them.  Yes, they themselves need to be benefactors, in proportion to their means, but they also attract other benefactors, and they help the schools tap into opportunities they might not otherwise.


“Work” refers to the volunteering trustees do, not only in formulating sound policy for the schools, but by rolling up their sleeves to assist in areas of the school’s operations where their talents can be enlisted.

The Board forms an important link in what we call the “Chain of Care” that extends from Jesus to the church to the board, to the administration and faculty and ultimately to the student.  By doing its job well, the board strengthens this Chain of Care so that the students experience in a palpable and sustainable way the loving, creative presence of God in their lives.  If you want to learn more about this, Managing for Mission has a tutorial explaining the Chain of Care in greater depth.

As I said earlier, boards are funny creatures, and it isn’t always easy for trustees or administrators to understand the nuances of their role.  The line between governance and administration can be fuzzy, and board members can feel pulled inside that line and begin micromanaging and interfering with the administration.  Or they can feel pushed so far outside it that they can’t provide that life-giving connection that holds the school accountable to the community and the community accountable to supporting the school.

I’d like to borrow a way of explaining this from my colleague, David Coleman, author of Board Essentials, who talks about the different hats trustees wear.  There are three of them, and it is critical that Board members understand at any given point which hat they’re wearing.


The first hat is the policy hat.  It’s the most important, because governance level policy can only be formulated by the board.  If the board doesn’t set these overall policies no one else can.  No one else has that authority.  But as important as the policy function is, it’s the thing boards actually do the least.  Schools just don’t need that many governance level policies and once they’re in place, they usually stay in place for a while.

An example of a governance level policy might be the school’s commitment to diversity, or to employee benefits.  Budget is one of those grey areas, with the board setting the bigger parameters, like tuition or the faculty base, but not deliberating line item expenditures.

As seldom as trustees make big policy decisions, they still have to keep this hat close at hand because when it’s needed, they’re the only ones who can wear it.

Sounding Board

The second hat I call “Sounding Board.”  As pointed out earlier, there is a wealth of collective wisdom on the board, and administrators would do well to access that wisdom as they make decisions and formulate their administrative policies.

There are times when an administrator may want advice from the board for a decision which is hers to make, for instance a change to the dress code.  If the board thinks it’s wearing its Policy hat, it may end up tying the hands of the administrator by directing her rather than advising her.  When this happens, it can lead the administrator to become overly cautious about what she shares with the board.  The board is then pushed further away from the school and the wisdom it could offer is lost.


Finally there is the “Volunteer” hat.  The board is a great source of volunteers because they’re usually skilled and passionate about the school and its interests.  But again the trustees take off their Policy hats when they volunteer in the school.  

If a trustee is asked to serve on the campaign committee, he doesn’t overrule the development director by virtue of his status as a trustee.  In fact he has to be careful even when he isn’t intending to speak authoritatively because school personnel may assume they’d better do what he says.

I sometimes wish board members would actually wear these hats so that it’s clear to themselves and others what role they’re filling at any given point.  Short of requiring that, trustees should be constantly asking which hat they are wearing and make sure that is communicated to those they work with.

More information on how boards can best carry out their crucial role is available several places on this website,, by clicking on our SERVICES and RESOURCES tabs.  Or go to our MfM YouTube Channel, where you’ll find tutorials on best practices and an approach to discernment particularly appropriate for faith-based schools.  You can also find a video version of this blog post.

Thanks for your willingness to strengthen the mission of your school by serving on or supporting its board.  I pray that God will bless you in your work and bless the school and its students as a result.

Posted in Managing For Mission | 1 Comment

The Strategic Planning Process

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
November 15, 2015

For faith-based schools, good Strategic Planning is critical to survival and growth.  We all know we need to do it, and if we can better understand what makes it so important, we’ll also understand how to do it effectively.

Strategic planning is the process of aligning all the internal factors within a school’s control in order to accomplish its mission in the face of external factors that are not within its control.  This definition sounds a little like an institutional version of the Serenity Prayer.  There are some things, like the economy, trends in culture and technology that we can’t change.  But by being aware of them, we can use the factors within our control, like our curriculum, tuition, the condition of our campus, to harness the opportunities and manage the threats.

Resources in our Faith-based schools seem scarce, but when we focus our people, our traditions and our assets on what is strategically most important to us, most schools have more than enough to accomplish their mission.  Strategic Planning is a discipline that creates and sustains that focused use of resources.  For the board, the Strategic Plan is a tool to provide governance level direction, without being drawn into the operations of the school.  For administrative leadership, it assures that they can follow through on sustained, multi-year initiatives.  They know they have the backing of the board, even as its membership changes from year to year.

For parents, employees and donors, it shows them how their efforts and generosity will translate into the outcomes the school promises.

From my work during three decades in Catholic School administration and my work with Managing for Mission’s clients, I’ve learned that there are some key characteristics, 10 in all, to a successful plan.  Right now, I’d like to talk about 3 of these:  The plan needs to be Strategic, Broadly owned and Implementation oriented.  

First, to be effective, the Strategic Plan must be truly STRATEGIC.  It can’t just be a grab bag of nice things to do, or pet projects of particular individuals.  It must focus on the game changers, those few directions that will make all the difference in the long-run.

Second, the Plan must be BROADLY-OWNED.  After all, who owns the school?  Not a small group of shareholders, but a broad group of stakeholders: teachers, students, parents, donors and supporters.  Their generosity in one form or another, must be sustained day in and day out, year in and year out, for the school to accomplish its mission.  To move the plan from theory to reality, these stakeholders must come to embrace it as their own.

Which brings us to the third characteristic:  it must be IMPLEMENTATION-ORIENTED.  The Strategic Plan itself will be a visionary document, providing the general direction for the next 5 to 10 years.  But it must flow into an implementation plan which is formulated by the administration each year.  This annual implementation plan must identify the specific steps, targets and responsibilities that will keep everyone on track to accomplishing the plan’s goals.

So how do we do all that?  We recommend a process that generally takes 9-12 months in all.  Can a Strategic Plan be done in less time?  Sure.  A school can produce a plan in a weekend.  But it won’t have those three characteristics.  We recommend a process that begins with the Board, casts a broad, participative net, and then draws all the input back in to a concise, coherent and compelling document.

The Board begins with a retreat to reflect on strategic issues and set parameters.  Then it commissions a Steering Committee to guide the process.  The steering committee reaches out to a few dozen leaders in various sectors of the school community to analyze the Opportunities and Threats facing the school, as well as its Strengths and Weaknesses in responding to them.

Using this SWOT analysis, the school prepares a survey to be sent to all its stakeholders: parents, alumni and friends.  Using their input the school then invites its stakeholders to a town-hall type Stakeholders Meeting with 3 sessions in which participants can chose from several planning areas to discuss and give input.  From these, the Steering Committee selects 4-6 strategic areas for which special Topic Teams will be impaneled to drill into and make goal recommendations.  The Steering Committee receives these goal recommendations and distills them into the strategic few that will form the Strategic Plan.  While this last step is happening, the Administration begins working with the school team to develop the Annual Implementation Plan for the first year.  The Strategic Plan is then presented to the Board for its approval.  At the same time, the administration presents the Annual Implementation Plan to demonstrate to the Board how it will be working toward those goals.

As important as the Strategic Plan is, even more important is the planning process.  Done right, it will engender a discipline of thoughtfulness and collaboration which are themselves the biggest dividends.

If you’d like to learn more about the Strategic Planning process, additional resources are available under the Resources tab of this website (  More is also available in earlier Blog posts in our Archives.  Also a 6.5 minute video tutorial is available on our YouTube Channel.

Thank you for not letting your school drift in the crosswinds of external forces and instead using a strategic plan to navigate to the future God wants to provide.

Posted in Managing For Mission | 1 Comment

Board Discernment: Part 5: The Four Core Tools of Group Discernment

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
August 15, 2015

After reading the first four parts of this post on Ignatian Discernment for Boards, you may be left with an impression that learning to do Discernment is like learning to play chess, that it requires mastering lot of rules before you can even play the game.  In one sense, that’s true.  There is a lot to learn about discernment, especially if we want to receive all its fruits.  But we don’t have to become masters to begin reaping the benefits.  I’d like to talk about Four Core Tools which, if your board isn’t using already, can greatly increase the effectiveness of your decision-making.  The Four Core Tools are:

  • Praying for God’s will
  • Cultivating silence
  • Reviewing the Ground Rules
  • Round Robins


This core tool was discussed in the 3rd tutorial on the “Habit of Discernment.” Probably all of us begin our meetings with a prayer, usually a brief reading from Scripture or a respected author, or sometimes an extemporaneous reflection by one of the trustees.  But to prepare ourselves for discernment, we need more than the obligatory opening reflection.  We need more than edification, or even inspiration.  We need to ask ourselves honestly if we desire, above all, that God’s will be done in the matter before us. If the answer is yes, the prayer must remind each member of this desire and invite them to assent to it personally.  In order to sustain the spirit of discernment, we may need to pray at several points in the meeting to remind and re-commit ourselves.


This was also discussed in part 3 as one of the Habits of discernment.  We tend to be uncomfortable with silence, especially in a group setting where it can be taken as the sign of an impasse.  But it’s difficult to listen to God’s gentle prompting if we fill every moment with talking, because God speaks through our deepest desires.  Allowing even brief periods of silence–a few minutes–lets that deepest part of ourselves rise up to enter our thoughts and the group’s deliberations.  It can also be the opportunity for us to tell God again that we desire to do his will.


In part 4 above, we talked about the Ground Rules for group Discernment: listening deeply, trusting others’ intentions, sharing our experience and insights and having the freedom to let go of our own positions.  Simply having these ground rules is not enough.  We need to review them before important deliberations, or even during them, to re-center the group and keep it open to God’s prompting grace.


Because group members will range from highly extroverted to highly introverted, board discussions will often be dominated by just a few people.  It’s usually not intentional.  It’s just the way people are.  It helps to incorporate a point in discussions where the chair asks each person in turn to speak to the issue.  This Round Robin gives the opportunity for quieter members to express themselves, and the more talkative to hear them. Even if this can be done only once in a meeting, forcing the introverts to share what they’ve been thinking and forcing extroverts into listening mode will encourage more balanced discussion throughout the meeting.

These 4 Core Tools–prayer for God’s will, silence, ground rules and Round Robins–are fairly easy ways a board can start down the road to the deeper discernment Ignatius invites us into.

Thanks for your willingness to begin the journey toward deeper and more effective decision-making with your board.  I hope this post and other resources available from Managing for Mission will help you along the way.  God bless.

More information, including including 11 examples of board issues and how they might be discerned, can be found in the handbook, Discernment for Boards: an Ignatian approach, available from Lulu Press.

Posted in Managing For Mission | 1 Comment

Board Discernment: Part 4: The Six Components of Group Discernment

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
  • Implementation.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Posted in Managing For Mission | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Managing For Mission | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Managing For Mission | 1 Comment