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

PRAYING FOR GOD’S WILL

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.

CULTIVATING SILENCE

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.

REVIEWING THE GROUND RULES

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.

ROUND ROBINS

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.

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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.

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.

GROUP DISCUSSION

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.

IMPLEMENTATION

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.

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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.

MAKE IT A HABIT

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.

PRAYING FOR GOD’S WILL

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.

CULTIVATING SILENCE

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.

DAILY EXAMEN

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.

THE IGNATIAN PEDAGOGICAL PARADIGM (IPP)

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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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.

RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD

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.

TRUST

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.

Grace

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.

GROUND RULES

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.

MAKE IT A HABIT

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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Board Discernment: Part 1: Overview

Jack Peterson, Managing for Mission
August 15, 2015

Most schools are governed by some sort of board charged with centering it on its mission of service to the community.  It’s a big responsibility, all the more challenging because trustees are busy people who meet at most once a month for an hour or two to make important decisions.  The decisions they make must above all preserve the school’s unique spiritual character.  Despite their professional backgrounds and wisdom, most trustees work from a lay perspective of their school’s religious tradition.

They serve because they see the school as an outpouring of God’s love for his people. They want to use their intelligence and experience to guide it.  They feel pressure to make effective and efficient decisions.  But, at a deeper level, trustees want to make decisions that respond to God’s desires for the school and the students it serves.  How can we as trustees do that?

We call this deeper, spirit-centered deliberation of the issues before us discernment.  The ability to discern is what we expect of our students through the education we provide, and as trustees we also expect it of ourselves.

Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuits in the 16th Century, has given us great insight into how to discern God’s will for us in his classic, The Spiritual Exercises.  In it he gives us a model for making decisions that uncovers our own deepest desires, which reveal God’s desires for us as well as.  The model can also be adapted to decisions made by organizations.

Ignatius’ approach to discernment assumes that God not only exists, but loves us and wants to be part of our lives.   Like any parent, God wants the best for us. Discernment is deepening our relationship with God so that we can perceive his gentle direction at work in our own lives and in the good intentions of our colleagues on the board.

Trustees, like everyone else in the school, are called to cooperate with God’s grace.  Discernment of the path forward for the school is their special responsibility.  To assist them, Managing for Mission has prepared this five-part post on Board discernment, including this “Overview,” “The Spirit of Discernment,” “The Habit of Discernment,” “The Six Components of Group Discernment” and “The Four Core tools of Discernment.”

To learn more, please read the next part of this post, “The Spirit of Discernment.”

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5 Core Requisites for Development Success

Jack Peterson
May 5, 2015

 

Since faith-based schools rely heavily on fundraising to support their mission, I want to write briefly this month about the keys to successful development.

This blog post will be brief because there are only 5 core requisites for a successful development program.  The good news is that if you focus on these five, your development program will be successful.  The bad news is that you have to focus on all five.  They are like links in a chain and weakness in any one will prevent the development program from reaching its potential.

The five core requisites of development are:

CASE, PROSPECTS, ASKS, ASKERS and RESOURCES.  

Let’s look at each one.

CASE

CASE refers to the reason for supporting our school. It is what motivates a donor to give.  We might think that the CASE simply means “what the school needs,” or maybe its “vision.” While the CASE is built on the school’s needs and vision, if we really want to motivate people, we have to go a step further.  We have to build the case around their needs, their passions, their vision.  A compelling CASE will always match the school’s aspirations to the aspirations of the prospective donor.

PROSPECTS

That brings us to the second requisite: PROSPECTS.  Clearly, to accomplish our development objectives, we need enough potential donors who have the capacity to give.  But to make the PROSPECTS link in the chain strong enough to support our development effort, we can’t just have a list of names.  We not only need to know how to contact them, but also what their giving capacity and interests are.  Why is that?  Because we will approach people differently depending on how and how much they are able to help.  We owe it to our donors and stakeholders to spend our development RESOURCES wisely.  So to be successful, we need to have enough PROSPECTS and to know enough about them to ASK in the proper way.

ASKS

The 3rd requisite is ASKS.  We need a way to present our CASE to our prospective donors and invite them to join us in our work.  And the ASKS will be different for different PROSPECTS.  One size does not fit all.  We need efficient ways to ask large groups of donors who can only give small gifts, and we need hand-crafted approaches for those capable of a substantial investment in our mission. We know that to reach our potential we need to attract those major gifts, but if we over-rely on auctions, or mailings or a phonathon, that just isn’t going to happen—at least not very often.

ASKERS

Which brings us to our 4th requisite, ASKERS.  This is often the bottleneck.  We can have a great CASE, plenty of qualified PROSPECTS, and ways of making ASKS, but it comes down to people actually doing it.  Is our staff making asks or are they too pre-occupied with other activities and just can’t get around to it?  If so, our development potential will continue to lie beyond our reach.  We can enlist help from volunteers, but remember that volunteers need to be recruited, trained and supported properly.  This requires an investment of time, but it will pay back if it generates enough people to do the asking

RESOURCES

And this finally brings us to RESOURCES.  It costs money to raise money, and another bottleneck will form if we underestimate the investment that will be required.  Spending $2,500 on research, travel and renderings to ask one person for a gift can feel extravagant, but if the ASK is for $250,000 we’d be foolish not to spend the money to do that ASK right.

So don’t get distracted by all the background noise.  Focus on 5 core requisites—CASE, PROSPECTS, ASKS, ASKERS and RESOURCES.  If they are strong, your school will move toward its full development potential, securing its ability to accomplish the mission God has entrusted to it.

 

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Board Formation

Jack Peterson
August 15, 2014

 

Women and men who join the board of a faith-based school are generally drawn to offer their service because they recognize or at least sense that something special is happening at the school that they want to help preserve.  They often desire that that same spirituality influence their own lives.  Despite desiring this “something different,” they can be tempted to respond to a new and unfamiliar way of decision-making with feelings of diffidence and doubt, which can lead them to default to more familiar approaches.

The boards and commissions of faith-based schools hold tremendous responsibility for their organizations and as such have many characteristics and duties in common with the boards of other schools and even businesses.  But in order to sustain the unique charism of faith-based education, trustees must carry out these responsibilities in ways consistent with the world view and spirituality inspired by the Gospel and the teaching of the sponsoring entity, as the teaching of St. Ignatius developed by the Society of Jesus is for Jesuit schools.  The way they carry out their responsibilities will therefore at times contrast with their experience from other organizational settings.  And in order to do this, they need some additional help.  

In my experience, there are five characteristics necessary to sustain a Board formation program:  1) it has to be sequential; 2) it has to be simple but consistent; 3) it has to be spiritual; 4) it has to be the board’s; and 5) it has to be managed.

Sequential.  One of the characteristics of a board is that it is, or should be, bringing on new members every year.  For the person or committee responsible for board formation, this creates a perennial problem.  If they do a wonderful retreat on discernment one year, the next year’s incoming board members won’t have the benefit of it, unless it is repeated each year, which will drain away the interest of the veterans.  Our boards are like our schools in ways we often don’t acknowledge.  We take in new board members each year as freshmen, and we graduate them, usually 3-6 years later.  We wouldn’t give our students the same curriculum each year; nor would we give haphazard exposure to various themes over the course of their four years.  Similarly, with our boards the formational needs of first year members are different from those of veterans and our formation program should take that into account by providing a sequential program of formation beginning anew for each new cohort. 

Simple but consistent.  Already, one might suspect that such a sequential program for each cohort could be pretty complex.  It could be.  But here the analogy with the school curriculum ends.  The board formation program does not need to be complicated; it should be geared to the time availability of the board members.  But whatever is done needs to be done consistently.  As the program rolls out, board members will often desire more, but the workload and expectations can and should be dialed up gradually, and with their ownership.

Spiritual.  We often think that business people will balk at giving time to purely “spiritual” activities.  Since most of them are not familiar with silent, imaginative or affective prayer, if left to themselves they will default to what they know best, handling business, including treating prayer as though it were an agenda item.  But that doesn’t mean they don’t desire something deeper.  They may not even know they desire it.  But my experience is that they do.  That’s a big part of why they were attracted to the school and the board in the first place.  And I have found that when shown how and given the time to pray, for instance as St. Ignatius teaches in the Spiritual Exercises, they invariably want more.

The Board’s.  Once they experience what silent, imaginative and affective prayer can give them, once they know what they have been desiring, they can begin taking responsibility for their own formation.  Rather than the spiritual life committee cajoling them, they become ready to articulate their spiritual needs and challenge themselves to deepen their own formation.  Not everyone will, of course.  But that’s okay.  Enough will want it that the board collectively will stop resisting formation and begin seeing it as a benefit of being on the board.

Managed. Despite the board members desiring it, deeper formation, with all its moving parts, still has to be managed.  Calendars must be maintained, reminders sent, rooms scheduled, books ordered, etc.  This is something board members aren’t likely to do well, because the major demands on their lives come from elsewhere.  A board may occasionally have a member with the time and interest to manage the process for a year or two, but it would be better to assign the management to someone in the school.  I have found that the president’s (or principal’s) administrative assistant is a good person to manage the process details because once the program is set, he or she, can simply push the buttons to get action steps on people’s plates and the president, or principal, only needs to make sure the board is getting what it needs from the school.

My intention is not to make this all sound simpler than is, but to lift up a few considerations that can be key to sustaining an effective board formation program.  It can be scaled up or down to the appropriate level of the board’s and school’s capacity.  Don’t go for the brass ring the first time round.  Just make sure everyone knows that this is a commitment that the board, with the support of personnel at the school, will sustain for the long run.

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