Deciding Versus Discerning

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


I am a youngest child. There are basically two types of youngest children: One says, “Help, I can’t do it!” The other says, “I don’t need your help, I can do it myself.” I’m the second type! My drive for competence and control is what led me to take Home Economics (so I can wash, iron, and cook without anyone’s help!) and obtain a doctorate degree (I’m smart enough to do it without anyone’s help!). Sometimes I think the Presbyterian church is filled with oldest and second type of youngest born children. These are the take control, independent thinking, highly competent, decision making type. Our polity is designed for order and efficiency; it is a polity that works hand-in-hand with a “we can handle this” personality.

Yet God calls us to silence. God calls us to stillness. God wants us to let go of the controls. God speaks to us in prayer and meditation through a still small voice. At a time when meeting to make decisions is the norm, perhaps God is calling us to ancient practice of discernment. In her book, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, Susan Beaumont quotes Ruth Haley Barton in defining discernment as, “. . .an ever increasing capacity to ‘see’ the work of God in the midst of the human situation, so that we can align ourselves with whatever God is doing.”

Discernment can be done individually or as a committee, team, or group. In either context, discernment means letting go of what we want- what we desire to happen. We then open ourselves up to what God wants as we seek God’s will for the situation or problem. This process is called shedding or letting go. Beaumont writes, “Shedding invites personal indifference. Discerners suspend personal preferences because they don’t value anything as much as they value honoring the soul of the institution and knowing God’s will.”

There are many more elements to discernment in Beaumont’s book including framing the question, grounding in principles, listening, exploring, weighing, choosing, and testing. Discerning is a lot of work! It is not practical to use this process for every decision. But it could be used for individual critical decisions (like when I sought God’s will for becoming your presbytery leader) and group decisions (such as “Should we lease our space? Change our worship? Reorganize our department?”). 

Advent invites us to a reflective pause as we ponder the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. This is a good time to reconnect our spiritual disciplines which are the foundation for discernment. Advent reminds us that no matter how talented or gifted we are, we cannot do it by ourselves. We do God’s best work when we are not in control. And that we need the hope, peace, joy, and love we find in Jesus Christ and in one another.  Amen.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Self-Empathy

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


The work of leadership, pastors, teachers, and chaplains is the work of making decisions. Pastors and other leaders often feel as though they are on an island and often work alone. While there are still a few large congregations with full-time staff, for the most part, the days of multi-staff congregations and full-time staff are behind us. Many pastors find themselves preparing bulletins and vacuuming carpets! Seminary faculty must do their own copying while handling a large teaching load. Hospital chaplains are stretched over several hospitals and have little administrative help with their work. Religious leaderships in various forms are faced with expanded roles with extended time without matching compensation. They face complex problems with varying and contextual answers with even more severe consequences. The demands of religious leaders to have an answer quickly and correctly is matched by the requirement to be relvant, approachable, and “without all that spooky spiritual stuff” in their replies.

As my colleague and Executive Presbyter of Pittsburgh, Sheldon Sorge, likes to say, “Lord give me a tough skin and a tender heart in this work that creates a thin skin and tough heart.”

I’m writing to leaders who may judge themselves harshly for not keeping up or when they make a mistake. I’m addressing those who experience internal guilt when they fall short of their high internal standards and to those who blame themselves when things don’t go as planned. I’m writing to myself.

I have been helped this Advent season by the book Transforming Church Conflict: Compassionate Leadership in Action by Deborah Van Deusen Hunsinger and Theresa F. Latini. They spend a bit of time on the subject of self-empathy. Self-empathy is needed when we hear a negative comment, fail at a task, or things don’t go as we would like. It is needed when we respond internally with words like, “I should have known better,” or “What an idiot I am; I can’t believe I did that,” or “I’ll never learn.” They write, “With this kind of response to criticism, we set ourselves up for chronic stress, guilt and shame. If it becomes a deeply entrenched pattern, it can lead to depression.”

Empathy is the ability to listen, connect, and relate to others. Self-empathy demands the same attention and compassion that we share with others to be applied to ourselves. Through self-empathy we hear things differently and respond in healthier ways. It is a way to lighten the burden of leadership by emphasizing our acceptance by God and valuing our feelings and needs in our relationships and lives. As we practice self-empathy, we will learn to love ourselves as we love others.

Rev. Craig M. Howard