Discernment and Trust

Since the topic of discernment seems to almost rival “Euro-pride” this week, let’s keep hitting on that theme. In continuing to follow the blogosphere’s ongoing tussles over Intentional Disciples, I’d like to offer a quick reflection on the quality of trust, then let my commentariat take over, if they wish.

Trust is darned difficult to earn in today’s Church. I work hard at it. I try to maintain an openness and conduct parish conflict with the maximum diplomacy I can muster. After a few years, I begin to see tensions ease in the parish. I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school, but even in family situations, trust is such a long ramp upward to good relationships and it can so easily be damaged or destroyed.

Submitting one’s story of faith to the ears of another demands a strong level of trust. In my 80’s home parish, the famous/infamous Corpus Christi of Rochester NY, there was an attempt to develop a culture of trust, submission, discernment, and direction. The challenge there, for me in that decade, was that mutuality was lacking at times. The small group system developed and thrived there for awhile. Then it was time for me to move into the real world, and before they went into schism, I don’t really know how it landed from there. I do know that trust was strained at times, and outside of my circle of friends, I was very guarded. I knew that some people wanted to steer the community in the way they wanted to go; others disagreed, and sometimes we butted heads over it.

I’m convinced from what I’ve read from the ID people that discerning gifts is probably a very respectful process. In a way, it can be easier to discern with a total stranger. Try it with people who have an agenda with you or if you have an agenda with them. I tell you: it’s harder with the people with whom you live.

The social life dimension of the parish is often criticized, but I’m not so sure a strong social life doesn’t lay some good groundwork for trust. How else do people interact and begin to form the bonds of trust that would enable them to open up and share the experience of their faith lives with others?

I don’t have easy answers on the trust + discernment direction. It’s probably the pastor’s job to cultivate it. Parish leaders should be clued in to support the cultivation of trust: open meetings, welcoming of newcomers, minimal gossip, doing what one says one will do. Once that quality is well-sowed, I think people might be inclined to give the benefit of the doubt in really harrowing situations: major fund drives, intense personal sharing, and the like.

That feels grossly incomplete, but I’ll leave it to the readers to flesh it out, as you wish.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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11 Responses to Discernment and Trust

  1. I’m convinced from what I’ve read from the ID people that discerning gifts is probably a very respectful process. In a way, it can be easier to discern with a total stranger. Try it with people who have an agenda with you or if you have an agenda with them. I tell you: it’s harder with the people with whom you live.

    Abosolutely. We do not recommend that you start discernment at home because there are so many other established dynamics at work there. We recommend that you start with *relative* strangers so that they can more or less just be responding to the charism (or its lack) rather than to angers and fears that have been 15 years in the making.

  2. Tony says:

    I know. It’s not easy to tell someone they suck at a ministry they love and that they’d probably be better at washing altar linens or something.

  3. Keith Strohm says:

    Tony,

    I’m not sure if you are being facetious or not…difficult to tell online. If, indeed, charisms have a real effect (on both the recipient and the one using a charism on behalf of another), then helping people find areas where they are truly gifted is one of the most important things that we can do. Not only will God’s Presence be made known in a supernaturally effective way, but the person utilizing that charism will also experience deep and abiding joy.

    That’s the beauty of it. God desires to give us, as Cardinal Newman said, “that which is our greatest happiness.”

    In a culture of discernment, the implications of the discernment process are known and discovering areas where you are truly not gifted, while still remaining difficult, is seen as a source of progress in discovering one’s vocation.

    There is a great difference between helping someone discover that they are not supernaturally gifted for a particular ministry and telling someone they suck at it (which shouldn’t happen in a culture of discernment).

  4. Neil says:

    Two quick suggestions that I take from some of the writings of the Archbishop of Canterbury:

    1. Todd is right to warn about the dangers of “agendas.” In his book on the Desert Fathers, Archbishop Williams writes:

    “We love to think that we know more of God than others; we find it comfortable and comforting to try to control the access of others to God. Jesus himself speaks bluntly about this when he describes the religious enthusiasts of his day shutting the door of the Kingdom in the face of others: ‘You do not enter yourselves, and when others try to enter, you stop them’ (Matt 23:13). And he goes on to describe how such people exert themselves to gain even one convert, but because they are only trying to make others in their own image, they make them twice as worthy of condemnation as themselves.”

    We can easily think of examples of “agendas,” of religious people “trying to make others in their own image.” Perhaps we imagine the “liberal” priest who, still struggling with the rigidity of his preconciliar childhood, confuses any recourse to traditional forms of prayer as artificial conformism. Perhaps we think of the “conservative” spiritual director who, dismayed at the confusions and anarchic freedom of the present, requires all of his disciples to pray using only the perceived safety of traditional forms.

    “Agendas” can have a corrosive effect on trust. What to do? First, acknowledge the dangers of these agendas. Second, those deeply involved in helping others with discernment need to bring their “deep-rooted longing to manage the access of other people” to light by manifesting their thoughts to someone else, usually some sort of spiritual director. Their commitment to a difficult honesty should be evident.

    2. Perhaps we can only trust someone else in helping our process of discernment when we sense that they are “speaking the same language, wrestling with the same given data of faith” (Williams). Otherwise, we will inevitably feel misunderstood. Then we might feel manipulated. Williams puts this in another way: we have to look for “the grammar of obedience: we watch to see if our partners take the same kind of time, sense that they are under the same sort of judgment or scrutiny, and approach the issue with the same attempt to be dispossessed by the truth with which they are engaging.”

    This means that two people can share in a process of discernment if they take it with a similar degree of seriousness, pray together in common, and recognize one another’s accountability to Scripture and tradition. Part of this will be developing, to some degree, a common language.

    Hope this helps.

    Neil

  5. Tony says:

    I’m not sure if you are being facetious or not…difficult to tell online.

    Apologies. I should be more clear in my sarcasm (or try and eliminate it completely). This is a problem I have (Todd is aware of it).

    If, indeed, charisms have a real effect (on both the recipient and the one using a charism on behalf of another), then helping people find areas where they are truly gifted is one of the most important things that we can do. Not only will God’s Presence be made known in a supernaturally effective way, but the person utilizing that charism will also experience deep and abiding joy.

    My question is what qualifies you to supernaturally determine what gifts God has given me?

    What if I said that I don’t think you have a gift for helping people discern their gifts? What if I said your gifts might probably lie elsewhere? (I’m not saying that, because I really don’t know you, and far be it from me to try and tell you what God might be calling you [or not calling you] to do.)

    That’s the beauty of it. God desires to give us, as Cardinal Newman said, “that which is our greatest happiness.”

    Todd speaks of difficulty in discerning for others. Why would there be difficulty if you’re looking out for their “greatest happiness”? Might it be they don’t concur?

    In a culture of discernment, the implications of the discernment process are known and discovering areas where you are truly not gifted, while still remaining difficult, is seen as a source of progress in discovering one’s vocation.

    Todd spoke of agendas. We have seen this in the past 40 years or so where seminarians were “discerned” right out of the seminaries by “vocation directors” with liberal agendas who considered devotion to God, the Blessed Mother and the Blessed Sacrament as “character flaws”. Good, holy and orthodox men were sent on other paths, which has contributed to the major problems we’re seeing in the country with vocations.

    Excuse me if I look a little distrustfully at someone who claims to know what sort of person is right for what sort of ministry.

    There is a great difference between helping someone discover that they are not supernaturally gifted for a particular ministry and telling someone they suck at it (which shouldn’t happen in a culture of discernment).

    “You are not supernaturally gifted for a particular ministry” is a lot nicer way of ousting someone than “you suck at it” or maybe “you just don’t fit in here the way we do things”. It has a more “theological” ring to it, don’t you think?

    It’s also an easy way to oust someone for personal or political reasons without the personal and political repurcussions that are usually incumbant on doing so. It’s also an easy way of getting rid of someone who doesn’t subscribe to the cult of personality of a particular priest or ministry director.

  6. Keith Strohm says:

    Neil,

    I like what you have shared…particularly the last paragraph. A culture of discernment builds a common language!

  7. Keith Strohm says:

    Tony wrote:

    My question is what qualifies you to supernaturally determine what gifts God has given me?

    What if I said that I don’t think you have a gift for helping people discern their gifts? What if I said your gifts might probably lie elsewhere? (I’m not saying that, because I really don’t know you, and far be it from me to try and tell you what God might be calling you [or not calling you] to do.)

    Tony, this is a good question.

    Charism are real–that is, they have a specific effect on the world and on people. That means that they are discern-able. You don’t need a supernatural gift to determine the presence of supernatural gifts. If that were the case, discernment would be next to impossible for most people.

    What you do need is knowledge about the charisms–their characteristics, what they “look” like, how they often express themselves. If you have that and the willingness to examine your past and present for patterns of experience, you are well on your way to engaging with the discernment process for yourself and helping others discern their gifts.

    It sounds to me like your real question is “What gives you the right” to determine whether someone is gifted or not for a particular ministry. Todd has done a great job talking more about that in his most recent post. If you participate in a pastoral ministry by delegation of the pastor, then he has “given” you that right. This doesn’t mean that you can go off “half-cocked” and arbitrarily “de-gift” someone. But, if you are a pastoral associate, coordinator of a parish ministry, or participant in a ministry (like that of Catechist), then you have been given the right by delegation from the pastor.

    That’s what makes the importance of forming and fostering structures and cultures of discernment so important.

    But even if you are not participating in the pastoral office by delegation, a catholic is, by their baptismal participation in the Mystical Body of Christ, responsible for the vocation of each member of their community. We are called to give of ourselves so that others can become more fully who God made them to be.

    In that case, a culture of discernment gives its members the language and trust to affirm where gifts are present. It can be a very simple thing to tell somebody, “When you did x, this y occured. If that individual is taking the process of discernment seriously, then he can utilize that feedback as a part of his reflection on patterns of experiences he has–gaining greater clarity of areas in which he has been gifted.

    You wrote:

    Todd spoke of agendas. We have seen this in the past 40 years or so where seminarians were “discerned” right out of the seminaries by “vocation directors” with liberal agendas who considered devotion to God, the Blessed Mother and the Blessed Sacrament as “character flaws”. Good, holy and orthodox men were sent on other paths, which has contributed to the major problems we’re seeing in the country with vocations.

    Yes, I agree that such a thing is a problem. First off, though, I was speaking about vocations relating to the laity’s life in the secular world and not vocations to the ordained ministry or religious life. Secondly, that is an example of faulty and poor discernment.

    You wrote:

    “You are not supernaturally gifted for a particular ministry” is a lot nicer way of ousting someone than “you suck at it” or maybe “you just don’t fit in here the way we do things”. It has a more “theological” ring to it, don’t you think?

    It’s also an easy way to oust someone for personal or political reasons without the personal and political repurcussions that are usually incumbant on doing so. It’s also an easy way of getting rid of someone who doesn’t subscribe to the cult of personality of a particular priest or ministry director.

    I agree with all of the things that you have said here, but it seems that your point boils down to this: “There is a chance that the discernment process will be misused and abused, therefore we shouldn’t undertake it.”

    Just because something can be misused, doesn’t invalidate it. Discernment is a tool and a spiritual discipline–like any spiritual discipline, it can be distorted by our brokenness.

    It doesn’t mean we should stop using that discipline.

  8. Tony says:

    I agree with all of the things that you have said here, but it seems that your point boils down to this: “There is a chance that the discernment process will be misused and abused, therefore we shouldn’t undertake it.”

    It may surprise you to discover I agree with you. I have trusted each of my pastors and their designated representatives to help me maximize my gifts for the glory of God.

    Interesting timing on this, because I have the paperwork in my hand for beginning ministerial formation in my parish. This will qualify me as a pastoral minister in one or more of a number of different disciplines.

    What I want to do, what I’m needed to do, and what I’m good at may be three entirely different things. I am going to be consulting with my pastor to determine his needs. If his needs don’t fit with my talents, then I stop there. If they do, we move forward.

    Also, formation is a required first step for the permanent Diaconate. This will also need to be discerned. If I don’t have what it takes, I don’t do it, with no arguments and peace in my heart.

    Can you envision me delivering a homily? :)

  9. Keith Strohm says:

    Tony,

    May God Bless you in your discernment process with your pastor–and on your discerning a call to the Diaconate (something that I am discerning as well).

    Having never heard you teach or share in a non-virtual setting, I couldn’t say one way or the other about your homiletics. However, I do think you have a certain fire. :)

    What diocese are you in?

  10. Tony says:

    What diocese are you in?

    Diocese of Syracuse. The vocation crisis (actually, I believe it’s a crisis in courage) is pretty acure here. The projection is that in the next 7 years, there will be 100 priests to serve 120 parishes. We are in the midst of a reconfiguration (much of it self-driven, thank God) and we are in dialogue with another parish deciding how we can best share services.

    Money is not a problem at my parish, but it’s not all about money, is it.

  11. Keith Strohm says:

    Tony,

    I shall pray for the Diocese of Syracuse! I grew up in Long Island and went to University in Buffalo and Binghamton….

    As we build cultures of discernment and take the vocations of all people seriously, we should also seea rise in vocations to the priesthood, God willing.

    And you are right…it’s certainly not all about money!

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