Living as Contemplative Leaders in Action: Communal Discernment

Three kids, a pandemic, and nearing the “late thirties” stage of not-so-young adulthood… Suddenly, shopping is not as fun as it used to be. Fall has brought a few occasions that require me to ditch my uniform of mom jeans and Ann Taylor Loft T-shirts. The most important of these is my sister’s long-delayed wedding celebration. In the midst of back to school preparations for the kids, my own work schedule, and my husband’s promotion at work, I snuck in a few quick shopping trips.  I  frantically grabbed anything off the rack that might fit me (or the color scheme for the wedding). Everything turned out to be a bad shape, the wrong size, or an unflattering cut. No matter where I looked, I could not find the right fit. I felt discouraged and hopeless. 

It was time for a serious intervention. No more quick browsing when I had an extra 30 minutes between obligations. Enough of the ordering things online that end up looking nothing like the pictures when they arrive. I was done with the picked over racks in a near-empty mall. My best friend and I blocked out an entire afternoon. We left our kids with babysitters and drove 30 minutes away to a bigger, better stocked shopping center. We were committed and we were not leaving without a dress. We spent 4 hours and I tried on dozens of dresses in two stores.  I actually ended up buying the first thing I saw when I walked in the door. What did this experience tell me about Ignatian discernment?

I realized how many similarities there are between a successful shopping trip and the process of prayerful decision making with the Lord. These tools can assist us during an individual discernment that affects our families or livelihoods (a move, a career change, a new ministry opportunity) or a communal discernment that involves more stakeholders. In healthy ministry settings, leaders use these and other techniques to truly listen to the needs of the people involved and assess the gifts and limitations of the staff and volunteers in order to better discern where God might be revealing a response.

So my rules for buying an important dress OR making a major discernment in life…

1. A Dedicated Time
When faced with an important decision, it is important to set aside time to allow the key questions to emerge. Oftentimes I find myself “reacting” and grabbing at whatever solutions seem to be available, rather than taking the time to step back and think about what I really want or what my family really needs. By not allowing proper time, I limit myself to whatever ill-fitting dress is on the discount rack rather than choosing what truly works best for me. 

2. A Safe Place
The pandemic exacerbated a general feeling of “never being alone” and constantly having my kids hanging on me and clamouring for attention. As I tried to fit dress shopping into our busy schedule, I was only focused on the outcome of getting a dress quickly and cheaply. I did not have the space to process my dissatisfaction with what I was seeing in the mirror or frustrations regarding the lack of options in the stores. In discernment, we require a “space” where we can allow ourselves grief, disappointment, joy, and apprehension. Sometimes our physical space helps facilitate mental and spiritual space. These can include going on a weekend or week-long retreat, taking a day off for recollection and rest,  or just allowing a set time for prayer each day. These types of “safe spaces” make it easier to recognize the voice of God communicating to us. 

3. A Companion You Trust
A friend, spiritual director, therapist, or mentor can provide companionship that encourages honest discernment. Oftentimes we are so close to the situation that we either struggle to see clearly what is going on, or encounter resistance to accept the truth in some way. This compassionate listener can be one part of creating a safe environment for discernment. A companion raises questions, reflects back emotions, points out assumptions, and offers support. These individuals offer a sense that “we are not alone” or a reassurance that even if we fail, we are loved. 

4. A Clear Mirror
When I finally showed my friend the very first dress I saw, she stared at me in disbelief. “It’s perfect. How did you not see it was perfect? It looks exactly like you.” As I tried on dress after dress, I had begun to doubt what I saw in the mirror. My perception had become warped by disappointment and self-doubt. I did not trust that beauty was reflecting back at me, I only saw the lumps and rolls. My friend provided the encouragement I needed to both make a decision, as well as reconnect with my own instincts. 

Sometimes we sense that deep down, we have the answers we seek, but we need to wade through the emotions, doubts, and fears in order to arrive at a conclusion. The Ignatian way of discernment can provide helpful tools to break through those barriers, see more clearly, and take a step forward with greater trust in God. In A Friendship Like No Other, William Barry, SJ describes that as we discern with God, “we allow the Spirit to transform us into people who are more like the images of God we are created to be—that is, more like Jesus, who was clearly a contemplative in action.” The Gospels show us example after example of Jesus as a leader who listens to people, hears their fears and concerns, and moves them towards greater life. 

Each day, we are presented with similar opportunities to listen to God’s unique way of speaking to us as leaders in our families and work. The setting could be anywhere: a Board of Directors meeting for a non-profit, the spiritual direction room on a silent retreat, a Zoom screen, a playdate at the park, a department store fitting room.

 

Go Deeper:

  • Learn more about St. Ignatius and Contemplative Leadership here.
  • Be inspired by Stephanie Clouatre Davis as she tackles her own discernment.

 

 

Jen has a bachelor's degree from Loyola Marymount University is in History with minors in Secondary Education and Philosophy. She then went on to receive a Masters in Pastoral Theology with a specialization in Spiritual Direction. She has created formation materials, discernment tools, and small group processes that are being used around the country in Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, and English. Along with Fr. Tri Dinh, S.J., she co-founded Christus Ministries. Jen continues to write and research for Christus Ministries, particularly around best practices in young family faith development. Jen works for the Sisters of Notre Dame in California as the Associate Director of Mission Advancement. Jen, Jason, and their three children live in Southern California.

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