Sermon. May 16, 2021
Rev. John Steitz
The beginning of the book of Acts focuses on leadership change and transition. Judas betrayed Jesus and is no longer one of the Twelve. A new minister, a new apostle is to be selected.
On the surface the selection of this new minister and apostle might make some wonder why we go through a transition and search process. We can spend upwards of a year carefully developing a church profile, and the search process itself might take another year. Why not just cast lots like they do in this passage?
Casting lots is not the point of this passage. Rather the passage is about discernment. The passage calls us to be radically open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. The passage shows a process of deep engagement in prayer to discern God’s call and direction.
Casting lots as one specific method of discernment isn’t very helpful for us, but being engaged in discernment is. The radical openness to the Holy Spirit, deep prayer, and discernment of God’s call are all very relevant to us as we move through our transition.
God had already selected the new minister and apostle. The task before the remaining eleven was to discern God’s call. So too, God has already selected the next settled pastor at First Congregational UCC in Norwich, New York. Our task is to discern God’s call.
This discernment process involves all of us, not only those on the Search committee. As I mentioned in my May 2021 newsletter article the Quakers have a term for the spiritual guidance of discernment: The Way Will Open.
The Way opened for the remaining eleven as recorded in Acts. The Way has been opening for the Transition committee. The Way will open for the Search committee. The Way will open for all of us as we pray and seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in our lives.
The Transition committee has worked very hard over many months to develop the church profile. This document is essential for the search process, but it is much more than that. This is a mission document that looks at who we are now, who is our neighbor, and who is God calling us to become.
Through discernment we have found clarity on the Core Values we hold as a congregation. This will guide us beyond the time of the search process.
Already this clarity about Core Values is informing how we organize the work of the Deacons, and how we engage in local mission. Spiritually Alive – loving God. Neighborhood Engagement – loving our neighbor. Loving Church Family – loving one another. Making Disciples – teaching to follow in the Way of Jesus.
While the Search committee does its work we are to hold the committee and the process in prayer. Since God has already selected our next settled pastor, this is a time for spiritual growth. How is God calling us now to grow spiritually? We are to slow down, center, and be patient.
The Quakers have a discernment process called the Clearness committee. This is a formal way to help people find the inner resources to resolve a personal problem, question, or decision.
Quakers use Clearness committees for many important decisions. People who are married under the care of a Friends Meeting, that is a Quaker congregation, go through a Clearness process.
The one seeking discernment is called the focus person. They develop a concise statement of the issue, relevant background information, and hunches they have about what is on the horizon regarding their issue or problem. During the Clearness committee meeting they cover this in ten or fifteen minutes.
The Clearness committee meeting lasts two hours. There is one rule. Committee members can only speak to ask honest, open questions. No advice.
The goal is to help the person connect with the Inner Voice that arises out of their own inner truth. The committee seeks to create space for a personal dialogue with this inner truth. The committee refrains from trying to define this truth or guide the dialogue. The committee is not there to resolve the issue or problem. They are there to help the person discern the Way that opens.
Open questions are those we cannot anticipate the answer to. Open questions attune us on helping the focus person, not satisfying your curiosity.
Clearness takes time and the committee meeting lasts the full two hours. There might be long periods of silence. This silence is not dead space. It is time waiting on the Spirit.
The goal of the Clearness committee isn’t to fix the focus person. The problem or issue might not be solved. We continue to hold the person in the light, trusting the inner teacher of focus person will guide them forward.
Parker Palmer in his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life covers the clearness process in depth. Palmer, who is a Quaker, developed the Circle of Trust approach that builds on the Clearness committee process. (See: https://couragerenewal.org or search for Parker Palmer and clearness process.)
Parker Palmer notes that “each of us has an inner teacher, a voice of truth, that offers the guidance and power we need to deal with our problems.”
The Circles of Trust model has Principles, Practices, and Touchstones. The Principles of the Circle of Trust model are:
- Everyone has an inner teacher.
- Inner work requires solitude and community.
- Inner work must be invitational.
- Our lives move in cycles like the seasons.
- An appreciation of paradox enriches our lives and helps us hold greater complexity.
- We live with greater integrity when we see ourselves whole.
- A “hidden wholeness” underlies our lives.
The Practices and Touchstones of a Circle of Trust are similar to those of a Clearness committee. I’ll cover this in more depth in a future newsletter article. For now, I’ll highlight again the no fixing, no advising, no saving guideline, and the rule to ask honest, open questions.
Drawing lots is one specific discernment process. Clearness committees and Circles of Trust are other ways of discernment.
We can also be spiritual friends for one another. This can be a way of discernment where one person is the focus and the other is the listener. These roles can shift. But attention is given being fully in one of these roles in a specific moment.
We might not cast lots, but we do engage in discernment. We do seek to be radically open to God’s call in our lives, centering, asking open questions for each other, and paying attention to the wisdom of our Inner Voice.
Parker Palmer. “The Clearness Committee: A Communal Approach to Discernment.”
The Center for Courage and Renewal. “Circles of Trust.”