Varieties of religious discernment

Varieties of religious discernment

Each of my communities of faith has valued listening to the part of ourselves that knows where and how to leap.

painting: A trembling world (waiting to be born). © 2015 Daniel Nevins. Oil on wood, 36" x 48".

A trembling world (waiting to be born). © 2015 Daniel Nevins. Oil on wood, 36" x 48".

© 2015 Daniel Nevins


As I write this paragraph, I am 45 years old and six months pregnant with my second child. My work as minister of the Vashon Island Unitarian Fellowship will end next month. My partner Liesl and I are selling our house; the realtor took pictures of our house this morning, and it will go on the market first thing tomorrow.

And we have yet to decide where our growing family will next call home. Doesn’t that sound like a perfect time to write about the challenges of decision-making?

Liesl and I are both atheists, which often makes choosing more difficult. We have no guide, no authority figure, no rulebook limiting our choices. We wade through a swamp of shifting thoughts and feelings, we consult friends and family, and eventually, when circumstances force us to, we make a decision.

In my childhood faith—a small, fundamentalist group known as the Plymouth Brethren—decisions were made by seeking God’s will in prayer, through reading the Bible, and sometimes, if the decision was important enough, asking a respected male elder. Underlying all these efforts, however, was the certainty that God had veto power over any decision we might make. The devout people among whom I was raised could not make plans for lunch the next day without adding the words “Lord willing” to the end of the sentence. The mysterious will of God was something they sought; they often found it in coincidences, in signs that God was opening a way before them.

During my college years the way that opened before me led to the Presbyterian Church (USA), and eventually to seminary and ordination as a Presbyterian minister. Most of the Presbyterians I came to know had strayed much farther from their Calvinist roots than the Plymouth Brethren have. Sure, for big issues, discerning God’s will was important. But day-to-day decisions, particularly for laypeople, were mostly secular affairs.

As an individual seeking ordination, however, there were practices in place meant to test the validity of that call. I needed the approval of the church where I was a member, and then of the presbytery in which that church was located. I needed to pass arduous ordination exams. The last hurdle was being grilled by the entire presbytery, who then voted to ordain me. At least for the ordination process, discernment was something done in community, not as an individual.

Toward the end of my time among the Presbyterians I connected with a group of earth-centered Presbyterians who practiced some very different forms of discernment. Any member of the group could request that the community gather to discuss an important decision—a much looser version of the Quaker practice of clearness committees. They also practiced divination, using earth-centered cards similar to tarot to spark intuition and find the best way forward.

When I met Liesl fifteen years ago, I knew that choosing a relationship with her would drastically change, and perhaps end, my work as a Presbyterian minister. A few years into our relationship I left parish ministry, cobbling together a series of jobs. I completed a yearlong clinical pastoral education residency. I worked as a church administrator for a large Episcopal church.

Throughout that time, I slowly began to explore ministry in the Unitarian Universalist Association. My Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor, listening to my increasingly open atheism, suggested I might find a home there, as did the minister of an American Baptist congregation I attended.

In those days, the conversation among UU bloggers was at its height, and those pioneering voices were my introduction to Unitarian Universalism. When I finally attended my first UU service, I discovered that the home they had promised really did exist, and it moved me to tears. It took nearly seven years, but eventually, the way did open to UU ministry.

Looking back, looking past the differences between these communities of faith, I can see that they share some common themes about how to decide. Each of them, in their own way, valued the role of intuition—of listening to the part of ourselves that knows where and how to leap. All of them said that, particularly in big decisions, it helps to draw on the wisdom of community. They each, in their own language, talked about waiting for the way to open. And they all acknowledged that sometimes the wait feels interminable.

As we await the birth of a child, as we wait for offers to purchase our house, as we wait for our path forward to become clear, perhaps this is the perfect time to write about decision-making!

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