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What if our official discernment processes offered the opportunity to change our minds? asks a pastor.
Fifteen of us pulled our chairs into a tight circle, huddled in a small conference room for the morning session of our denominational board meeting. Anxiety poured into the room, drowning our minds, as we received report after report of congregations that were considering seceding from our denomination because we had not offered a ruling regarding the status of LGBTQ pastors.
We were afraid for our church, afraid for our future together as the body of Christ, afraid of God’s silence despite our petitions for clarity, for direction, for biblical and theological arguments that would convince one or the other side.
A discernment consultant walked us through a process that enabled us to make a decision -- and as soon as we did, we had regrets.
I’ve participated in workshops and retreats; I’ve read books and articles; I’ve listened to expert speakers. I’ve been given an abundance of tools for discernment -- from techniques developed in business schools to the practice of different kinds of spirituality in collective decision making.
And I’ve been part of church boards and committees that have used the best of those methods only to end up making regrettable decisions. Even with all the preparation in the world, we can make bad decisions. We still sometimes disappoint the people who commission us to speak with their voice, to lead their congregations further into the movement of God among us.
During a break from our denominational meetings, I had dinner with a church leader from another tradition. He was in the midst of significant and intense debate with his group of leaders regarding their official church position on same-sex weddings.
I asked him whether they had been able to agree upon a plan, a direction for their denomination, after their first day of meetings.
I was being facetious. I assumed it would be impossible to make that decision quickly.
But he said that they had. They had agreed upon a proposal, and had even begun drafting an explanation for their constituencies.
“However,” he said, interrupting my compliments on such efficient work, “the most important part happens tonight, as we sleep. Because when we gather back together in the morning, we may change our mind and have to start all over again.”
They had worked hard, struggling with one another hour after hour, all sides giving and taking, finally arriving at a hard-fought compromise. Yet instead of moving on to another matter, they would meet together after resting their bodies and minds to address any lingering concerns, to rethink the proposal from other angles, to reconsider their decision.
“We build into our process an opportunity for second thoughts, for starting over again,” the denominational leader said to me.
I don’t know why I had never before thought about the need for second thoughts as part of discernment processes. A willingness to change our minds resonates with the Christian virtue of patience, which is a central conviction for Mennonite theology.
“In a process of discernment, it is better to wait patiently for a word from the Lord leading toward consensus, than to make hasty decisions,” our Mennonite Confession of Faith states. “In making decisions, … members of the church listen and speak in a spirit of prayerful openness.”
At the denominational board meeting when we voted on our LGBTQ ministerial policy, we did not wait for God, as our confession urges us to do. Instead, under the direction of a process consultant, we rushed into a hasty decision, without consensus.
The theological insight of our confession invites methods of discernment that flow out of the virtues of patience and humility. To allow for decisions to be re-decided is to invite patience, guarding us from hasty resolutions and opening us to further leading of the Spirit. To allow ourselves to change our minds is also to invite humility into our decision making, the humility of God.
In Exodus, after God makes a decision to “consume” the people of Israel with “hot” wrath, Moses offers a counterargument that persuades God to abandon the earlier plan: “And the Lord changed his mind” (Exodus 32:10, 14).
Even God revises decisions. Even God changes plans. Even God has second thoughts.
I’ve been part of too many meetings where we have made decisions rooted in fear and anxiety. I’ve heard too many stories of church officials who, upon returning home, have regretted their resolutions and pronouncements. So often, as leaders, our response is to defend our official positions in public even as we harbor our own doubts in private.
Our hasty decision -- the 15 of us in that room -- committed our denomination to a policy that would not recognize LGBTQ people as pastors. We were afraid. We feared that judicatories and congregations would secede if we allowed gays and lesbians to be acknowledged as ministers by our national ecclesial body.
So we left that meeting with disquieted spirits. All of us still remember the uneasiness that lingered into the weeks and months afterward. At subsequent board meetings, we talked about that ruling and the restlessness that spread throughout our denomination as a result.
Members of our denomination are still unsettled after our decision. We resolved nothing. And we disoriented everyone.
To avoid this kind of hasty decision making in the future, I think our discernment processes -- whether in our congregations or in our boardrooms -- should include opportunities for holy second thoughts, for our minds to be changed by a lingering concern, an unexpected insight, a midnight thought, a feeling in our gut that won’t go away.
If we provide time and space to revisit our decisions, we will begin to free ourselves from the pressure of fear and anxiety in our decision making. And we will find ourselves resting into the humility of God, trusting God to disrupt our best thinking with new insights.