By Dick Barrett
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship.
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2 (NIV)
Ever since becoming a Christian as an adult, Romans chapter 12 has been my favorite chapter in the Bible. For me, it seems to capture in one brief chapter what the entire Christian life is supposed to look like. In that way it is similar to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapters 5 through 7. There are many similarities in what is highlighted, especially the call to nonviolence and peace: Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible and as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:17-18). Wow! What a high calling. It is certainly one we cannot live out on our own, without the power of the Holy Spirit.
Just as impossible as it is to live out God’s calling expressed by the Apostle Paul in the later parts of Romans 12 without the power of the Holy Spirit, the same is true for discerning God’s will expressed in the beginning. Discovering God’s will, his good, pleasing and perfect will, comes only after the sacrifice, the laying down, of our own human and imperfect wills. And it comes only with continual spiritual transformation by the renewing of our minds.
As difficult as it is to discern God’s will for our lives as individuals, it becomes exponentially even more difficult when we try to discern God’s will together as a body of Christ — as a congregation, as a conference of congregations, and/or as a denomination.
Discerning God’s will is a spiritual discipline. While there are many definitions for Christian biblical discernment, the one that our consultant, Jeanne Zimmerly Jantzi, has been sharing, by Mennonite educator Michael King, seems to capture it best: “Christian discernment involves the community of believers gathering in Jesus’ name around Scripture to find its way through….” Christian biblical discernment requires believers gathered in Jesus’ name, around Scripture, and the power of the Holy Spirit, to test and approve what God’s will is. Paul tells us to “no longer be conformed to the pattern of this world.” I think Paul should have used the plural since there are so many patterns of this world we can be conformed to. Sometimes it is patterns of this world that we are making decisions about and sometimes it is patterns of this world that have infiltrated the discernment process itself. We need to be constantly checking to see in what areas we have conformed to the patterns of this world.
Ohio Conference’s year of review is synonymous with a year of discernment. We are seeking God’s will together for the future of Ohio Conference. The decisions we will be making as part of the discernment process are important decisions. In order to make the wisest decisions possible, we need feedback from as many of our constituents as possible (credentialed ministers, delegates, etc.), as well as time. We need time to seek God’s will through engaging in spiritual disciplines such as “dwelling in God’s Word” (reading Scripture together), prayer, fasting, solitude, silence, contemplation, etc.
Discernment literally means “to separate, to discriminate, to determine, to decide or to distinguish between two things.” But other than a final step of assessing or re-assessing, making the decisions comes at the end of a discernment process. Prior to the decision-making stage is the gathering and access of information stage, followed by the identifying options stage. In her outstanding book Pursuing God’s Will Together, Ruth Haley Barton writes, “An important element of discernment is the ability to ask good questions and to allow those questions to help us gather data and gain perspective. These are not questions that will get us the answers we want; rather they are questions that will elicit the deeper wisdom we need.”
As a Conference of Mennonite churches across Ohio and the borders of Pennsylvania and Michigan, we are currently in the gathering and access of information stage and the beginning to identify options stage of our discernment process. My prayer is that I myself, and all of us, will continue to be patient in the process. We owe that to the God who is the most patient to us.
Lord, we believe our life together is touched by you,
that you want something for us together and of us.
Give us ears to hear you, eyes to see you,
and hearts quickened by the motions of your Spirit.
— Adapted from Ted Loder’s Guerillas of Grace