In our first post about spiritual companionship, we met Esther. We learned that after her initial meeting with a spiritual director, as she learned a little about that ministry, she realised that she really wanted help with making an important decision. As she described it, this was ‘a decision that has brought me deep anxiety, for fear of making the wrong choice.’
There are many reasons to seek out the support of a godly companion or a spiritual director. Discerning the way forward when there is a big decision to be made is one of them. In this relationship, we are not looking for someone to make the decision for us or to tell us what to do. Rather, we are looking for a trusted companion who can support us in the process by listening well and offering questions that help us to develop a clearer sense of how God might be present to us and leading us.
When you have a significant decision to make, how do you figure out the best way forward? In particular, how do you determine between two options that would both be good when they have very different implications for your life? In the organization I am with, hearing the voice of God is foundational to our understanding of guidance. With this as our foundation, we can still experience discernment and decision-making in different ways, depending on our season of life and stage of maturity. This is one area of our walk with God that can be a continued adventure of learning and growing!
For example, I really remember very little about how I decided to study French at university when I was 18 years old. I knew that I loved learning French at school, so much so that I spent my Gap Year in Switzerland. I prayed about my university choices and asked others for advice, although I don’t remember the process in detail. In spite of this rather flimsy process of discernment, God blessed the decision (I met my husband at university, for one thing!).
As time went by, the decisions I was making seemed to become increasingly weighty. First it was deciding to get married then, together with my husband, deciding to join Youth With A Mission to work in Mozambique, and later deciding to start a family. As I went along, I learned to invite wise input from those around me, in addition to considering the rational pros and cons of decisions. I learned to weigh the decision in light of biblical principles and the values that shaped my life. I was in a process of learning how to hear and follow the leading of God, both individually and in relationship with others. All this may sound very familiar and much like what you have learned and taught others about discerning God’s good will for your life.
In this post, I will describe an intentional process that can support our discernment. This process is based on the Ignatian tradition, although being familiar with that stream is not necessary to benefit from the steps described here. While this structured discernment process can be very helpful for making especially significant decisions, the principles described here can be useful in any decision-making. Along with scripture and prayerful listening, the Ignatian tradition leans into the imagination and the senses as a means of paying attention to God’s leading. This tradition also considers the rational components of discernment required for making good choices.
A trained spiritual director can offer a helpful structure around this experience and, in my experience, it has been very helpful to seek out this kind of godly companion who can act as both guide and sounding board. While spiritual directors commonly have long-term relationships with those they companion, if it suits you better there are those who would be happy to meet with you just for the duration of this sort of decision-making.
There are four phases to this structured discernment process. If there is no rush, it can be helpful to allow about a week for each phase. During your first meeting with your spiritual companion or director, you could recount the threads of the story that led to this intersection. How did you come to be making this decision? Where the decision impacts an entire family, it’s a good idea to find ways to include the children in the suggested activities to an appropriate degree.
Exercise 1: Imagine Saying ‘No’
First of all, for a number of days you focus on the prospect of continuing as you are. What would life be like if you say no to the possibility of change? As you imagine choosing this outcome, it helps to be as specific as possible. What would your next birthday be like if you stayed in this house, for example? What would your next season of ministry look like if you didn’t make this other decision? How would you celebrate Christmas if life continued as it is presently? Which guests might visit you, and what would that be like?
In one sense, this might seem like the easiest of the exercises. It is simply more of what you are already living! The real work is to pay attention to how this makes you feel to imagine life this way? What do you notice about your mood as you move through the week? In what ways does this imagined future feel life-giving, and in what ways draining?
In the case of a family, you could use meal-times for conversations around this possible future. One time during the week you might share a time of ‘Examen.’ You can find a series of questions for a family Examen here. As part of a couple or team, or with a housemate, you could take a few minutes each evening for a personal Examen reflection, and share some thoughts with one another. You might be surprised at the way your emotions are impacted by the imagination exercise, even when you are not consciously thinking about it! Your spiritual director would help you to notice this – which is a good example of how it can benefit us to be accompanied through a time like this.
Exercise 2: Imagine Saying ‘Yes’
The task of the second phase is to imagine you have made the decision to move towards the new opportunity. In a similar way to the first exercise, this is a time to situate yourself in an imagined reality. What would your weekly routine be like at the new location? What would your next season of ministry entail? How long would it take to travel between home and work? What would it be like to work with your new team?
Again, it is important to notice how it feels to engage in this exercise. To what extent do you experience any resistance, even if you are not sure why? To what extent do you sense energy around this outcome? How does your body respond to this as a possibility? The Examen (mentioned above) is designed to support the practice of paying attention, whether as families, teams or as individuals.
Exercise 3: Dream Big
The assignment for Phase 3 is fun! It is an opportunity to create your own collection of images, or vision board, which you can do using images cut from magazines. The activity is very broad and not connected directly to one decision or another. You simply choose images that communicate what you hope your future to look like. Some images might relate to values, others to certain activities, or to people and places. Through the process of choosing images and placing them together, be attentive to the presence of God with you. If you are doing the activity with others, you can take some time to describe to one another which images you chose and why, as well as talking about what you enjoyed about the process or found difficult.
If there are several of you creating vision boards, as part of a family or team, you can do some post-production work! Go through each collage and write down what the person said about their images. Then identify any commonalities or threads. Most likely there will be several themes that are repeated in two or more of the finished pictures. This is a great exercise for noticing shared values and desires, even when they are communicated differently, and how these may relate to one or another outcome of your decision-making. Again, it is helpful to share these insights with a godly companion and to notice the feelings that arise during this exercise.
Exercise 4: Pros & Cons
The final phase of the process centres around a rational, rather than affective response to the decision’s possible outcomes. Take time to write out four lists: one list of the benefits of deciding yes to the opportunity ahead of you, one list of the challenges of such a decision. The third list is the benefits of deciding to say no to this opportunity (and thus to stay as you are) and finally a list of the challenges of staying as you are.
It can be helpful to add to the lists on at least three separate occasions over a few days, to give yourself the chance to find as many points as possible to write out. As the lists grow, you might add subheadings, grouping the pros and cons under topics such as finances, or relationships. This should be a very helpful part of the exercise, as it offers an opportunity to get onto paper all the things that have been swirling around in your mind over time. It also results in a clear picture of where the weight of benefit lies.
By the time you get to this point in the process, it will have become pretty clear where the discernment is taking you. The structure of the process will have created space for you to hear from God and from the others involved. To do so in ways that help you pay attention to both the rational and felt aspects of a possible decision is very helpful.
Needless to say, completing a period of discernment such as this does not always mean that the decision is made! It may have become clear that while you feel drawn in a particular direction, certain non-negotiable things need to happen in order for you to move ahead as you would like. Indeed, the hard work of this discernment process simply prepares you to fully engage with whomever else might be part of the movement forward, and to do so with a sense of clarity about your own desires and needs. I am sure I don’t need to tell you how important and helpful that can be both in families and teams.
When we are navigating endings and new beginnings, it is important to remember that the process requires both time and energy. May God bless you in your times of choosing, and may you be led to choose that which brings life.
For the Time of Necessary Decision
by John O’Donohue
Make we have the courage to take the next step
Into the unknown that beckons us;
Trust that a richer life awaits us there,
That we will lose nothing
But what has already died;
Feel the deeper knowing in us sure
Of all that is about to be born beyond
The pale frames where we stayed confined,
Not realising how such vacant endurance
Was bleaching our soul’s desire.