Relational Discernment

Mar 3, 2021Uncategorized

The next two lessons explore what it means to be in discernment as a congregation, and how to go about doing discernment with your community.

The centerpiece of this kind of discernment is relational meetings. Today’s lesson is all about practice within the congregation.

We’re starting here because it is good to practice with people you know.

Just to give you some background, a relational meeting is a spiritual practice motivated by the desire to encounter the Spirit in one-to-one conversations. It’s a time of great curiosity and genuine love for the person you are speaking with.

A good relational meeting wakes someone up through our ability to be present, deeply listen, and be open to discerning together. These aren’t pastoral care visits or transactional sales pitches. They are meaningful, topical conversations. They help us explore our values and motivations, as well as where we might find ourselves intersecting with the values and directions of others.

They are personal, but not private. They engage another with curiosity but don’t invade or manipulate. The goal is to connect through mutual respect and shared interests.

According to Rev. Dr. Whitcher, a relational meeting provides the

 “…opportunity to cultivate transformative public relationships and to identify collaborators and leaders. Relational meetings include mutual discovery of the other person’s interests, core values, motivations, hopes, and fears as it relates to our shared communal, spiritual, and public life. Developing relationships that bring together diverse people and perspectives creates opportunities for deep connection, understanding, and accompaniment.”

The Relational Meeting

The relational meeting is simple. However, we acknowledge that it can be difficult when first introduced. Like many things, they take practice.

Through the exercises below, we’ll take you through the process of getting to know each other through relational meetings.

Exercise 1:

Introduce the idea of relational meetings to your group. Allow time for questions or thoughts. If someone has experience with relational meetings, ask if they are willing to share their perspective with the group.

Once the idea has been explored divide into pairs for 10-15 minutes of practice. 

    5 practices for a good relational meeting

    Be present

    Be curious

    Genuinely love others

    Ask meaningful questions

    Be vulnerable, i.e. – share at a similar depth as someone shares with you

    This gives each person 5-7 minutes to practice a relational meeting. It can be helpful at first to have a question in order to focus our conversations. Some recommendations might include:

    • What are your spiritual gifts?
    • What is your favorite story about our church?
    • What made you choose to be involved with this church?
    • What do you hope to get out of these conversations we are having?
    • What do you imagine the future of the church to look like?

    Feel free to create your own questions as well. Once divided into pairs, give each person 5-7 minutes to ask and answer the question you choose.

    Whoever asks the question will practice listening to the stories they hear. Some things to pay attention to:

    • Where does the person become more animated (this is a good place to follow up with another question or observation)?
    • What values do you hear in the stories?
    • What makes them hopeful? What worries them?
    • What motivates this person?

    After the time is up, have everyone come back to the larger group. If your group is reluctant to share, then stay in smaller groups at the beginning. Reflection together on the process is a way to build community, deepen the lessons learned, and reflect on where there are areas of growth.

    Whether in smaller or a large group, ask people to speak from their perspective and experience.

    • What worked? What didn’t? Where do you have questions about the practice?
    • What did they learn about themselves?
    • What do they need to know, learn, or practice with more?

    Only share what you learned about the other person with their permission. Relational meetings should be considered personal conversations. We want people to own their stories, and we should only own what we learned.

    Things to remember

    Relational meetings are between two people.

    Probe with curiosity, but respect people’s privacy.

    Focus on the story and person.

    How someone says something is as important as what is being said. Likewise, what they don’t say also matters.

    This isn’t about you. While sharing personal things can be meaningful, keep in mind this is about getting to know someone else.

    Exercise 2:

    Relational meetings are meant to build the story of the church. In practice you may hear stories of pain, joy, hope, and frustration. All of them matter. At the same time, they need to be expressed as part of a larger story rather than having lives of their own.

    In this exercise, we ask that you look around the room. Ask yourself a series of questions regarding your church:

    • Who is here?
    • Who is missing?
    • Whose voices are missing from this conversation?
    • What stories are we hearing that we need to know more about before our next step?

    After you’ve processed the relational meetings, begin creating a list of people who aren’t in the room. This is a time to get more specific about who needs to be heard in conversations concerning the future of the church.

    Looking down your list of absent voices, divide up the names and agree to a common question you want to ask.

    Whether you are in a leadership team or larger interested group, everyone in the room should have at least one person to talk to. As you assign names, look for natural connections and shared interests first. Then divide the remaining people amongst the group.

    Give yourself a set time to conduct your relational meetings. Agree to a time when you can come back together and share what you’ve learned.

      Pro tips

      A relational meeting lasts about 30 minutes.

      Set an agenda or question to guide the conversation.

      Try and find a neutral space to meet so that people feel safe to share.

      Listen for themes, ideas, and motivations.

      Evaluate as you go. Are you getting to the heart of what motivates someone and what they care about? Model this by sharing a little of your own story to see if it helps them connect.

      Exercise 3 (happens at a later meeting):

      This one is simple. Come back together and share what you learned in your relational meetings (make sure you ask the person you met with for permission).

      Compare this with your whys.

      • Where is there alignment?
      • Are there better ideas?
      • Are there new leaders with energy who want to step up?
      • How does what you learned shape your next steps?
      • What needs to be shifted?
      • What else do you need to know? What questions arise?
      • Who else do you need to talk with?

      The point is not to create consensus but to give voice to the process. What you learn helps shape the story, communicate the values, and revise the vision.

      In addition, relational meetings can help us identify leaders in our communities and those who may have particular energy toward ideas or projects we are working on together. When you do relational work, it expands possibilities, capacities, and resources to help implement the vision when the time comes.

      Relational work helps when the time comes to step into the ministry you’ve discerned in conversation with the Spirit. We’ve chosen to start with the congregation as a safer space to practice before having these conversations with the wider community.

      Much of this information was created by Rev. Dr. Jenny Whitcher with Juniper Formation in Denver, Colorado (edited and shared with her permission).