Return to the Source in Order to Move toward the Future: The Service for Discernment in Common

July 27, 2020 —The Jesuit Province of Canada has recently established a new way to be of service to the province, the apostolates, and the Jesuit communities – as well as to nonprofit organizations and the private sector – by helping them to engage in the process of discernment in common. Laurence Loubières, a Xavière sister, is the director of this Service for Discernment in Common. Trained in management and theology, Sr. Laurence has worked for more than ten years in the private sector, notably as an executive in the field of responsible investment. She began working with the Jesuits of Canada in 2018 and contributed the following year to the creation of this new service.

“Discernment in common helps each organization to become more aware of its purpose and mission and, as a result, to work in a manner that is consistent with its fundamental identity. This can help both the apostolates of the province and religious communities, as well as nonprofit organizations and businesses to take ownership of their mission and to live it more fully,” explains Sr. Laurence. Do not hesitate to contact her to find out how she can help in your particular context. Here, she explains what discernment in common is and what needs it can respond to.

What is discernment in common?

It’s a way that groups can use the process and tools of spiritual discernment, which is at the heart of Ignatian spirituality and which is generally used for individuals. A group can be helped to learn the discernment skills that will enable it to better fulfill its mission in the world and to act more authentically and in accordance with its fundamental principles and, in the case of a religious organization, its spiritual identity. This process can also be beneficial in a nonreligious context, for example, to help teams or groups realize their full potential.

What needs does discernment in common respond to?

As a first step, it may be used to help the members of a group to strengthen the bonds that unite them and encourage them to collaborate. It helps to build a sense of unity and belonging within the group, a way to be united around a common project, a common vision.

Second, it helps the group or the community to interpret the signs of the times with regard to its mission, and therefore to become aware, in a given context, of the direction to take in order to continue to develop and to grow in a way that is faithful to its fundamental identity within a changing context.

Thus, discernment provides an opportunity for the group to be able to interpret what is happening and to choose a direction that will enable it to express its identity and mission in a changing context.

Third, discernment in common can be played out in a situation where a group has a particular issue to deal with, a decision or choice to be made among various alternatives. The group can use this process of discernment in common in order to choose the option that would be most consistent with its fundamental identity, the option that would allow it to be more faithful to its call. This decision then becomes a means for the group to move forward and grow in its mission.

Why was the Service for Discernment in Common created?

During my studies at Regis College, Gilles Mongeau, SJ, Kevin Kelly, SJ, and I discovered that we had a common interest in the question of discernment in common. It is an approach that fits well with religious communities, but it can also be used in a non-denominational context. I’ve seen that this approach has a lot of potential to create good things, to really help teams grow together, including in the corporate world.

The Service for Discernment in Common is a means to strengthen the Province’s capacity to engage in and own this type of process. A first objective is to build teams of facilitators (Jesuits and non-Jesuits) who can intervene in various contexts. Then the task is to determine how to capitalize on and spread Canada’s expertise in this field. The Province of Canada is a pioneer: it is the only one in the world to have set up a service of this kind. Finally, the vision also includes collaborating with other people throughout the world who are working on these questions of discernment in common and who are using this kind of approach.

My role is to lead this small service: to create teams that can intervene and also to facilitate these processes myself. The apostolates and communities contact me and ask me to facilitate a particular process. It is a mission of guidance and facilitation. First of all, I work with the organization to determine what it needs and then I guide the group through the process that we had previously determined.

One of the pillars of my mission is to develop formation for the Province, in particular by helping Jesuit colleagues to appropriate basic elements of discernment in common, such as spiritual conversation. Discernment in common can also help the Province, apostolates, and communities to go further in the appropriation of the Universal Apostolic Preferences.

How does it work, concretely?

This process can be used in many different contexts, there is no standard format. Most of the work is, first of all, to try to understand the situation in which the group or community finds itself, the issues, the needs, the context, the question. This requires a great deal of listening and dialogue with the person who has initiated the request for a discernment in common process in order to understand the specific approach, tools, and schedule needed. This will vary according to the issues at stake, the size of the group, and the time available.

Several tools are used. First of all, personal prayer serves as a spiritual anchor for each person, to help re-situate the person in the context of a Christian mission. Second, small-group spiritual conversations allow people to share the fruits of personal prayer in a spirit of active listening and speaking, in order to understand where the Spirit is drawing the group's attention. Finally, there are spiritual conversations in larger groups, depending on the format.

This Service for Discernment in Common serves apostolates and religious communities, but does it also serve private enterprises?

Yes. With non-Christian groups, we do not propose direct references to the faith, to the work of the Spirit, or to Christ, but we can invite the group to develop an attentiveness to the circumstances in which it has been able to give the best of itself in the past and also to the circumstances in which the group has, on the contrary, been confronted with difficulties in living its mission. This is a way of translating the Ignatian concepts of consolation and desolation into everyday language; it points to the universal experience of distinguishing between times when one gives the best of oneself and times when one does not.

By helping groups to reread their experience, one can lead the members to a better interpretation of the circumstances in which they operate, and thus to a more intentional choice of direction that will help them to fulfil their mission more effectively, with a greater sense of unity.

When I experienced this as a manager in a company, I saw that it really worked well. I regularly invited my team members to reflect on what they had experienced in working within the team over the previous six months and to identify the specific circumstances that had given us a lot of energy, and, on the contrary, the more difficult things that had blocked us. I also taught them to listen to and talk with each other in spiritual conversation: listening deeply to each other and taking turns speaking and listening to what was going on in the group. I could see that my team was able to identify the factors that allowed us to progress and to choose new directions that we would implement for six months before taking stock again. Choosing what was going to help us move forward also served to instill a strong sense of belonging and freedom within the group. This helped the team to participate actively in our progress and to develop a great deal of resilience when faced with problems: we were able to understand the context and develop options.

It makes the team more effective and cohesive; people know the purpose of their work and it improves performance and entrepreneurship.

How does discernment in common differ from traditional decision-making processes?

The originality of the approach is that it shifts the focus away from the problem itself and redirects it to the meaning of the group's action: the ultimate goal, the identity of the group, the foundation that holds it together. We help people in the community or group to anchor themselves in that place, to take a step back from the problem and look at the broader reality. We turn the choice or problem into an opportunity for the group to become more faithful to its identity and purpose. The decision is thus anchored in the group's mission.

Do you have an example of a group that has implemented discernment in common?

In the summer of 2019, I was part of a team with three Jesuits who animated two retreats for the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre-Dame, a congregation that was born in Montreal but that now has provinces in many parts of the world, such as Asia, Africa, and America. This community desired to strengthen the sense of unity among the sisters of a certain generation with respect to the fundamental identity of their congregation. We lived two 5-day retreats at Villa Saint-Martin. It was very impressive to see the Spirit at work within these two groups. The sisters did not necessarily know each other before, they spoke four different languages, but we experienced a communion that grew day by day and that gave the sisters not only a very strong sense of belonging to their community but also a renewed energy for the mission and for their return to their respective contexts.

They were helped to reconnect with the fundamental source of energy that animates their religious congregation so that they could return to their communities with enthusiasm and a sense of unity among themselves, even if they live in different places.

It was really beautiful to witness this and was a powerful experience for the animation team.

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