Dear sisters and brothers in Christ:
For too long the word "discernment" has carried with it various notions about arcane knowledge and practices. These notions are simply wrong, and more to the point, Christians historically have not limited discernment to questions about ordination. Discernment logically follows on an awareness among God's people that God has a claim on their lives. The questions then become: To what is God calling me? To what is God calling us?
The Church has erred in treating discernment only in the context of questions about holy orders. Baptism establishes the full dignity and responsibility of every believer, and it is right for every believer to ask what shape these realities should take in his or her life. Discernment could be, and I dare say, should be, the normative practice for all the baptized. In various seasons, God's holy meddling in human life becomes evident for persons and for communities, which is also to say that discernment is no once-for-all undertaking.
To make sense of this divine intrusion, the Church offers some very ordinary steps to take, mostly those of prayer, the study of scripture, and doing these things within a community of believers. This community necessarily asks hard questions and offers soft arms to catch one another. It is hard to over-emphasize the communal nature of discernment, especially in a western culture like ours given over to atomistic individualism.
This handbook arises from two ideas in particular. First, everything in this book acts to normalize the practices of discernment broadly, assuming that all the baptized are called by God. Second, all that is written normalizes community as the only suitable context in which to make sense of God's claim on our lives.
The Task Force which developed this handbook for the Diocese of Missouri worked hard to reclaim discernment for all God's people, for which I am deeply grateful. I hope that you will receive this work for the gift that it is.
Ever faithfully, in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. George Wayne Smith
Tenth Bishop of Missouri