SP2685 Discernment: Systems and Nature

Diploma in the Art of Spiritual Direction
San Francisco Theological Seminary
January 2007

Instructor: Elizabeth Liebert


In this course, we will extend our understanding of discernment and discernment processes into the experiential arena of systems, structures and institutions (The course “Art of Discernment,” offered in alternate years, deals with discernment in intrapersonal and interpersonal arenas). We will each work with the “Social Discernment Cycle,” a process of prayerful reflection and small group sharing that helps individuals become clearer about how God is at work in systems and structures and might be calling the discerners to respond. We will deepen our understanding of the theological basis for the Social Discernment Cycle, the linkages between our experiences in systems/ structures/institutions and our spirituality and the linkages between various arenas of the Experience Circle (a tool developed for spiritual directors that helps them notice multiple layers of simultaneous experience). Most importantly, we will seek to develop awareness, vocabulary and strategies to assist directees in this important arena—i.e. to think, imagine, pray and discern systemically. Discernment in the fourth arena, Nature, will be touched on explicitly through the opening Contemplative regathering on the first day and one of the post-class essays.

Group Process Mentors: Maria Bowen, Diana Cheifitz, Joan Currey, Rebecca Bradburn Langer, Kang Hack Lee, Tim Mooney

Course Requirements

  1. Read all required reading (ideally prior to the beginning of class). Refer to required reading in discussions and final paper as appropriate.
  2. Complete Pre-class assignment #1, experiences of prayer in nature, and report on them during the Retreat part of the first day of class and/or in spiritual direction practice.
  3. Select a structure upon which to base the Social Discernment Cycle (directions given in pre-class assignment II). Prepare the Phases of the Social Discernment Cycle in a timely manner during the week of class. Share with another person the major movements through this process.
  4. Participate in all roles in the afternoon spiritual direction practice groups, abiding by the group covenant, and seeking to develop and help others develop spiritual direction skills around the material of the Third and Fourth Arenas of the Experience Circle.
  5. Prepare two final reflection essays. (More detailed directions for these concluding essays will be given at the conclusion of the class.) These essays should be approximately 7-8 pages in length, typed, 12 point font, 1 inch margins. Send both essays to Elizabeth Liebert, SFTS, 2 Kensington Road, San Anselmo, CA 94960. Send the “nature” essay postmarked no later than March 15, 2007, and the “structures” essay postmarked no later than April 15, 2007. See the DASD policies on late papers.

Course Objectives, (with Learning Strategies and Means of Assessment):

  1. To reinforce and expand basic spiritual direction skills learned in previous year(s) (afternoon small group practice sessions, feedback from peers and small group process mentor, final assessment).
  2. To become acquainted with a model for short term spiritual direction as appropriate for use in Social Discernment Cycle (lecture and discussion on day 6, post-class essay #1 based on short-term spiritual direction with a colleague)
  3. To understand the Experience Circle and its role in spiritual direction and supervision (lecture and discussion on day 2, both post-class essays).
  4. To construct an understanding of spiritual discernment sufficiently expansive so as to include discerning in nature and in systems and structures (exercise on spiritual freedom, spiritual direction practice sessions and post class essays).
  5. To process an experience of discernment in nature (pre-class nature prayer experiences, spiritual direction on experience in nature, post-class essay #1).
  6. To process an experience of discernment in a system, demonstrating an understanding of each aspect of the Social Discernment Cycle (Social Discernment Cycle process and worksheets, sharing in dyads, afternoon small group practice sessions of days 2-7).
  7. To experience and reflect on the dynamics of being directed and directing around matters of the 3rd and 4th Arenas of the Experience Circle and to demonstrate initial competence in directing in these arenas (afternoon small group practice sessions and post-class assignments and essays).

Required Reading

I. Experience Circle and the Theoretical Perspective of the Course:

Elinor Shea, "Spiritual Direction and Social Consciousness" The Way Supplement 54 (autumn 1985): 30-42. (in reader)

Elizabeth Liebert, “Supervision as Widening the Horizons,” in Supervision of Spiritual Directors, edited by Mary Rose Bumpus and Rebecca Langer (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2005), 125-145. Used with permission. (in reader)

Bidwell, Duane. Short Term Spiritual Guidance. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004), 1-94

II. Discernment in Nature:

Lane, Belden, “Spirituality as the Performance of Desire: Calvin on the World as a Theatre of God’s Glory.” Spiritus 1 (spring, 2001): 1-30 (in reader)

Sallie McFague, "Should a Christian Love Nature?" The Spire 15 (spring/summer 1993): 1, 11-12. (in reader)

Carol Newsom, The Moral Sense of Nature: Ethics in the Light of God’s Speech," The Princeton Seminary Bulletin (15:1) New Series (1994): 5-27. (in reader)

Robert John Russell, "Does ‘The God Who Acts’ Really Act?: New Approaches to Divine Action in the Light of Science," Theology Today 54 (2) (April 1997): 43-65. (in reader)

________. "Contemplation: A Scientific Concept." Continuum (December 1990): 135-153. (in reader)

III. Discernment of Systems, Structures, Institutions:

Karl Rahner, "Institution and Freedom," Theological Investigations XIII, Trans. David Bourke ( New York: Seabury Press): 105-212. (in reader)

Parker Palmer, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990): 55-77, Ch. 4: “‘The Woodcarver’: A Model for Right Action” (in reader)

Wink, Walter. The Powers the Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998). (read all of this book)

André Delbecq, Elizabeth Liebert, John Mostyn, Paul Nutt, and Gordan Walter. “Discernment and Strategic Decision Making.” Unpublished paper, 2002. (in reader) A slightly different version can be found at http://business/scu.edu/ISOL/proceedings.htm.

Recommended Reading

Dorr, Donal. Spirituality and Justice. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984).

Gingerich, Ray and Ted Grimsrud. Transforming the Powers: Peace, Justice, and the Domination System. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).  Responses and extensions of Wink’s work from the perspective of the Radical Reformation.

Holland, Joe and Peter Henriot, S.J. Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1980), Introduction, Chapters 1 and 2. Origin of the Pastoral Circle, upon which the Social Discernment Cycle is based.

Simkins, Ronald A. Creator and Creation: Nature in the Worldview of Ancient Israel.  (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994).

Tucker, Gene M. “Rain on a Land Where No One Lives:  The Hebrew Bible on the Environment.” Journal of Biblical Literature 116 (1) (1997):3-17.

Wijsen, Frans, Peter Henriot, Rodrigio Mejía, ed. The Pastoral Circle Revisited: A Critical Quest for Truth and Transformation. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005). Especially Peter Henriot, “Social Discernment and the Pastoral Circle,” pp. 15-26; Josef Elsener, “Pitfalls in the Use of the Pastoral Circle,” pp. 40-55; and Christine Bodewes, “Can the Pastoral Circle Transform a Parish?” pp. 56-72.

Special Needs

In the case of learning needs caused by documented disabilities, and if you have not yet spoken to the instructors or the director, please apprise us of your needs in order that appropriate and timely accommodations may be made.

Probable Outline of Content

Day 1 (Monday, January 8, 2007):  Contemplative regathering: Listening to God in Nature

  8:45-9:30 General orientation, introductions
  9:30-10:10 Syllabus, review of contemplative listening process
  10:15-10:30 Break
  10:15-10:45 Exercise I: Contemplative review of preparatory prayer experiences in nature

Exercise II: Contemplative regathering in class groups

  12:00-2:00 Lunch and Break

DVD “Cosmic Voyage,” lecture on Nature arena, introduction to prayer in nature


Prayer experience in nature (take break as needed)


Contemplative Listening in dyads around prayer experience

  4:15-4:30 Noticings in plenary, announcements
  Evening I: Review Delbecq, Liebert, and Shea articles. (DMin-DASD joint program introduction)

Day 2-6:  Tuesday through Friday, the following schedule will generally be followed. Specific daily content and assignments follow below:

  8:45 a.m. Announcements, housekeeping, body awareness

Morning session:
Overview of the day
Presentation time


Break (time will vary a bit by the day and the teaching modules)

  11:00-11:25 Work quietly on Social Discernment Cycle questions

Share the major movements in dyads (employing Contemplative Listening)

  11:50-12:00 Instructors share unique matters about directing in the 3rd Arena
  12:00-2:00 LUNCH AND BREAK
  2:00-4:15 Small group practice: spiritual direction and debriefing
  4:15-4:25 Debrief in plenary; notes for the spiritual director
  4:25-4:30 Introduce the next phase of the Social Discernment Cycle.
  Evenings II-VI:  Review various parts of the reading; work on the various phases of the SDC

Day 2 (Tuesday):  Introduction to Experience Circle, “Real play” of a spiritual direction session to illustrate use of the Experience Circle; spiritual direction in the Nature arena

Evening 2:  Review the experience of selecting a structure, adjusting it, if necessary and renew your desire to be with God this week through the SDC process. Review Palmer chapter.

Day 3 (Wednesday): Introduction to discernment, exercise in the experience of freedom, introduction to Social Discernment Cycle, Phase I of SDC.

  Evening 3: Complete Phase I, as necessary. Review Wink. Lane and Rahner.

Day 4 (Thursday):  Thinking structurally, theological foundations: Rahner, and Wink. Phase II of SDC


Evening 4: Complete the prayerful reflection and journaling for Phase II, as necessary. (DMin group meets.)


Day 5 (Friday):  Theological foundations: Just persons and institutions in Donal Dorr, Phase III of SDC

  Evening 5: Complete the prayerful reflection and journaling for Phase III, as necessary.  Review Bidwell (whole book). Also read Diana Cheifetz, “Graceful Neighboring: Dancing with Our Diversity,” Weavings, 21:4 (handout) for MLK Day Special Forum.

Day 6 (Monday):  Short term spiritual direction as a model for SDC: Bidwell; SDC with groups; Phase IV of SDC.  To allow for MLK Forum in the afternoon, the morning is adjusted approximately as follows:

  8:45-9:00 Announcements, housekeeping and body awareness
  9:00-10:05 Short-term spiritual guidance and the SDC
  10:05-10:20 Break
  10:20-10:50 Using SDC with groups, examples: congregation and a committee
  10:50-11:15 Work quietly with the Social Discernment Cycle questions
  11:15-11:40 Share the major movements in dyads (employing Contemplative Listening)
  11:40-12:00 Unique matters of directing in the 3rd Arena; Notes for Spiritual Directors; Introduce final phase of SDC
  12:00-2:00 Lunch and break
  2:00-4:30 MLK Day Forum (all students and staff together)
  Evening 6:  Complete the prayerful reflection and journaling for Phase IV as necessary.

Day 7 (Tuesday, January 18):  Processing of SDC experience, simultaneity, notes to spiritual directors, unique matters of 3rd Arena, applications to spiritual direction. Phase V of SDC. The day’s schedule shifts somewhat:

  8:45-9:00 Announcements, housekeeping and body awareness
  9:00-9:30 Work quietly on Phase V questions
  9:30-9:50 Dyads with contemplative listening
  9:50-10:50 Processing Social Discernment Cycle experience; Simultaneity, Notes for the spiritual director, Unique matters of the 3rd Arena; Connections to Fourth Arena
  10:50-11:00 BREAK
  11:00-12:00 Applications of Social Discernment Cycle to spiritual direction; paper assignments
  12:00-1:30 Lunch break
  1:30-3:00 Small group practice: spiritual direction, debriefing and closure
  3:00-3:30 Closing Exercises

Elizabeth Liebert
January 2007