DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Discernment and Innovation

Written by: on September 9, 2019

Henri Nouwen’s Discernment stands as a collection of his teaching of spiritual discernment, relying heavily on his influence of Thomas Merton, as collected by his followers posthumously. This book helps me in three ways as I approach our Advance. First, by helping me personally discern further direction and nuances of my intended studies in innovation in ministry. Scond, by giving me a voice and posture for the inherent spiritual nature of innovation. While hundreds of books highlighting innovation exist for the business world, Nouwen, helps frame my studies of innovation with a spiritual approach. And last, by helping me discern my own identity as an innovator.


Discernment for My Research


In short, Nouwen suggests a question from Merton for an overall approach to seeking discernment: “Where is God being revealed in this book or in this experience?” (p. 43). I find framing the Advance as first a spiritual experience helpful. It’s far easier to approach the time as educational, cultural, and even as an adventure, but there remains an invitation to learn something about God’s ways, his will and his character (p. 56). This can happen, as Nouwen attests, through personal communion with God that leads to a community approach to discernment. This communal aspect stands as a great rebuke to the Western world’s  individualistic tendencies. I will need to “pay attention to the people God puts in [my] path if [I] want to discern what God is up to…” (p.69). These “people” mentioned are primarily my cohort, then moving in concentric circles away, other cohorts, the prescheduled people we will encounter, and finally the “random” encounters. I am trying to buck the segmented thought that my learning will come only through our collective reading, personal study and joint calls. I push back against Nouwen’s dichotomous thinking between nature and inhabited spaces. While God might meet some in a walk through the woods, there’s also something about seeing a mass amount of humans – the only part of creation that holds the mark of being made “in the image of God” – in their approach of the good life. What might God reveal through these people, even those in need we pass on the street? How might this help direct, focus, add nuance to, and enhance my intended area of study? Even this week, how might others speak into my area of study as I seek to answer the question, “How does innovation, namely Design Thinking, interface with Christian ministry?”?


Discernment’s Interface with Innovation


I’m careful not to think of my studies of innovation like cooking a dry piece of meat needing an injection of juice. I’m not seeking to take the current secular approach to innovation theory and merely “inject it with Jesus,” or find proof texts in the Bible for modern innovative principles. I’m asking the question, how might innovation theory help and bless and be used as a tool for discerning God’s will in ministry. Nouwen explicitly states his purpose of discernment by adding, “The purpose of discernment is to know God’s will, that is, to find, accept, and affirm the unique way in which God’s love is manifest…” (p. 8).  I see Design Thinking – a user-centered design process of solving problems – as a means to discover God’s will. In this process, developing empathy is the first stage. Discerning another person’s story, God’s work in their life, and defining their problem to be addressed in ministry is inherently spiritual. Empathy is completely an others-centered approach to relating, and we must constantly repent of self-obsession, whether thinking too highly of ourselves, or as Nouwen proposes, thinking of ourselves as never being enough or as not lovable (p. 26). We must “resist the darkness,” another Nouwen phrase, in the pursuit to engage with others.


Continuing down the path of Design Thinking, creating multiple prototypes and potential solutions can have an heir of fickleness or lack of certainty. The argument might go, “If one is seeking discernment, might they be able to discern God’s single solution to move forward?”  I would argue that the process of creating hypotheses, and then creating multiple short-term tests is the path of discernment. The posture here is quite reliant on the Lord and the prayer could be something like this. “Lord, I seek you for direction and I humble myself and admit I don’t know all of your ways, I admit I don’t stand as the divine source for a solution to this problem. As we discern and make thoughtful hypotheses to how you might be at work, give us discernment along this path through the upcoming prototypes, and may this process lead to the flourishing of all. Amen.” 


Discerning an Identity as an Innovator


Lastly, to follow Nouwen’s teaching of finding discernment through the people we encounter through this program, I point to a recent interaction with a friend who provided keen insight, paralleling Nouwen’s chapter on Discerning Identity (pp. 131-143). My friend mentioned that usually we approach behavioral change, and then when that change has taken place, we assume the identity. When asked if a personal attempting to stop smoking is offered a cigarette, they might answer, “No thank you, I’m trying to quit.” This response reveals the identity as a smoker-who-is-trying-to-quit. There is more power in assuming the identity, my friend explained, then letting our behavior stem from that identity. Back to our example, the person could simply respond, “No thanks, I don’t smoke,” or “No thank you, I’m not a smoker.” Their identity as a non-smoker leads more potently and naturally to the behavior of not smoking. To translate that to my scenario, I am tempted to first endure the rigors of the program, then assume and declare the identity of an innovator. While there are several errors in this thinking, it would be much more powerful to, on the onset, discern and embody a God-given, God-directed identity from which to live out the studies and training over the next three years. I hesitantly and humbly “try on” the identity of “one who helps dreams become reality” and invite others to be a part of the discernment of that identity as well as the courage to live that out to the fullest.


(As we take steps into each other’s studies, an introductory step into mine – Design Thinking – can be found here, as one author simple answers the question, “What is Design Thinking”)




Nouwen, Henri. Discernment. New York: Harpen Collins, 2013.

“What is Design Thinking?” Interaction Design Foundation. Accessed September 9, 2019.



About the Author


Shawn Cramer

14 responses to “Discernment and Innovation”

  1. mm Steve Wingate says:

    You wrote, “I find framing the Advance as first a spiritual experience helpful.”

    Reframing in advance is wise! I am working on my own revisioning. It seems to be aimed at sorting things out whether they will be helpful for my research focus, then how I will grow being human, and a better communicator.

  2. mm Joe Castillo says:

    I will need to “pay attention to the people God puts in [my] path if [I] want to discern what God is up to…” (p.69).

    Since we live in a world where there are so many voices coming at us from every direction, you get overwhelmed by everyone competing for your attention. How to discern which voices are good to listen to is a challenge. Some just have in mind to confuse and destroy. The only perfect voice is from God, but he will use the right people or means to speak to us in ways that will understand.

    • mm Shawn Cramer says:

      This year marks the 20th year of me being a Christian, and I am sensing quite a bit of self-reliance at time, so I am counting this year as “back to the basics” for my personal faith. I will do my best to heed your advice.

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Shawn powerful! The aspect of taking the secular and “injecting it with Jesus” is refreshing. It is a more common practice in an out of the church than we care to admit. Nouwen makes it clear that the objective of discernment is to let go of our agenda and align ourselves with God’s. We often invite God to join our journey when His call is for us to join His. Design thinking is and can be quite innovative. I would be interested to see how you see this working on a spiritual plane. In many cases this process can expose us to the heart of God in unexpected ways. God is not surprised by our mistakes and as much as we would like to think we are infallible we are not. The question arises, are we willing to release our desires and take up Gods when His desire is revealed? My concern comes with, at times what appears right may not necessarily be God. We live in a culture that tends to do what is right in their own eyes to allow everyone to feel accepted and valued. In some cases the church is no exception. May be the questions that needs to be asked in any form of design thinking process are: Just because we can, should we? As well as, What are the long term costs and affects this innovation will have on future generations? On the church? Innovation should be less focused on short term gains and more concerned with long term ramifications. There are some prices that aren’t worth paying.

    • mm Shawn Cramer says:

      Great point! I’ve transferred your point to my master mind map for my project. With a rapid prototype process, we must not let pragmatism or utilitarianism trump long-term postures or fruit that might not show themselves as successes in a quick, iterative process. Did I capture that correctly in my paraphrase?
      I’m thinking I will need to lay some groundwork for a theology of failure, too. What do you think?

      • mm Greg Reich says:

        Shawn I would agree! In the innovation process we tend to get a microwave mentality instead of a crock pot mentality. In the guise of eternity a microwave mindset doesn’t work so well. Growth and maturity take time. I would love to see someone write a great Theology of Failure book. One of the greatest challenges we all face is how we deal with our failures. Are they stepping stones to success or pits of despair that stop us in our tracks? Do we use them as opportunities to learn or reasons to quit?

  4. Nancy Blackman says:

    “This communal aspect stands as a great rebuke to the Western world’s individualistic tendencies.” This. This is my continual struggle as a biracial Christian. Combining two cultures, one of them being Asian, which relies on community and does away with anything individualistic scrapes up against my Western, white privilege of individualism.

    And, thank you for the reminder of taking research or topic of choice and not injecting it with Jesus to provide biblical proof. I think it is too easy to approach all of life this way.

    How will you hold yourself accountable to this?


  5. mm Dylan Branson says:

    I’m glad that you brought up the idea of identity, as this is something that I’ve been reflecting on lately (more in regard to conflict, but it’s applicable in this sense). As we assume new identities, it is also important to ask, “WHY am I assuming this identity? Is it something that is intrinsically tied into the identity God has given me?” I think oftentimes that it is easy to assume an identity that can ultimately act as a false narrative in our life and we inevitably build our life around it. It becomes all the more difficult later on when we need to unravel those various identities and narratives.

    Assuming a new identity can ultimately replace or alter the other identities that we have, so we need to be aware of how it may affect those parts of us and where tension may arise. Using the example you used of the smoker trying to quit, you have two competing identities: That of the “smoker” and that of the “trying to quit smoker.” In this case, only one of those identities will win out in the end.

    Praying for you as you begin “trying on” the identity of an innovator and discern what it means to assume that identity and role!

  6. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Shawn! Awesome write up. I hear you that with discernment, there’s opportunity for revelation everywhere! Now, to be open to it and, to face life all around with all attention.

    I’m very interested to learn more of your NPO focus and most interested in your attention toward the creative, the possible as vision of your NPO comes to life. Immersion in Kairos!

    Centring on others/care for positive change/opportunity, how will empathy inform your approach to your NPO focus? Challenged somewhat by the deep integrity of the Nouwenian heart, I appreciate your direction toward empathy with this! To ‘resist the darkness’ in our social engagement is to be aware of it, but not to run?

  7. Darcy Hansen says:

    Shawn, as I read your reflection and followed the link you included, I remembered a quote from A. Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” The Design Thinking process seems to cast off traditional models of problem solving to embrace the messy of discovery and evolution of a solution. The fact they use this model to tackle “wicked problems” made me smile, because the days we exist in are definitely filled with “wicked problems.” I believe God will work wonders through our little cohort of dreamers and discoverers. I can’t wait to see the processes unfold and wonder at the tested and refined solutions that emerge. I’m grateful you are more familiar with this model of learning than I am. Your willingness to model out-of-the-box thinking will inspire me to do the same!

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