the art of making big decisions

What do you do when you have a big decision to make? How do you figure out the best way forward? In particular, how do you determine between two options that would both be good but would have very different implications? I would have to say that I have approached discernment around decision-making in different ways over the years. While I hope the changes are indications of greater maturity, they are also a sign of learning. We can only do what we know to do at the time.

I really remember very little about how I decided to study French at Warwick University, for example. I loved French, I spent my Gap Year in Switzerland, and Warwick seemed like a fine place to live. Did I pray? Probably. Did I seek the advice of others? Perhaps, but I don’t recall. Did God bless the decision, in spite of this rather flimsy process of discernment? Absolutely (I met my husband there, for one thing!).

Deciding to get married, to join a mission agency and work in Mozambique, to start a family … the decisions seemed to become increasingly weighty as time went by. As I went along, I learned to invite wise input from those around me, in addition to considering the rational pros and cons. I learned to weigh the decision in light of biblical principles, the way I knew I had been led to live my life, and the values that shaped me. And I learned to notice and honour my own dreams and desires.

a structure for discernment

Over the past several weeks, my husband and I have engaged in a particularly intentional process of discernment around a significant decision. In addition to the elements of discernment with which we were already familiar, I have found it helpful to seek out a spiritual director. In this case, I met with a spiritual director who is trained - and who trains others - in the Ignatian tradition. This is a tradition that, as part of the deep listening required for good decision-making, leans into the imagination and the senses, without disregarding rational components of discernment. It has been extremely helpful for us to have a structure around our experience of navigating our way forward. So, in case that might be helpful for you too, I thought I would outline the broad movements in such a way that you could try this for yourself. 

If it is at all possible, I do recommend that you find a trained spiritual director who can accompany you along the way. It can be invaluable to have someone support you with good questions, and who can help you to notice how different options impact or affect you. While spiritual directors commonly have long-term relationships with their directees, there are those who would be happy to meet with you just for the duration of this sort of decision-making if that suits you better. Do get in touch if you are not sure how to go about finding the help you need.

These were the four phases of our month-long discernment process. In our case, we were weighing up a decision that would mean a physical move (although not far!) and that would have an impact on our ministry capacity. During my first meeting with my spiritual director, I sketched out the threads of the story that had brought us to this intersection. Since this is a decision that impacts our entire family, she recommended that my husband and I find ways to invite our daughters into the different activities to an appropriate degree. In addition to these shared activities, she would offer me a scripture reflection for each week too. These would often become a very significant part of my personal processing.

Week 1: Imagine saying no

For the first week, our job was to imagine that we had decided to stay where we are. It helps if this time of imagining ourselves into one outcome of the decision is as specific as possible. What would your next birthday be like, if we stayed in this house? What would your next season of ministry look like if we didn’t make this other decision? How would we celebrate Christmas if we continued as we are? Which guests might we host, and what would that be like? 

In one sense, this might seem like the easiest of the exercises. It is simply more of what you are already living! Throughout the exercises, the real work is to pay attention to your inner movements. How does it feel to imagine life this way? What do you notice about your mood as you move through the week? In what ways does the week feel life-giving, and in what ways draining? 

In the case of our family, we used meal-times for conversations around this imagined future. Then we took time one evening to share a time of ‘Examen.’ I will post a series of questions for a family Examen in the resource section of the website, for your use. As adults, Tim and I took a few minutes each evening for personal Examen reflection, and shared some thoughts with one another later. One thing that stood out to me was the way my emotions were impacted by the imagination exercise even when I wasn’t consciously thinking about it. In my next session with my spiritual director, she helped me to notice this - which is a good example of how it can benefit us to be accompanied through a time like this.

Week 2: Imagine saying yes

The task of the second week was to imagine we had made the decision to move towards this new opportunity. Similarly to Week 1, this is a time to situate ourselves in an imagined reality. What would Saturday mornings be like at the new place? What would our next season of ministry entail? How long would it take to get to school? What would next Christmas be like, and who would be with us there?

Again, it is important to notice how it feels to engage in this exercise. To what extent is there resistance, even if you are not sure why? To what extent is there energy around this outcome? How does your body respond to this as a possibility? The Examen is designed to support the practice of paying attention, both as a family and as an individual.

The elements of Week 1 that offered structure to the process were carried through to Week 2. That is, putting our imagined future into words as a family, participating in a family Examen, as well as individual ones shared as a couple. And finally, talking it through with a spiritual director at the close of the week.

Week 3: Dream big

The assignment for Week 3 was fun! We were to create our own vision boards, which we did using images cut from magazines. The framing of the activity was very broad and not obviously connected to one decision or another. We simply chose images that communicated some good element of what we hoped our future life would look like. Some images related to values, others to activities, or to people and places. Once we were done, we each took some time to describe to the others which images we had chosen and why, and we talked about what we had enjoyed about the process or found difficult.

Since there were four of us creating our own vision boards, Tim and I did a bit of post-production work! We went through each collage and wrote down what the person had said about their images. And then we identified any commonalities, or threads. It turned out there were several themes that were repeated in two, three or even four of the finished pictures. This was a great exercise in noticing shared values and desires, even when we communicate them differently. Again, it was important to share these insights with my spiritual director and to notice, with her help, the way I had felt about this week’s activity, and how other family members had responded.

Week 4: Pros & Cons

The final week centres around a rational, rather than affective response to the possible decision outcomes. I created four documents to share with Tim: one to list out the benefits of deciding yes to the opportunity ahead of us, one to list out the challenges of such a decision. The third list is of the benefits of deciding to say no to this opportunity and thus to stay as we are, and finally a list of the challenges of staying as we are and saying no.

Tim and I added to the lists on at least three separate occasions throughout the week, to give our minds the chance to find as many points to list out as possible. As the lists grew, we added subheadings, grouping the pros and cons under topics such as finances, or relationships. This was a very helpful part of the exercise, as it gave us an opportunity to get onto paper all the things that had been swirling around in our minds for months. It also gave a clear picture of where the weight of benefit lies.

By the time we got to this point in the process, it had become pretty clear where the discernment was taking us. I had really appreciated the space this had created for us to hear from God, and from one another. And to do so in ways that paid attention to both the rational and felt aspects of what such a decision would mean.


Needless to say, completing a period of discernment such a this does not always mean that the decision is made! It may have become clear that while you feel drawn towards a particular direction, certain non-negotiable things need to happen in order for you to move ahead as you would like. Indeed, the hard work of this discernment process simply prepares you to fully engage with whomever else might be part of the movement forward, and to do so with a sense of clarity about your own desires and needs. I am sure I don’t need to tell you how important and helpful that can be.

a blessing

Periods of finding the way ahead can be lengthy and take a lot of energy. It is important to remember that during times when we are called upon to determine the way forward, or to navigate endings and new beginnings. So I will close this post with a few lines from John O’Donohue, and his blessing ‘For the Time of Necessary Decision.’

Make we have the courage to take the next step

Into the unknown that beckons us;

Trust that a richer life awaits us there, 

That we will lose nothing

But what has already died;

Feel the deeper knowing in us sure

Of all that is about to be born beyond

The pale frames where we stayed confined,

Not realising how such vacant endurance

Was bleaching our soul’s desire.

May God bless you in your times of choosing, and may you be led to choose that which brings life.