Leadership in the Ignatian Tradition:
Personal and Communal Discernment
Debra K. Mooney, Ph.D.
A Jesuit Catholic university manifests itself through five expressions or “gifts” of the Ignatian tradition: Mission, Reflection, Discernment, Solidarity & Kinship, and Service rooted in justice and love.
The Gift of Discernment invites us to be open to God’s spirit as we consider our feelings and rational thought in order to make decisions and take action that will contribute good to our lives and the world around us.1
Effective leadership is inseparable from good decision-making. Ignatian discernment, first articulated by St. Ignatius Loyola, offers a paradigm for making choices, in a spiritual context, between several possibilities all of which are potentially good.2 It invites us to ask the question, "What do I desire?" in the presence of a deepening relationship with God and the common good. Ignatian discernment, the heart of Ignatian leadership, is an act of faith both personal and communal. Because characteristics of communal discernment echo that of personal discernment, let us begin there.
Drs. Wilkie and Noreen Au describe a contemporary personal discernment process based on the Ignatian tradition.3 It begins, of course, by outlining the decision – the issues, concerns and values – that are at stake. Throughout the process, we are called to Ignatian indifference, “a state of inner freedom, openness, and balance that allows us beforehand not to incline more toward one option than to another.” We are invited to pray and reflect on the matter noticing the interplay of reason, affect and faithful experience in our decision-making process. We consider the “head work,” the pros and cons, as well as the “heart work,” asking ourselves “do our feelings go along with what our mind has decided?” When the head and heart match, when we are enlivened and generally at peace with a decision, we experience Ignatian consolation and may proceed with the decision. When the head and heart are in disharmony, when we feel uneasy, agitated, or anxious (what Ignatius would call desolation), we should keep the process open until we arrive at a decision that the head and heart can embrace. Consolation lets us know that we are in tune with The Spirit and deciding together God’s will; as has been said, “[J]oy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”4 The discernment process ends with a call to share our decisions with those that will be effected and to live out our decisions with courage, hope and trust in God.
The approach to Ignatian group decision-making, or communal discernment, mirrors the process of personal discernment. It offers a way to govern, lead, and make challenging decisions just as Ignatius and his first companions used in their deliberations in forming the Society.5 As outlined by the Jesuit, Fr. Michael Sheeran SJ, it includes a weighing of the pros and cons of each option in light of our institutional values and mission, a call to Ignatian indifference by all members of the group, and attention to our feelings and to God’s presence.6 Where disagreement occurs, we are to make a special effort to understand how the other views the choice. That is, to "see with the other person’s eyes." Deliberations continue until all are united and can "own" the decision. Confirmation is experienced together through a shared sense of contentment and peace and a commitment to carrying out the decision.
In summary, the gift of Ignatian communal discernment is a spiritual approach to leadership and institutional governance that helps us to achieve our mission: “to educate each student intellectually, morally, and spiritually… for a world that is increasingly diverse, complex and interdependent… [and to challenge and support] students as they cultivate lives of reflection, compassion and informed action.”7
1. Xavier University Discernment Group I: Report to the President, 2009.
2. George Traub SJ (2012 ed.) Do You Speak Ignatian?: A Glossary of Terms Used in Ignatian and Jesuit Circles.
3. Wilkie and Noreen Cannon Au (2008). Refining the Acoustics of the Heart, pp 192-216 in George Traub, Editor, An Ignatian Spirituality Reader: Contemporary Writings on St Ignatius Loyola, the Spiritual Exercises, Discernment, and More.
4. Attributed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ.
5. William Byron SJ (2000). "Ours is a Spirituality of Choice," Jesuit Saturdays: Sharing the Ignatian Spirit with Lay Colleagues and Friends.
6. Michael Sheeran SJ (1987). "A Tradition in Common," St Joseph’s Magazine, pp. 27-30.
7. Xavier University Mission Statement, accepted by the Xavier Board of Trustees on September 28, 2012.