Strategy and Plans
Given what God has been doing in our world, given the call of the Society of Jesus over the centuries and given our current context, what are the priorities now for us in this time and in this place?
In “A Living Tradition: An Exercise in Discernment on Jesuit Secondary and Pre-Secondary Education in the 21st Century” presented by Father General Sosa in 2019, there is a call to an ongoing exercise of discernment to respond to the signs of the times and evolve Jesuit education.
What might this “ongoing exercise of discernment” mean for our schools? This webpage outlines a four-stage process that can be used to complete an apostolic discernment. Each step can also be taken separately, depending on what the school’s needs are. For example, Spiritual Conversation (Discuss) can be used in its own right to facilitate a deep conversation.
- The first stage is reflection, a prayerful time to ask important questions and “think” about the topic being discerned.
- The second stage is that of discussion. After time spent in prayerful reflection the group discuss the topic with others. Using the format of Ignatian spiritual conversation, the participants engage in sharing, in the form of deep, meaningful, honest conversations.
- The third stage is where a school group discerns together. This is helpful as a way of indicating a possible response following reflection and discussion. Here the group desires to find God’s will for the group and aims to arrive at a consensus and a decision for subsequent action.
- The fourth stage is action – this is the culmination of the apostolic discernment process. There is a shared topic, issue or question to be reflected on, discussed together, discerned, leading to a decision and finally action.
This full process is suitable for apostolic planning, e.g., working out strategy or a board review for the entire school.
It is recommended that this communal apostolic discernment process is accompanied by an experienced facilitator. For each stage there are some guidelines included for both facilitator and participants to ensure a smooth process.
These are sample processes for those looking for a start.
Like a GPS buried inside us, it is possible to get guidance and direction by stopping being busy, creating a space, and looking at what is coming up within us. It was only in reflection, looking back over the experience, that St. Ignatius was able to sort out what was genuine and what his deepest desires were. Getting in touch with our genuine desires through prayer and reflection will help us to listen and tune into what the Spirit of God is telling us individually or as a group. Reflection is about helping us to tune into our inner world, harnessing the power of affectivity/feelings, and being creative and courageous actors. Reflection should be planned out ahead of time, bringing into mind what I/we hope to accomplish, and how the time and content will be structured to that end. Reflection helps to ask the question of what potential pathways could be taken, what connections could be made, and what course of actions could be considered.
For the Facilitator:
- Identify the context of the situation or reality under consideration. What are the relevant issues? What are some of the interests and concerns to be kept in mind for this process?
- Identify the content or the topic to be reflected on. Then choose the format, the focus questions and activities that are appropriate for the context.
- Think about how you want to ‘frame’ the reflection, so it is coherent and meaningful for the participants, e.g., helpful readings, prayers, music to assist the reflective process.
For the Participants:
- Make sure you understand the topic and questions set out for reflection. Feel free to ask the facilitator for clarifications.
- Use the allocated time for personal reflection well. The fruit of this personal, prayerful time will form the basis of your “contribution” to the group reflection process, if this Reflect process is the pre-cursor to a group conversation.
- During the reflection keep to the general climate of prayerful silence.
In the context of the Apostolic Discernment Process
- While reflection can be a stand-alone Ignatian practice, it is often used as a key component for the Ignatian practices of Spiritual Conversation and Apostolic Discernment, practiced by groups and communities across the world of Jesuit education. If Reflection is done as part of a Spiritual Conversation, consider framing it as part of that process, details of which are found in the Discuss section
Steps / Process
- Start with Silence: Begin the reflection with a period of silence to become aware of God’s presence.
- Open Peacefully: Open with a reading, poem, prayer, or meditation to introduce the personal reflection time.
- Reflect Personally: Use a series of theme and context-relevant questions to guide the reflection process.
- Close Carefully: Close in some way that allows you to meaningfully summarize what has taken place. Close with a prayer.
- Journal Key Movements: Note down your thoughts, and feelings as this can help you focus, summarize, and recall these later.
- Brendan McManus SJ, Introduction to Reflection, (2021).
- Kurt M. Denk, S.J. Making Connections, Finding Meaning, Engaging the World: Theory and Techniques for Ignatian Reflection on Service for and with Others. (Maryland Province Society of Jesus, 2016).
Interested in more information about this process?
- Kurt M. Denk, S.J. Making Connections, Finding Meaning, Engaging the World: Theory and Techniques for Ignatian Reflection on Service for and with Others. (© 2006 Maryland Province Society of Jesus)
Do you wish to learn more in-depth about Reflection?
Enroll in the Four Key Practices in Ignatian Spirituality Course, where through Lesson One – Ignatian Reflection, and the Consciousness Examen – you can gain a deeper understanding of this crucial Ignatian practice.
Spiritual conversation frames the way we, as a group, discuss a topic/question of importance. Openness to the Spirit and mutual trust within the group are two indispensable requirements for an authentic spiritual conversation to take place. It mainly concerns the quality of listening and the quality of speaking. Spiritual conversation is about paying attention to the spiritual movements both in oneself and in the other participants in the group, through three rounds of conversation. It seeks to create an environment of trust and common discernment to seek how and where God is leading the group. It might be that the group concludes with a couple of common points, or it might be that the group moves into a process of apostolic discernment, for which spiritual conversation provides the information following reflection and sharing.
For the Facilitator:
- Identify a theme that is topical, controversial or is important and needs a group discussion.
- Make each participant feel welcomed in their uniqueness of character and whatever their current mood might be.
- Designate and prepare timekeepers in advance to help guide groups.
- Designate a “secretary” who will take notes during the rounds of sharing and will report back in the plenary group (if there are several smaller groups).
For the Participants:
- Listen to others with genuine openness, without judgement and paying full attention to their words, tone and feelings.
- Respect the rounds. It’s not a dialogue. There is no responding to what others have said.
- Welcome what is said with gratitude. Each person is the expert on his or her own experience.
- Express your reflections as clearly as you can, being mindful of your own thoughts and feelings as you speak.
In the context of the Apostolic Discernment Process
While Spiritual Conversation can be a stand-alone Ignatian practice, it is often used as part of the Apostolic Discernment process that includes Reflection and Discussion. If you consider that a topic or question needs more attention and a group decision, consider moving on to the next stage, which is Discernment.
Step 1: Welcome and brief introduction to the process
- Welcome the group and explain the process and guidelines for sharing.
- Briefly introduce the issue for discussion.
- Break into small groups, if needed.
Step 2: Silent Prayer and Quiet Reflection
- At the start of the meeting, allow enough time for personal prayer and reflection on the issue/topic which will inform the sharing.
- See details of the Reflection process and steps in the previous section.
Step 3: Three rounds of Conversation
- First Round (a few minutes per participant)
- Members share with the group what thoughts and spiritual movements they experienced during their personal reflection or prayer (intentional speaking).
- Second Round (a few minutes per participant)
- Members share (reflect) on what they heard when listening to the other participants in the First Round.
- Third Round (a few minutes per participant)
- The aim is to recognize the dominant spiritual movements of the group and to share a summary.
Step 4: Large group reflection and reporting back
- All participants from the small groups return to the large group.
- The facilitator encourages participants (or secretaries, if chosen) to report on what they have heard and how they feel the Spirit is leading the group to respond to the particular issue being discussed.
- Short evaluation of how the discussion proceeded (e.g., 5 minutes).
- Introduction to Spiritual Conversation. (The General Curia of the Society of Jesus, 2019).
- Take the Way of the Gospel. Using Spiritual Conversations for Parish Discernment. (Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia, 2023).
Interested in more practical information about Spiritual Conversation?
Take the Way of the Gospel, Using Spiritual Conversations for Parish Discernment (MelbourneCatholic.org)
Do you wish to learn more in-depth about Spiritual Conversation?
Enroll in the Four Key Practices in Ignatian Spirituality Course, where through Lesson Two- Ignatian Spiritual Conversation – you can gain a deeper understanding of this crucial Ignatian practice.
A group will engage in the process of Communal Apostolic Discernment when a true decision is to be made, that is, when a specific outcome is not predetermined or desired. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola identifies three different ways (times) of arriving to a decision (or making an election). The First way (time) of arriving at a decision is when we have no doubt that we are doing the right thing, when our inner and out worlds converge around a decision. The Second way (time) to decision involves discernment of spirits, sifting through feelings and paying attention to our affectivity. The Third way (time) of discerning is where reason takes centre stage, considering the pros (advantages) and cons (disadvantages) for a decision. We must make sure that our motives are not influenced by self-centred desires but involve generosity and an outward reach/regard. The key element of communal discernment is the grace of consensus.
For the Facilitator
- State, up-front, that an Ignatian communal discernment process is being used to make the decision, and review the steps.
- Use an unhurried attentive approach by determining the style and format of the process in advance of the gathering.
- Solicit opinions from all members of the group; share your opinion with others.
- Foster an atmosphere that recognizes connectedness with transcendence beyond oneself.
- Explain the basic disposition Ignatian indifference, which means approaching the deliberation with inner freedom, openness and an impartial mindset.
- Explain to the group that their input will be used for the final decision that will be taken by the appropriate authority: this might be this group, a Principal, a Board of Management, a Director of the work, a Superior, a Provincial, or Fr. General of the Society of Jesus.
For the Participants
- As you prepare, ask to be free enough to be influenced only by this one value: what alternative reflects my own deepest self, my best self and that will be most pleasing to God?
- Presume good intentions on the part of others. Pay close attention to people with viewpoints that differ from your own by ‘seeing through their eyes.’
- Listen attentively to what your colleagues, friends and Jesuit companions are saying: How are they hearing the Spirit?
- Remember that Ignatian Discernment is a perspective and a dynamic process and not a set of rigid instructions; adaptation is to be expected based on situational circumstances.
In the context of the Apostolic Discernment Process
- To implement the decision(s) and action(s) in an efficient and strategic way consider moving to the “Act” stage and make this discernment part of a wider apostolic planning process.
Step 1: Preparing the group
- Clarify the question or issue to be addressed. Establish group objectives and expectations.
- Identify the appropriate authority who will receive the inputs from the group and make or confirm the final decision.
Step 2: Data gathering and reflection
- Furnish participants with reliable and relevant information about the issue at hand.
- Carry out some preliminary analysis to include examining the implications of the data, noting the significant or surprising points, observing recurrent themes, or making comparisons and projections.
- Provide participants with a summary of the key information and main insights from the analysis.
- Allow adequate time for each person to reflect on and pray with these inputs (in the way described in the Reflect Stage.
Step 3: Discussion and provisional decision
- Use Spiritual Conversation (in the way described in the previous stage Discuss Stage) for this step.
- Share the fruits and the spiritual motions experienced during prayer and reflection during the “Data gathering and reflection”.
- Seek the “pros” and “cons” for each of the options or alternatives considered.
- As a group seek to reach consensus (perceive what moves the group as a group, beyond personal opinions).
Step 4: Decision and action
- As a group prepare a decision proposal that testifies to an openness to different options.
- Bring your decision proposal to the relevant authority to make or confirm the final decision.
- As a group propose concrete actions for the implementation of the decision.
- Note: Evaluation takes place after significant actions have already been implemented, at a later date.
Apostolic planning, which is the next (final) stage Act, is an instrument for putting into action the fruits of discernment.
- Communal Apostolic Discernment. A Toolkit. (Jesuit Province of Canada, 2020)
- Discernment in Common by discerningleadership.org (Program for Discerning Leadership sponsored by the General Curia of the Society of Jesus in Rome, 2020).
- Ignatian Communal Discernment. A spiritual mission-centric approach to group decision-making. A Desktop Primer. (Debra K. Mooney, PhD, Xavier University, 2020).
- Pathways to a Decision with Ignatius of Loyola (Jim Maher SJ, Messenger Publications, 2020, pp. 79-88).
Interested in more practical information about the process of Discernment in Common?
Discernment in Common by the Discerning Leadership Program Team (discerningleadership.org)
Do you wish to learn more in-depth about Discernment?
Enroll in the Four Key Practices in Ignatian Spirituality Course, where through Lesson Three – Ignatian Discernment– you can gain a deeper understanding of this crucial Ignatian practice.
Apostolic planning is an instrument for putting into action the fruits of discernment, which includes reflection and discussion (spiritual conversation). Apostolic Planning supposes a long-term strategy (for example 10 years), mid-term (5 years) and short-term (2-3 years) periods to evaluate and reorient. A good plan is always flexible. If this tension between discernment and apostolic planning disappears, apostolic planning degenerates from being an instrument of the mission to becoming an end in itself. If this happens, it obliterates the meaning of what we are and called to do. Apostolic Planning is a way to improve the effectiveness of the mission. We can do more and do it better if we make the best use of our resources, especially of the human capacities of those who share the same mission, Jesuits and non-Jesuits. (Adapted from *Reflections of Fr General Arturo Sosa SJ on Apostolic Planning, 2017).
At this stage of Act, we assume that a discernment happened, and a decision was made and now it needs to be actioned. If a decision has not been reached, it is recommended that the group returns to the Discern Stage and goes through a process of communal discernment.
For the Facilitator/Leader:
- Decide on process, timeline, resources.
- Form a planning team to help organize the whole process.
- Ensure that those with assigned roles will have available time to focus on the planning process.
- Communicate the process with the participants and clarify expectations.
- Use discretion and common sense to vary procedures and timing. Flexibility in a group is a form of justice that helps to honour differences and helps each to contribute constructively.
- Give help to those who are not familiar with this process.
For the Participants:
- Be ready to get involved in this process both on a rational and a spiritual level by being attentive to your inner movements.
- Make observations with a spirit of pastoral sensitivity and humility.
- Keep an open mind and trust in your companions and the process. Remember that diversity and conflict are not merely inconvenient hindrances. They are precisely the place of mission, of reconciliation, of transformation towards the Kingdom of God. “The Kingdom of God is among you”.
This is a sample of the Apostolic Planning process in eleven steps. Be sure to adapt the process to your context.
Where are we now?
1. Examen: Look at how God has been active in our world, in our mission, and in our activities. Consider the call of the Universal Apostolic Preferences.
2. Understand our Mission: The mission acts as a compass. Without the compass, there may be an imbalance of influence from present routines, past achievements, pressing requests, pet projects or popular trends.
3. Research the Context:
- Examine the internal strengths and weaknesses: With reference to our mission (the compass), in what ways have we been fruitful? In what ways have we not been fruitful?
- Examine the external opportunities and threats: What other organizations are doing something relevant to these needs? Where are the gaps and opportunities?
Where do we want to be?
4. Analysis: Make an evaluation of the information collected. Note the significant points about the external and internal contexts. (You will have identified some or much of this information through Steps 2 and 3 of the Discernment process).
5. Choose Apostolic Priorities: Apostolic priorities lie at the intersection of an organization’s enduring mission and the current realities of the external and internal contexts. These should be focused and not too general (time horizon: e.g., 2-5-10 years or as relevant).
6. Specific Objectives: Set specific objectives, which are the concrete things to be achieved to implement the apostolic priority. Without specific objectives and goals, apostolic priorities remain a distant dream.
How will we get there?
7. Plan of Action: Each objective should have a plan that details how it will be achieved. List the main actions after considering the What? Who? When? and How? questions.
8. Resources: Put resources in place in order to achieve the plan of action.
9. Monitoring: Build in procedures for monitoring and for modifying strategies based on changes in the external or internal environment.
10. Communication: Communicate the apostolic plan to get people on board and help implementation.
11. Evaluation takes place after significant actions have already been implemented and when the group can have a clear idea of what is happening. It needs to happen at the right moment.
- 10 steps for Apostolic Planning (discerningleadership.org, 2020).
- Linking Discernment and Apostolic Planning. (Christina Kheng, discerningleadership.org, 2020).
- On Discernment in Common (Fr. General Arturo Sosa SJ’s Letter of 27.09. 2017. Jesuit Curia, 2017).
- Reflections of Fr General Arturo Sosa SJ on Apostolic Planning. Adapted from remarks made at a meeting of the Conference of South Asian Jesuit Provincials in 2017. (discerningleadership.org, 2020).
Interested in more information about this specific approach to Apostolic Planning?
Linking Discernment and Apostolic Planning – by Christina Kheng (discerningleadership.org)
Do you wish to learn more in-depth about Apostolic Planning?
The resources on this page and in the Downloadable Guide follow the steps of Apostolic Planning proposed by the resources on the Program for Discerning Leadership page, which is sponsored by the General Curia of the Society of Jesus in Rome.