Partnering with Our Intuition in Ministry

by The Rev. Katie Nakamura Rengers
Staff Officer for Church Planting in the Presiding Bishop’s Office of The Episcopal Church

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Henri Nouwen in his book In the Name of Jesus: “What decisions have you been making lately and how are they a reflection of the way you sense the future?” 

We “sense the future” … and the past and the present… through a variety of mechanisms.  For example, Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink describes the psychological idea of the “adaptive unconscious,” which helps us come to quick, intuitive judgements about the world around us.  On the other hand, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman frequently warns that much of the world is actually counter-intuitive.  Many scenarios actually demand that we stop and think more slowly and deliberately. 

Church planters and church judicatories have to do a lot of intuitive thinking.  We prayerfully walk our neighborhoods, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal her presence to us.  We have one to one conversations with neighbors, trying to get a sense of how God moves in their neighborhood, what people are celebrating, and what makes them anxious.  Often, what happens next is that something catches our attention.  A particular subject feels “touchy,” there’s a name we keep hearing over and over, or we notice certain kinds of shops in the neighborhood instead of others. The questions that emerge from this prayerful, intuitive work might begin with something like: “Hmm, I wonder if…”  This act of wondering reveals a beautiful posture of humility.  We wonder, rather than claiming to have discovered all the answers.   

It’s tempting to make important decisions about the future of mission and church planting based on intuition and human-to-human, relational work alone.  The problem is that we humans are so often capable of using sound logic to lead us to entirely wrong conclusions.  (For some humorous examples of this,  listen to This American Life’s Kid Logic series sometime!)  This is where it’s helpful to slow down and shift into more deliberate, data-based thinking and wisdom. 

Data helps ground our intuition in reality.  They aren’t opposed – they work together.  How many times have you found yourself thinking, “I sense there’s something happening under the surface… but I’m not sure what?”  Missional data can help uncover hidden layers of diversity, forces at work that might get missed during a prayer walk, and neighborhood voices that are rarely heard.  Data can also help you as a church planter communicate the reasoning behind your decisions and pivots to the judicatory; often bishops and supporting structures have one impression of a neighborhood (often vague and idealized), while those living and working there see a completely different picture of the blessings and challenges. 

I’ll leave you with a few questions I’m wondering about: 

What tools do you use to sense the present, past and future?      

How have those tools helped and hindered you before? 

What are you curious about today, that you might use data to help uncover?