Discover Dream Design Deliver: A Guide to Fruitful Spiritual Discernment

“From this crisis we can come out better or worse. We can slide backward or we can create something new.” 

When I came across these words in Pope Francis’ book, “Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future,” I suddenly found hope in what was an incredibly difficult year. In addition to the loss of loved ones, my family had to relocate twice in a period of five months, and I witnessed the birth of my second child over FaceTime due to health and safety protocol. I missed my communities and family, the colleagues I served with, and the students I accompanied. Still, compared to many others, I am one of the lucky ones and I am eternally grateful to be safe and alive.

True to any crisis, and certainly to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an opportunity for transformation, including an invitation to a deeper relationship with God. Faced with my own challenges and mortality, I was honestly confused and scared as the COVID-19 related death toll continued to grow. At first, my prayer life was frustrating, and at times it felt pointless. I now realize God was inviting me into a deeper relationship. With the support of a compassionate spiritual director, I explored new and familiar ways to pray, returned to spiritual readings and inspiration, and I found ways to safely serve. I soon rediscovered my place as God’s beloved and I was ready to “create something new.”

RELATED: What Now? 3 Ways to Discover Your Vocation

What are the unfulfilled dreams that God has planted on your heart? After this very difficult year, are you ready to dream and to create something new?

For the past two decades, I accompanied college students at St. John’s University as their Campus Minister and faculty. From my research and pastoral ministry, I found that too often students limited themselves and their dreams (this is not only true for students, but for most of us). While they felt a strong desire to change their lives and the world, they didn’t know how. As a result, I designed a spiritual discernment model that includes four simple steps to bring their dreams to life.

The steps are known as the “4 D’s:” Discover, Dream, Design, & Deliver. These steps are adapted from  the organizational model of Appreciative Inquiry which is often used in corporations, institutions of education, and health care. I include prayerful discernment strategies and service opportunities to remind participants to invite God into this explorative process. The following includes an example of a Catholic school teacher who participated in this process.

RELATED: How I Use Ignatian Discernment to Make Decisions Big and Small

Discover: Identify gifts and talents by looking to your past. 

Sample question: Think of a time when you were most happy as a child. What were you doing? 

Example: The teacher loved growing plants. She recalled the feeling of spending time with her grandmother caring for their family garden.

Dream: Articulate your dreams to transform your life and life of others.

Sample Question: How could you use one of your gifts to not only bring you greater joy, but to also help others in need?

Example: She dreamed of building a botanical garden on her school’s roof so her students could learn and care for plants. It would connect science, social responsibility, and Catholic teachings on caring for the environment.

Design: Craft a realistic plan to animate aspects of your dream.

Sample Question: What parts of your dream are most realistic?

Example: The teacher recognized that the budget wouldn’t allow for her initial dream immediately. While she still pursued this larger dream, she also shifted to a more realistic project of developing a garden on the school grounds- one she could begin immediately.

Deliver: Put plan into action

Sample Question: What is at least one step you will take this week to bring your dream to life?

Example: The first step was to identify a space. The second step was to consult with experts and to develop a timeline and budget. The third step was to engage with the school community to better assess the need.

LISTEN: Giving Your ‘Yes’ to God

Rooted in each of these steps is prayer as you discern God’s call for you. I encourage you to recall the words of author Frederic Buechner, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Remember to focus on what your gifts are, what brings you joy, and how they can be in service.

In closing, as you begin to dream to create something new, allow these three reminders to guide your process. 

  1. Dream big: Allow God to work through you (and others) and trust the dream that God has planted on your heart. I am often amazed at how we limit our dreams, often feeling the restrictions of time, money, and external approval. For example, I accompanied a student who had a dream to be an artist, but he wouldn’t pursue it because of his expected parents disapproval. It turned out when he spoke with them about his change of major and career goals, they were more supportive than he could have imagined. 
  2. Assess the need: Make sure that the designed plan or dream is responding to the needs of the community you intend to serve. For example, a group of students wanted to use their gifts for leadership and community organizing to collect clothing and toiletries on campus to serve those facing housing insecurity during the pandemic. It wasn’t until they spoke to a partner organization that directly served this community did they realize that the specific needs were different from what they initially planned to collect.
  3. Be true to yourself: I often tell my graduating seniors that when I see them 10 years from now, I will not ask them where they are working. Rather, I will ask if they are happy and at peace. If they can achieve that, this means they are in relationship with God, being true to themselves, and utilizing their God-given talents. I remind them, and you, these important words from author and priest Henri Nouwen said, “We are good enough to do what we are called to do. Be Yourself.”

Pope Francis is calling us to dream, to transform our personal and communal lives. We might resist this challenge given the difficulty of this past year; however, it is often in these challenging moments that we are broken open and ready to listen to God’s call for us in our hearts. With so many suffering, so much pain and loss, and with societal inequities clearer, it is time for us to use this “one precious life” as poet Mary Oliver called it, to serve and to love.

Originally published May 14, 2021.

Dr. Jimmy Walters is the author of "Batter Up: Answering the Call of Faith & Fatherhood" (NCP 2022) and "Dreams Come True: Discovering God’s Vision for your Life" (NCP 2020). Walters is also the Director of the Catholic Scholars program, Residence Ministry, and Retreats at St. John’s University. He is a teacher, author, and speaker focusing on spirituality and leadership. He is married to the love of his life, Suzie, and they have two incredible daughters, Shea and Lily.