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July 26, 2012

Discernment: The Heart of Spiritual Leadership

By Ruth Haley Barton, author of Pursuing God’s Will Together

It was a conversation similar to many I have had with Christian leaders. An associate pastor from a large church was telling me that his church was going through a major transition as they tried to respond to the growth they were experiencing. They had outgrown their facility (a good problem to have!) so the obvious question was “Will we add on to our facility or will we start another church?”

As we talked, it became clear that this question was only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface larger questions lurked: What should be our emphasis now? Does our stated mission still capture what we are called to now? Is our leadership structure effective for all that is emerging? Can we keep going at this pace, or will we burn ourselves out by adding a building campaign and more people and activities to our plates?

Sensing the weight this pastor was carrying, I probed a little deeper and asked, “How are you going about answering these questions together? Do you have a process for discerning God’s will in these matters?”

A look of awareness crossed his face as he realized that the answer to the question was no. After recovering himself a bit, he added, “But we always have a time of prayer at the beginning of our meetings!” It was awkward, to say the least.

Decision-making or Discernment?

This pastor, like so many Christian leaders, had a vague sense that there should be something different about our approach to decision-making than what secular models put forth—particularly when we are leading a church or an organization with a spiritual purpose. The problem is that we’re not quite sure what that difference is. In the absence of a clear consensus, that difference often gets reduced to an obligatory devotional (which is sometimes viewed as being irrelevant to the business portion of the meeting) or the perfunctory prayers that bookend the meeting. And sometimes even these get lost in the shuffle!

Discernment—the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and the activity of God both in the ordinary moments and in the larger decisions of our lives—is the difference between leadership models that are basically secular and those that are deeply spiritual. Discernment is the ability to distinguish or discriminate between good (that which is of God) and evil (that which is not of God). While there are many qualities that contribute to good leadership, it is our commitment to discerning and doing the will of God through the help of the Holy Spirit that makes leadership distinctly spiritual.

Discerning God’s Will Together

Corporate leadership discernment is the spiritual practice that increases our capacity to recognize and respond as a leadership group to the presence and activity of God relative to the decisions we have to make. It is a commitment to discern important matters together so we can affirm a shared sense of God’s desire for them and move forward on that basis. It is hard to imagine that spiritual leadership could be about anything but seeking to know and do the will of God, and yet many leadership groups do not have this as their clear mandate. This raises a question—if we are not pursuing the will of God together in fairly intentional ways, what are we doing? Our own will? What seems best according to our own thinking and planning? That which is merely strategic or expedient or good for the ego?

Discernment together as leaders carries us far beyond human decision-making to an entirely different reality—the wisdom of God that is beyond human wisdom and is available to us as we learn how to open ourselves to it (1 Cor 2:6-16).

Embracing the Challenge

What’s so challenging about leadership discernment is that it can seem somewhat subjective and even a little mystical—which doesn’t always go over too well with the hard-nosed business people and pragmatists who often make up boards and other leadership groups. It is one thing to rely on what feels like a subjective approach when it pertains to our personal life; however, it feels much riskier when our decisions involve large budgets, other people’s financial investments, the lives of multiple staff, reports to high-powered boards and serving a congregation or “customer base” with varying levels of expectation.

And yet many leaders today are longing for a way of life in leadership that is more deeply responsive to the will of God than to the latest ideas from the New York Times leadership bestseller. We wonder, “Is there a trustworthy process that enables Christian leaders to actively seek God relative to decisions we are making?”

The answer to that question is a resounding yes but it requires leadership groups to move beyond human decision-making and to become communities for discernment. It involves working an intentional process that includes preparing individual leaders for discernment, cultivating the leadership group as a community for discernment, and committing to an actual process for discerning God’s will together. It emerges from the conviction that whenever and wherever Christians gather in Christ’s name to carry out his purposes in the world, we are the body of Christ and need to act like it.

As the body of Christ—the real-time expression of Christ’s presence on earth—there should be something about what we do and how we do it that is distinctly spiritually. Whenever Christians gather to lead something together we have the opportunity to make decisions in a way that reflects with that reality. Corporate leadership discernment is that way.

BartonOP.jpgRuth Haley Barton (D.D., Northern Seminary) is founding president of the Transforming Center, a spiritual formation ministry to pastors and Christian leaders. A trained spiritual director (Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation), teacher and retreat leader, she has served on the pastoral staff of several churches, including Willow Creek Community Church. A sought-after teacher, preacher and consultant to leadership teams, she is currently adjunct professor of spiritual transformation at Northern Seminary.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at July 26, 2012 9:43 AM Bookmark and Share

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