Discernment in Leadership

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*This is a talk I gave to men and women training for ordained ministry in the East Michigan District in May 2016.

Introduction
Tonight, I’m glad to speak with you about a topic that is becoming more and more dear to me. It is that of personal and corporate discernment. Our churches need pastors and laity who listen to God, whose ways of making decisions go beyond asking what is cost-effective, what makes sense, or what will make us happy.

PAUSE & REFLECT: Before we start, what images come to mind when you hear “discernment”? What experience do you have with it?

When I was in college, I sat in on a church board meeting that got intense. The youth pastor of the church had been there for less than six months. In a youth group of over 50 teens, he was being accused of not connecting with one of the board member’s granddaughters. This made her and a few other board members upset and they let the senior pastor know about it. The way these people could speak about him in front of his face shocked me. Is this really what pastoral ministry was about? Even though the senior pastor went to bat for him, the youth pastor only lasted another six months before resigning. I went away from this meeting believing that this board had made a mistake. They had failed to discern what was going on. Now, as a college student, I know I could have missed other dynamics at play. And yet…

The church needs men and women of discernment. Why? Because life is full of decisions. I’m not talking about the everyday kinds of decisions like what we eat for breakfast, but the big ones. Church boards are called upon to hire new pastors, to determine annual budgets, to pursue ministry initiatives in the community, to steward the time, energy, and resources of God’s people. Men and women look to pastors for help with making decisions about jobs, marriage, end of life issues, voting, parenting, marriage, witness, and more.

discernment-in-leadership-dbmd-002Adele Calhoun writes, “Some Christians believe God’s will can be found in the most difficult and sacrificial of two options. Others believe the will of God is whatever choice brings the most money, perks, success and personal gain at any particular moment. Some people believe that not wanting to do something is a sure sign that it is God’s will. Others believe exactly the opposite…. What are we to make of ‘signs’ and ‘open doors’ and desire and self-sacrifice?”

God’s people have always wanted to know His will.

  1. King Solomon prayed not for fame or success in battle or an ever-expanding geographical kingdom, but for wisdom and discernment (1 Kings 3).
  2. The wisdom literature of Job was written to answer the question of why God allows the righteous to suffer. In other words, what is God’s reason behind allowing suffering?
  3. The prophets spoke on God’s behalf, reminding those who had quit desiring to know God’s will what He had said in the Torah.
  4. One of the most famous instances of this taking place is Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council. Not only do the church leaders make a decision about how Gentiles enter the church, they do so saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28).
  5. Paul spoke of how he and others preached the gospel in terms of a “message of wisdom,” saying that we have the Spirit of God who knows God’s thoughts so that we can explain spiritual realities in Spirit-taught words (1 Corinthians 2:6-16).

discernment-in-leadership-dbmd-004The question of discernment is not so much one of discerning between good and evil, holy and sinful, but between good and good, between better and best, between God’s will and mine or ours. We take for granted that we are not testing the boundaries of sin. While there are ethical and moral questions that we must deal with in ministry, the process of discernment that we’ll talk about tonight does not address them. Rather, we will focus on what it means to practice discernment of two or more “good” options.

PAUSE & REFLECT: What is one decision you have looming that you need to exercise discernment in? If nothing is coming soon, what is one decision you recently made?

Discernment Defined 

discernment-in-leadership-dbmd-006Discernment, therefore, is the process of listening to God and “seeing” God in order to discover what His will is in a particular situation. Paul opens his letter to the Philippians with a prayer. He thanks them for their partnership in the gospel and says he is confident that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. In 1:9-10 he prays, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ….”

Love here is not feelings but actions toward one another. The kind of knowledge and depth of insight Paul is talking about derive from love experienced. He’s saying they need to keep on loving one another—and in chapter 2 we see this as preferring one another; in chapter 4 it is Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. If they keep on loving each other, they will discern what is best regarding the Christian life, and this will then lead to their status on the day of Christ.


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Discernment is rooted in the nature of Christ. Christ was fully human and fully God. He was one person with two wills, a human will and a divine will. To believe He only had one will is monthelitism, a heresy of the 7th century which stated that Jesus only had a divine will. We believe that Christ’s human will surrendered to His divine will. As human beings made in His image, we do not have two wills, but we know the importance of surrendering our will to God’s.

Over and over again in John’s gospel, we see Jesus presented as One who hears God and obeys Him. And just as this was Jesus’ relationship with the Father, so ours is one of hearing Christ and obeying Him.

Thus in John 10:27, Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” This is what we’re talking about. Listening to the voice of Christ in all things—knowing Him and then responding by following. If you are familiar with Steve DeNeff and David Drury’s SoulShift, this is making the shift from Ask to Listen.

discernment-in-leadership-dbmd-008They write, “Even after we have walked with God for a while, we still tend to get our answers more from without than from within. Our problem is not that we seek the counsel of wise friends, follow good leaders, or trust informed voices. It is more that we seek only these things and never learn to hear the voice of God within us.”

So how do we do this?

Discernment Starts With Me 

The practice of leadership discernment starts with you. It starts with me. It starts with our spiritual formation, the lifelong process of being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world. One of the catalysts God uses is the spiritual disciplines.

This is not the time or place to work on our understanding of Christian spiritual formation. Suffice it to say that the spiritual disciplines, both individual and corporate, are some of the means by which God shapes us to reflect Christ more completely in the world. They give room for the Holy Spirit to speak to us by setting us in a posture for meeting Him and receiving His word. They give God room to transform us by the renewing of our minds so we will be able to test and approve what God’s will is (Romans 12:2).

PAUSE & REFLECT: What is your rhythm of engaging in the spiritual disciplines? List the ones you return to. List the ones you rarely practice.

Evangelicals have traditionally pointed to two: Bible reading and prayer. In order to engage in discernment, we must refine what we mean, as well as broaden our disciplinary horizons. Strictly sticking with “Bible reading and prayer” will not do, nor does the average person on our leadership teams have a sense for how to read the Bible in any way other than some form of study, and our prayers must go beyond prayers for wisdom.

So let’s talk about some of the disciplines we must embrace and introduce to others.

discernment-in-leadership-dbmd-010Solitude and silence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together writes, “Silence is the simple stillness of the individual under the word of God…. We keep silence solely for the sake of the word, and therefore not in order to show disregard for the word but rather to honor and receive it. [T]his stillness before the word will exert its influence upon the whole day. If we have learned to be silent before the word, we shall also learn to manage our silence and our speech during the day…. [S]ilence before the word leads to right hearing and this also to right speaking of the word of God at the right time.”

His last words are poignant. Our silence leads to us being able to discern what to say, and leads us to being able to speak not just anything, but the word of God in a particular situation. Those who have not learned to be silent by themselves will not know how to be silent in a leadership setting. And discernment is often about what is not said just as much as what is said.

Lectio divina. Lectio divina is Latin for “spiritual reading,” and refers to reading the Bible discernment-in-leadership-dbmd-011in a way that we often neglect. I call it “formational” reading. We normally read the Bible for information. Robert Mulholland says, “You are the ‘victim’ of a lifelong, educationally enhanced learning mode that establishes you as the controlling power (reader) who seeks to master a body of information (text) that can be used by you (technique, method, model) to advance your own purposes (in this case, spiritual formation).”

Our Sunday School classes and Bible studies tend to perpetuate this kind of reading for data, as does sermon preparation. I’m not saying anything here that we don’t already know. And, I really enjoy informational reading. But if we’re going to hear from God, then we must also embrace this spiritual, formational reading.discernment-in-leadership-dbmd-012

In lectio, there are traditionally five “movements.”

Silence. You quietly prepare your heart and mind for reading. As you enter God’s presence, you quietly prepare to receive whatever word from God he will give you.

Reading. Read the passage of Scripture once, slowly and out loud. As you read, let the words catch your attention. When one does, stop reading where you’re at and attend to what God is saying to you. Don’t analyze it but listen.

Meditation. Read the passage of Scripture a second time through. Pay attention to the invitation God is extending to you and reflect on the words that stick out. Ponder the ramifications of those words.

Prayer. Read the Scripture a third time. Now you respond to God in dialogue and prayer. What feelings has the text stirred in you? Name where you want to resist God and push back. Tell God where you think He is calling you into deeper acts of obedience.

Contemplation. End by resting in the presence of God and surrendering to him. Consider how you might remember the words He has spoken throughout the day.

Wesleyan Publishing House carries a series of books that walk you through reading most of the New Testament this way, if you’re interested.

The prayer of indifference. This prayer essentially says that we want God to make us discernment-in-leadership-dbmd-013indifferent to any outcome other than His will. When we approach a decision, we start here. We don’t want to stack the deck going into a decision. We don’t want to be so invested in something before we’ve asked God about it that we would miss hearing Him. In this prayer, we recognize our own tendencies to feel like we know what is best, to rely on past experience or the wisdom of others, to desire so deeply to be right about an issue that we’d rig the results in our favor. There’s an old Scott Krippayne song that goes, “I want to want what you want for me/ And not live my life so selfishly/ May it only be your will I seek/ I want to want what you want for me.

So right from the start, we are challenged. For many of us, we need to stop here. This is the arena in which God wants to do work in us even tonight. So the prayer of indifference might go something like this:

Lord, you know that if I had my way, I would choose _______. It seems like what is best. It’s what I want. Your ways are higher than my ways. Your thoughts higher than mine. But I will not pretend to be the master of my own life. Make me indifferent to anything but Your will. I will submit to You no matter the twists and turns this decision takes. Amen.

The prayer of relinquishment. This prayer is related to the first. In this prayer, we recognize that as God makes us indifferent to everything except His will, He does not simply ask us to have no voice in the matter at hand. God does not want us to become robots. There will be things that we lay down—hopes, dreams, desires, pursuits—that God will give back to us. But we can only receive them as a gift from God if we’ve given them to Him first.

Robert Mulholland says,

“We cannot be indifferent as long as our identity, value, meaning, purpose is attached to something other than God. It is the difficult discipline of detachment that opens us to God so He can nurture in us the posture of indifference. It is what Jesus points us to when he says to Peter, ‘Do you love me more than these?’ (Jn. 21:15). The ‘these’ is ambiguous, and I believe purposely so. Whatever we love more than we love Jesus becomes one of the ‘soils’ for the roots of our false self…. Yes, we wait for God to make us indifferent but we also need to enter into the discipline of detaching ourselves from those things in our lives which militate against indifference.”

Mulholland is saying that if we love something more than Jesus, and if we are attached to a particular method of ministry or outcome or desire for our churches, then the prayer for indifference doesn’t matter. What do we love more than Jesus? What aspects of ministry have we become so attached to that we cannot imagine doing church any other way?

This prayer also recognizes that the Christian life is the cruciform life, the daily practice of dying with Christ and rising with Christ. Even after full surrender to Christ and His work of entire sanctification in us, there is still work to do. Jesus calls us to take up the cross daily and follow Him.

So the prayer of relinquishment might go something like this:

Lord, crucify in me what needs to be crucified—the good, the bad and the ugly. And resurrect in me what you want to resurrect. I receive your gift of new life as a gift. Bring to life whatever will bring you glory. Amen.

The prayer for wisdom. This is the prayer we often make first. We ask God for wisdom and guidance to know what to do next all the time—personally and at board levels. When this is the only prayer we pray—or perhaps the primary prayer—then we’ve short-circuited the process. We’ve allowed ourselves to come into a meeting with our agenda at heart and then asked God to put His stamp of approval on our plans. So the prayer for wisdom really becomes a prayer of “Lord, help me/us to accomplish what we’re setting out to do in the best, most efficient, most cost-effective way.” If we keep in mind the oft quoted Proverbs 1:7—The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom—then we should not dismiss the fear and reverence for God from our prayers.

Consolation and desolation. These terms come from St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). As founder of the Jesuits, he wrote Spiritual Exercises, designed to take people through a four-week retreat. He defined spiritual consolation this way:

I call it consolation when some interior movement in the soul is caused, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord; and when it can in consequence love no created thing on the face of the earth in itself, but in the Creator of them all….Finally, I call consolation every increase of hope, faith and charity, and all interior joy which calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, quieting it and giving it peace in its Creator and Lord.

Consolation is something that takes place in the soul, where God moves you to feelings of faith, hope, love and joy and gives you peace. It has no basis in your situation or in the choices before you. So for example, you might be facing a decision about taking a new pastorate and moving your family. Everything about the situation at the new church sounds less than inviting—far away from family, a cut in pay, some issues you know about the church itself—but in your soul, there is peace. This is consolation.

As you might guess, desolation is the opposite. Again, Ignatius says,

I call desolation all the contrary of [consolation], such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to things low and earthly, the unquiet of different agitations and temptations, moving to want of confidence, without hope, without love, when one finds oneself all lazy, tepid, sad, and as if separated from his Creator and Lord. Because, as consolation is contrary to desolation, in the same way the thoughts which come from consolation are contrary to the thoughts which come from desolation.

When you have a sense of desolation, God is the one giving you feelings and thoughts of perhaps a lack of peace, love, joy. You feel that God is not “in” this. It may be a good deal for a major construction project at your church, the chance to do something that will bring fame and notoriety to the church in the community, or a new direction in areas of discipleship—you sense a lack of peace. This is desolation.

Many of us are not aware of how God cues us in to these things. We have not taken the time to pay attention to His movements in our soul. We’ve made decisions based on other criteria for so long, and now it’s time to pay attention once again.

A year or so ago, our church’s Branch 11 mission team was talking with a missionary couple that we support about sending a team to Ecuador to assist them. We felt like this was a natural next step in our partnership. They were coming home for furlough the summer before we would go, so we knew we could connect with them and when we got there, things would go great. After conversations with their sending agency, some of us began to feel like it was not the right move to go down. The sending agency did not seem to be on the same page as the missionaries. We nixed the trip. Fast forward to when they came home. Their relationship with the sending agency had been deteriorating and they ended up switching agencies. If we would have gone down, we would have been helping them start a project that would never have continued. God knew it. We didn’t. To me, this was an instance of desolation—even in the midst of a seemingly great opportunity, God led us to say “No.”

Spiritual direction. Finally, we practice spiritual direction. Think of this as a form of coaching, where one person is the spiritual director and another is receiving the Spirit’s direction. It is characterized by regular meetings together where conversation centers on assisting in helping the one being directed to discern, through questions, God’s claim on a person’s life. So the spiritual director asks questions with the goal of prompting the other to listen more closely to what God is saying and doing. The spiritual director does not come with teaching or answers or accountability per se.

These disciplines set the stage for discernment to take place personally. As we practice them, we are keenly aware of the decisions we have to make. We lay them before God in prayer. We read Scripture in ways that allow God to speak to us about us and Him—not about the decision—and we pay attention to the ministry of the Spirit in consolation and desolation. And we give Him room to operate. In His time, we will know what He desires for the decisions we face.

Discernment Continues With We 

PAUSE & REFLECT: It is easy, relatively speaking, to begin practicing disciplines personally. Introducing them to others is more difficult. What objections, if any, do you feel those you lead might have to some of the spiritual disciplines above?

Now, when a group of people begins to practice the same spiritual disciplines on their own and then practices them as part of their leadership meetings, you begin to set the stage for corporate discernment, which is what we’re really after here. This means that—and we don’t have time to delve into this—each person at a table of leadership is committed to personal discernment first, and this becomes a criteria for choosing leaders! discernment-in-leadership-dbmd-017 

But as we all know, this is not the criteria for who sits at tables of power and influence in your church. And therefore, the culture of your leadership teams is probably not currently conducive for discernment as a group. Like we have all been enculturated by our educational systems to read a certain way, we have also been enculturated by our churches to run board meetings a certain way.

If you want to lead where the Spirit is moving as a church, the local board of administration is where it starts. Depending on how big your church is, you may have other leadership teams set up. For instance, at North Branch we have an adult spiritual formation team, a mission team, and a kid’s ministry team that I lead. Our youth director leads our youth team. These then all are able to make recommendations to our board for consideration. So you might find yourself in a pastoral position where you lead a team like this, and maybe you don’t have influence over how the board functions. That’s okay. Work where you are placed.

Wherever you’re at, take notice of the values and practices, the language and ways in which decisions are made. All of these combine together in the culture of your group. It is very easy for an outsider to identify these patterns, whereas insiders are so used to them that they have forgotten there are other ways of doing things.

You can ask questions like,

  1. How is the organizational culture shaping me and all others who work and worship here?
  2. Are we being transformed into people given over to the process of discerning and doing the will of God? Or are we being deformed by unhealthy organizational systems?
  3. Is discernment possible in the current environment, or is there something about the group dynamics that prevents it?

Potential Pitfall: Misusing God’s Name 

Now if we’re not practicing discernment, what are we doing?

Earlier, I mentioned being in a board situation that went awry. You can probably name times when you’ve felt like decisions have been made in the wrong way.

discernment-in-leadership-dbmd-018Exodus 20:7 is the third commandment. It says, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” We teach this verse to our children and tell them not to use God’s name as a curse word. I don’t think that that sin was bad enough for God to let it make the top 10 list. “No other gods before me, don’t make an image since you are the image of God, and don’t yell out ‘Yahweh’ when you’re angry. Yep, sounds good.” That’s not the conversation among the Trinity in heaven prior to meeting with Moses on Mount Sinai.

The name is equivalent to the identity of the god in the Ancient Near East. To use a god’s name in any way meant that you were familiar enough with his or her character to know when to invoke it. Misusing God’s name in that culture meant commandeering your god for your own purposes. It was similar to identity theft today, where someone takes your credit card and makes illegal purchases. People were to recognize Yahweh’s power by refraining from attempts to control it or use it for their own means.

This is one of the great potential pitfalls of leadership in the church. As pastors, we are expected to know God, and this is not an unreasonable expectation. We, and the laity we allow to sit at tables (or stand in hallways) of leadership and influence, may be tempted to commandeer God for our own purposes.

“It is God’s will for us to _________.” How can another person argue with this? It is the ultimate trump card in leadership. We rightly lament the misuse of God’s name by political candidates, but are we as sorry about it in our congregations and board meetings?

Putting It to Practice 

Boards that are ready to engage in discernment might operate something like this. Keep in mind this is a general framework, not a prescription.

  1. The meeting starts a week in advance. Pastors ask board members to practice the spiritual disciplines in regard to the agenda items the week leading up to the meeting. They send out the agenda, along with any pertinent information, in advance.
  2. The LBA agrees about which kinds of decisions require discernment. I would suggest including:
    1. Decisions that shape vision and identity of the church, its outreach into the community, values, etc.
    2. Decisions about allocating major resources of time, money, personnel, volunteers, etc.
    3. Hiring and firing/changing staff.
    4. Decisions affecting the pace and quality of life for key volunteers and staff. Things like adding a second service, adding a new outreach ministry, starting things on a new night of the week, etc.
  3. Prayer pervades meetings. We might pause to pray until each person can honestly say they are indifferent to anything but God’s will, recognizing this may take more time for some than others.
  4. Information is gathered, but judgments are not made initially. You might gather:
    1. Pertinent facts and information.
    2. Voices from the community, such as those who would be affected by the decision, those who will carry it out, sages and other wise members of the church.
    3. Scripture. With each decision that is made, we ask one another if God is bringing Scripture to mind.
    4. The fruit of the Spirit and the attributes of disciples. Will the decision nurture the fruit of the Spirit in the church? Will it assist in creating disciples, or just keep people busy?
  5. Consolation and desolation. Ask whether people at the table are experiencing life, joy, and peace or a sense of desolation.
  6. In time, leaders notice how long discernment takes.
  7. When there is disagreement, you choose: Do we go with majority or wait until all are in agreement?
  8. Leadership continuity matters.

Discernment Ends In God

If we’ve worked together in discernment, then we’ve ended where God desires us to end. We’ve ended with God not just having His way in our situation, but with God. Period.

This is the curveball, but it shouldn’t be. In our board meetings and decision making, we tend to think of the decision itself as the end goal—make the decision, figure out how much it will cost, spend the money, get it done. This is what board agendas are made of. Action items. Discussion items. But in reality, what we’re really doing is seeking God Himself. We can never allow God’s will to supplant God as the thing we’re after. If we practice discernment, hopefully we will be able to honestly say that we haven’t.

Resources For Further Growth 

  1. Pursuing God’s Will Together by Ruth Haley Barton
  2. Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  3. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun
  4. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola
  5. Invitation to a Journey by Robert Mulholland
  6. Shaped by the Word by Robert Mulholland
  7. Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen
  8. Wesleyan Publishing House Lectio Divina series
  9. Pray as You Go. www.pray-as-you-go.org
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