If you are looking for a good book on the subject of discernment, then grab Ruth Haley Barton’s ‘Pursuing God’s will together.’ I will share some of her thoughts in the following article.
I think most of us think that as a Christian leadership team, or Christian community, our decision-making processes should be different from the business or secular models, but that difference can often be reduced to a prayer at the beginning and end of the meeting! In YWAM one of our values is, ‘hearing God’s voice’, but perhaps a better way of expressing that is ‘discerning God’s will.’ Very few actually hear an audible voice and God will use a variety of ways to reveal his heart and help us in our decisions, problem solving and planning. Ruth Haley Barton defines the process of discernment in this way: ‘corporate or leadership discernment, then is the capacity to recognise and respond to the presence and activity of God as a leadership group relative to the issues we are facing and to make decisions in response to that presence.’
Here is a three-stage process for a team to grow in discernment.
- Help individual leaders to personally develop in practices that help them to discern God’s will.
- Explore together as a leadership team or community, ways to discern God’s will in the agenda of decision making, problem solving and planning.
- Articulate a process for discernment as a team.
How often do we hear a leader present a vision or project and find ourselves agreeing that it’s a good idea and then praying blessing on it as a team? Unfortunately, this kind of process can easily become a ‘group think’ where it becomes difficult for any individual to share any questions or hesitations. This is why we need a clear process for working those decisions through, maintaining some key practices and keeping that sense of God’s presence right at the centre of all we do.
It reminds me of a situation as a national team where we needed to bring in a new leader. There wasn’t a breadth of choice and so rather than go through a time of discernment we slipped into moving with what seemed the obvious choice. Actually, that obvious choice didn’t work out so well. In retrospect, going through a discernment process where we all heard from God and gave honest feedback, would have made all the difference.
Let’s look at these three stages:
Step 1: Individuals seeking personal discernment.
It’s vital that each member of the team has a heart for personal spiritual formation. That means each member having a desire to grow in personal discernment through developing spiritual disciplines that encourages a self-surrendered attitude to God. I won’t be able to go into any depth here on any particular practices, but a few examples would be:
- Solitude and silence – the ability to quiet your spirit, relax in God’s presence and come to a place of peace, no matter what has been taking place in your life as an individual or as a team up to this point.
- Meditation on scripture through lectio divina – a method of listening to the Holy Spirit as we read scripture and allowing him to underline certain words or phrases and then to help us in our reflection and a response of prayer. Generally, we will hear an invitation that the Lord has for us through the passage.
- Prayer of indifference – asking God to bring us to a place of openness, without bias or our own strong sense of direction, but to be willing to have God’s direction in the decision, plan or problem. This involves us letting go of wanting to control the outcome and sharing our feelings as well as our thoughts and images that come in prayer. It takes courage and humility, especially when one is bringing input that may seem to go against the flow of the group.
- Discerning as a way of life (examen) – consolation is that sense that all is well, that I am connected with God and enjoying his presence. Desolation on the other hand, is when we look back at our day and have a sense of loss of the presence of God, feel out of touch with God and others, feel confused, tense or out of peace.
If all members of the team are developing in their spiritual disciplines and rhythm, then it becomes easier to develop trust and honesty and openness as a team.
Step 2: Spiritual community
I often talk about the difference between a working group and a real team. It’s possible for a leadership team with responsibility for a ministry, a base or a nation to function as a working group where the focus is just the task. This can be ok for a short-term task group with a beginning and an end, but not for an ongoing leadership team.
A real team or perhaps a leadership community is a better word for it, not only focuses on the task but on the people in the team and enjoys the presence of Jesus right at the centre of that community. It’s a lot easier just focusing on the task with a beginning and an end. Community involves the commitment beyond the task, to one another and seeking the health of everyone which means connecting beyond the organised meeting. A spiritual community gives the feeling of warmth, of unity, of in-depth connection, of spiritual intimacy and enjoying the presence of Jesus. A spiritual community is real, transparent and vulnerable, and you are able to give positive and constructive feedback to one another. This kind of community has respect for each other’s opinions and hesitations, but it doesn’t form overnight, it develops and grows over time. It doesn’t run on formulas and policies but on a shared set of values and practices with love at the foundation. This is a high calling.
Step 3: Establish a process
Not every decision requires a discernment process. To that end, it would be a good exercise to clarify great and small matters for your ministry and leadership team. Usually it’s things like: major decisions, policy changes or decisions affecting lots of people, a change in direction of the ministry, a major outlay of finance, etc. Those decisions that are not the ‘every day kind of decisions’ will often require a discernment process.
- Get ready. When a great matter comes on the agenda, it’s time to set aside some time to really process it through. Avoid trying to deal with it quickly – especially late in the day when everyone is tired. This is when there is a danger of ‘group think’. Everyone will agree just to get on their way home! First of all, frame the question in the best possible way so it will encourage a clear outcome. Make sure everyone understands what we are asking and agrees on the outcome that we have articulated. For example: As a leadership team, it came to our attention that one of our leaders had fallen into sexual misconduct. What should we do as a team? We went to prayer and a key issue was the question we should be asking. 1. What consequence should he have? Or 2. What is your heart towards him Lord, and what do you want to say?
- Get set. As the decision or situation is presented, it is important for each member to be able to come to the table with an open mind and without bias towards the decision at hand. This is where the prayer of indifference is very important to work through. Without this attitude, we can get into an argument with opposing views being expressed and it can often end with some winning and others losing. For the example above, it is easy to come to the meeting with a response already formulated in your mind – the leader needs to step down immediately from his responsibilities, the community needs to know about it and he will need to attend counselling and we will revisit the situation in a year! Some find it natural to be black and white in these situations, but the outcome really depends on his attitude and how he responds at each step. This is where we need wisdom and listen to the Lord with one another.
- Go. Take time to listen to the decision or situation for discernment. Listen to each other’s questions and comments. Listen for what is going on between the lines. Create some space for sensing what God is saying. Take some time out to allow thoughts and senses to settle. Reconvene and listen again and work through the options and receive what people have in prayer. In the particular situation above, the person concerned was very repentant and responsive in every way – the main response from us as a group became one of compassion.
It’s amazing when we are all at peace and open to the Lord for what he wants, we can come to a place of unanimity as a team which builds such trust together.
Do you have an issue that you are thinking and praying about right now? As we seek to grow in discernment and wisdom here are some questions that you as a leader can ask and reflect on:
- Direction and calling – How does this choice fit with the overall direction and calling of God on my life?
- Consolation and desolation – Which choice brings the deepest sense of life, inner peace and freedom?
- Desire – What is my deepest and most authentic desire relative to the choice I am facing? What is my response when Jesus asks, what do you want me to do for you?
- Scripture – Is there a particular scripture that God is bringing to mind relative to this choice?
- Life of Christ – Is this choice consistent with what I know about the mind and heart of Christ and his loving redemptive purposes in the world?
- Character growth and development – What is God doing in my character and spiritual growth and will this choice continue to nurture this growth?
- Love – Given the primacy of love and unity in Christ’s teachings, what does love call for in this situation?
- Clarify perspective – It’s hard to see the whole field when we are mired in the details. Take a step back to look at the larger patterns of what God is doing in your life. Which choice fits the larger patterns that are already in motion?
- Community – How does this choice fit with others’ observations of who I am and what God is doing in my life? Am I willing to open up every facet of this decision to a trusted spiritual friend or spiritual director for their wisdom and insight?
Until next month,