A pastor told me that his church had outgrown their facility, so they were asking, "Will we add on to our facility, or will we start another church?"
But this was only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, larger questions lurked: Is our leadership structure solid enough for this situation? Or will we burn ourselves out if we add a building campaign and more people and activities to our current structure?
Sensing the weight he was carrying, I asked, "How are you going about answering these questions? Does your leadership team have a process for discerning God's will in these matters?"
Looking a bit disoriented, he shook his head. "But we always have a time of prayer at the beginning of our meetings," he said.
The heart of spiritual leadership
What is it that distinguishes spiritual leadership from other kinds of leadership?
At the heart of spiritual leadership is discernment—the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and activity of God both personally and in community.
The Israelite journey is really a story of ongoing discernment—learning to recognize the presence of God and then following that Presence wherever it went. For Moses as their leader, this involved entering into God's presence regularly, asking God what he should do, and then leading the people in that way. Moses' ability to trust God and listen and respond obediently to his instructions was so crucial to the Israelites' survival that the one time he failed to follow God's instruction fully, there were grave consequences (Num. 20:10-13).
It is no wonder that when Moses recapped the Israelite journey, he emphasized how important discernment had been to the whole operation. He reminded the people of the time God told them to choose leaders to serve as judges under Moses and that the heart of their spiritual leadership was the ability to be wise and discerning (Deut. 1:13). Later he spoke about wisdom and discernment as defining characteristics that distinguished them from other nations.
A culture of discernment
Today, a spiritual leader is someone able to guide the discernment process so the community can sense God's desire for them and move forward on that basis.
Yet discernment does not take place in a vacuum, nor by accident. Spiritual community is the context for discernment, so the first move in cultivating a culture of discernment is to establish the leadership group as a community for discernment.
This means our life together is grounded in prayer and intentional spiritual practices, such as reading and reflecting on Scripture, silence, listening, worship and intercession, self-examination and confession.
This is the container for the discernment process. It is a means of creating space for God's activity in our lives. It is one way we can make ourselves available so that he can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. By practicing discernment in community, we open ourselves to the wisdom of God that is beyond human wisdom but is available to us when we ask for it.
Discernment is much easier said than done. Unlike Moses, we do not get to talk with God face to face or listen to his voice thundering on Mount Horeb. Instead, we must rely on the more subtle dynamics of the Holy Spirit's witnessing with the human spirit about things that are true (Rom. 8:16).
Discernment requires us to move beyond our reliance on cognition and intellectual hard work to a place of deep listening and response to the Spirit of God within and among us. It is one thing to rely on what feels like a subjective approach when it pertains to one's personal life; it feels much riskier when our decisions affect an entire congregation. Is there, then, a trustworthy process for actively seeking God in our corporate decisions?