Discernment is the capacity to recognize the presence and activity of God. Paul says that we are transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can discern what the will of God is, that which is good, acceptable, and perfect (Rom 12:2). Corporate discernment, then, is responding to the activity of God as a leadership group and to make decisions in response to that Presence.
The heart of the discernment process is listening—to God, to each other, and to what's going on in the depths of our own souls.
When the New Testament believers clarified their question for discernment in Acts 15—do Gentiles need to be circumcised in order to be saved?—they couldn't rely on knee-jerk reaction ("Of course they need to be circumcised! That's what has always been required!") or their ability to think strategically ("Well, if we make membership requirements less strenuous, maybe more people will join the church!"). No, they wanted to understand what God was up to.
So they listened: to the conversion experience of the Gentiles themselves; to respected believers witnessing these conversions; to the experts in Mosaic law; to Peter's perspective; to Paul and Barnabas's descriptions of signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles. The whole assembly listened to all of this in silence (a sign of respect).
In response to all he had heard, James expounded on Scripture, making the connection between the current phenomenon and the words of the Old Testament prophets. He connected the dots between Peter's testimony and the words of Amos, who described the trajectory of God's long-term plan: "And I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called" (Acts 15:17).
What James did was brilliant. He placed their situation within the larger story of God's purposes in the world. Then he dared to state what he felt God was saying in it all: that Gentiles did not need to become Jews (symbolized by the ritual of circumcision), but they did need to become God-worshipers, abstaining from immorality and activities associated with idol worship.
This story illustrates that leadership discernment involves listening with love and attention (1) to the movement of the Holy Spirit in the world, (2) to Scripture, religious tradition, pertinent facts and information, and (3) to that place in us where God's Spirit witnesses with our spirit about those things that are true.
Here are the steps to that listening.
Set the agenda
One of the most important roles for leaders is often hidden: praying through and setting the agenda for leadership meetings. When discernment is the goal, the agenda needs to be set in such a way that the right information is available to the group before and during the meeting. The facilitator needs to make sure the necessary voices are heard and that there is plenty of space for prayer, listening, silence, and response.
When the group gathers, reiterate the question for discernment and recount the circumstances that have brought this question to the fore. It might be something disturbing (a financial shortfall, a moral failing, lack of productivity, declining attendance) or something that feels like a work of the Spirit (an explosion of ministry growth, new opportunities, a potential partnership). Make sure everyone involved has the same information, is apprised of any new developments, and is clear that there are no secrets or hidden agendas.
Then, invite questions for clarification. Don't take it for granted that people know how to listen. We live in a culture where people are much more skilled at arguing their position than they are at engaging in mutually influencing relationships. The following are a few guidelines for entering into and maintaining a listening posture.