I'm a pastor by the grace and prankishness of God.
I grew up pagan. My father was a thundering atheist and my mother a chaser of all things eastern: swamis, yogis, gurus. Dad was the "mocker" described in Proverbs, mom "the fool." I figured out what to do in any given situation by a combination of hard, spare logic (my dad) or mystical humbug (my mom). When I was 15, for instance, my mother talked me out of 50 hard-earned dollars to have my horoscope read by a "professional." What I received in turn was 12 pages of vague tripe, full of dark warning, bright promise, and gushing flattery. There was not one clear specific—do this, not that; go here, not there—among the whole lot.
At 21 I met Jesus. At 29 I became a pastor.
I had the wrong education—a bachelor's degree in fine art with a major in writing, a master's in interdisciplinary studies, with a major in American literature. I had virtually no training—a brief stint as a volunteer helper in youth ministry. I had never sat on a church board or committee. I still thought most Christians were, not just saints, but saintly.
I had, in short, no way of figuring out what to do or how to do it. That was 23 years ago.
I learned virtually everything on the job—preaching, counseling, team-building, strategizing, budgeting, vision-casting, peace-making. There was no trial run for any of this. I had to acquire every skill needed for pastoring as I went, in real time, in the public eye. Nothing was rehearsal.
What's been the one thing needed? What's been the sine qua non, the irreplaceable necessity without which all the other skills, traits, and gifts add up to zilch?
Figuring out what to do and how to do it in any given situation.
My upbringing provided no help here. The church where I met Christ did provide the basics for discernment. There I learned how to pray, search Scripture, and seek counsel. But suddenly I needed discernment every day and in every way. I wasn't simply privately discerning God's will for my own life: I was discerning it with others and for others.
The basics only carry you so far. We still, as a leadership team, often ended up stumped, combative, and confused. Sometimes, to break our impasses, we resorted to using apparatus not much different from what I used in my family of origin—that combination of hard, spare logic and mystical humbug. We either acted like practical atheists or relied on gut feelings, hunches, dreamscapes.
But I found a more excellent way. The way of discernment. Here are four essentials:
- Practice John 3:30 and Matthew 26:39. Discernment requires that we can say, with utmost sincerity, that he must become greater, we less, and that his will be done, not our own. Leaders must ruthlessly eliminate all trace of personal entitlement.
- Practice Matthew 6:33. Jesus told us that we break free of worry and selfishness when we "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." Leaders must desire and pursue that kingdom more than anything.
- Practice Proverbs 4:23. Solomon went from being the wisest man on earth to history's biggest fool because he failed to heed his own counsel: "Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the well-spring of life." Leaders must guard against parchedness and pollution, and bring to discernment purity.
- Practice Proverbs 17:22. "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones." Though discernment is serious business, it is no gloomy enterprise. Leaders must approach it with joy and expectancy.
We strive to incorporate these principles into our discernment process. Do we get it right all the time?
Of course not. Do we often reach decisions that "seem right to us and the Holy Spirit?" (Acts 15:28).
Mark Buchanan is pastor of New Life Community Church in Duncan, British Columbia.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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