Jump directly to the content

Already a subscriber?

Home > Issues > 2012 > Fall > The Way of Discernment

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.

PreviousFirstPage 1 of 2NextLast

Mark is an associate professor of Pastoral Theology at Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, AB, and formerly was pastor of New Life Community Baptist Church in Duncan, BC.

From Issue:Ministry's Core, Fall 2012 | Posted: December 3, 2012

Also in this Issue: Fall 2012

What Good Shepherds Don't Do

What Good Shepherds Don't Do

When tending becomes controlling, we've overstepped our role.
Ministering to Mormons

Ministering to Mormons

Reaching Mormons demands understanding their theology and culture.
Building a Battle-Ready Team

Building a Battle-Ready TeamSubscriber Access Only

Three questions to determine whether someone is a good team player.

Not a Subscriber?

Subscribe Today!

  • Monthly issues on web and iPad
  • Web exclusives and archives on Leadership Journal.net
  • Quarterly print issues

Print subscriber? Activate your online account for complete access.

Join the Conversation

Average User Rating:

Displaying 1–4 of 4 comments

Kevin Nichol

December 04, 2012  10:00pm

Hey Mark, hows it going bud. Glad to see your still using your gifts as a writer. Was blessed by your article. If there was ever one thing my dad would often lament it was the lack of discernment in the Christian community of faith. So much needless pain and heartache is caused by those who do not befriend and pray for this beautiful and essential trait. Every blessing to you and your family... Kevin

Report Abuse


December 04, 2012  8:37pm


Report Abuse

Charley Blom

December 04, 2012  3:06pm

Mark Buchanan is one of my favorite authors. great article on discernment. i agree it is central to the life of a pastor. i also like his focus on our character as an issue in discernment. Charley Blom, Genesee Home

Report Abuse

Ed Flamboe

December 04, 2012  2:38pm

Your PRACTICE - PRACTICE - PRACTICE - PRACTICE is quite good, and gives a shepherd leader a real focus. May I also suggest he three phases of Pray, Discover, and Obey from Officers Christian Fellowship. Check it out at www.ocfusa.org.

Report Abuse
Use your Leadership Journal login to easily comment and rate this article.
Not part of the community? Subscribe, or on public pages, register for a free account.
Editor's Pick
The Secret of Strategic Neglect

The Secret of Strategic Neglect

Bill Hybels on the keys to simpler and more effective leadership.
Sister Sites
Christ-Centered Women's MinistryBuilding Church Leaders

Christ-Centered Women's Ministry