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Leaders Who Are Discerning

If you don’t know how God is leading you, you won’t know how to lead others

Leaders of churches and Christian organizations are often successful in the secular marketplace, or even church ministry, but have had little instruction in or preparation for the process of discernment. They might not even understand discernment to be part of what they have been asked to do. In this kind of scenario, a Christian leadership team might be composed of:

• A successful investment banker who is very sincere and has a lot of money to contribute, but is such a young Christian that he barely knows what discernment is, let alone how to practice it in a leadership setting.

• An attorney whose approach to leadership is shaped more by her training as a lawyer than by any spiritual preparation.

• A construction company owner who was raised in the church his family helped plant. He stopped growing long ago and is committed to maintaining things "the way they've always been."

• An executive who climbed the corporate ladder by thinking strategically and learning how to "work the system." While he is a committed Christian and is enthusiastic about the mission of the organization, he relies primarily on his ability to think strategically. Since he came to faith fairly recently, there is very little integration of his business experience and practice with his spirituality. The idea that the wisdom of God is foolishness to this world is fairly incomprehensible.

• The pragmatist who has not yet had an experience of God that is beyond her own comprehension. She believes in the Holy Spirit in theory but is uncomfortable with the idea that the Spirit actually speaks to us today. In fact, she believes too much talk of the Spirit leads to mysticism.

Such individuals do have valuable gifts to bring to the leadership setting, and our churches and organizations would be impoverished without them. The problem, however, is when individuals bring only the training, experience and influences of a secular mindset without preparation in the areas of spiritual discernment. Without spiritual discernment it won't matter whether you have a clearly articulated discernment process, use Robert's Rules of Order, or just offer perfunctory prayers to bookend your meetings—discernment is not going to happen! The people aren't right and they're not ready.

While it is tempting to seek a technique that will enable a group like this to jump right to corporate discernment, it is a grave mistake to assume that these folks have a basic understanding of discernment or that they are practicing it as a way of life. The next step to becoming a leadership group that discerns God's will together is to cultivate a shared, working knowledge of the basics and to begin (or make sure people are) practicing discernment in their own lives. When even one person in the group is not habitually practicing discernment, it can derail the best attempts of the whole group. Five foundational beliefs are the building blocks of a sound discernment practice.

The first is that spiritual discernment, by definition, is a process that takes place in and through the Trinity. The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, "comprehends what is truly God's" and interprets the deep things of God to us (1 Corinthians 2:11-12). The Holy Spirit has been given to us by God, at Jesus' request, to lead us into truth (John 16:7-15). Commitment to discernment as a personal and communal way of life presupposes commitment to Christ and the real presence of the Holy Spirit, who has been given to lead and guide us on Christ's behalf. The Spirit is an immediate presence who can be heard and responded to through disciplines and practices that help us to listen.

Paul Anderson, professor of biblical and Quaker studies at George Fox University, makes this bold statement:

There is no individual discernment outside a communal setting and no communal discernment without individual discernment. Each individual profits from the communal activity of discernment and the community profits from each individual's discernment.

One great need of the church today is to experience the dynamic leadership of Christ as its Head. . . . The Scriptures promise us that Christ's Spirit will be with us, will guide us, and will lead us into all truth. This is the most striking implication of one's belief in the resurrected Lord. If Christ is alive he desires to lead his church. If Christ desires to lead his church, his will should be sought. If his will can be sought, it can be discerned; and if it can be discerned, it deserves to be obeyed. This is nothing more than the basic Christian life.

The second building block is to realize that the impulse to discern—to want to respond to Christ in this fashion—is in itself a "good spirit" that needs to be cultivated. When individuals in a leadership group have a deepening desire to move beyond intellectual prowess and self-effort to spiritual discernment and all that it requires, this is evidence of the Holy Spirit's work among them. And this is pretty remarkable, because, as David Benner points out, even though we may desire to become more discerning, egocentricity and self-control are fundamental dynamics of the human condition. We know we are supposed to surrender to God's will and may genuinely want to, but most of us continue to face the almost irresistible tendency to assert our own will. We overhear Jesus' prayer in the garden of Gethsemane—"Not my will but thine be done"—but have trouble making it our own.

This means that leaders who want to move into discernment mode have to rely on the Spirit to help them learn to distinguish between willfully asserting their own wishes (which can be cleverly disguised in so many different ways) to willingly surrendering to God's desires. They must learn how to submit to the work of the Spirit, who alone is able to transform our willfulness into willingness.

The third building block is a deep belief in the goodness of God. Any good Christian leader can wax eloquent about the goodness of God; it is, after all, one of God's attributes. But many of us don't believe in God's goodness enough to trust God with the things that are most important to us. We may have suffered things for which we subtly blame God. Perhaps God disappointed us when we trusted him with something important. God's people have disappointed us. The process has disappointed us. Many of us are self-made people; we rely on ourselves and are proud of it. Truth be told, we don't really want to trust anyone but ourselves. How can we give ourselves to someone we're not sure will be good to us?

The only way we can freely participate in a discernment process is if we trust that God is good, not merely as a general attribute but as it relates to us specifically. Many of us will need to work at getting this building block set in the foundation of our discernment process. In order to surrender to the discernment process, we need to go beyond intellectual assent to cultivating a deep, experiential knowledge that God's will is the best thing that can happen to us under any circumstances. We need to hear God's voice whisper words of assurance to us, "I know the plans I have for you, plans for welfare and not for your harm" (Jeremiah 29:11), and believe them in the depths of our being.

The fourth crucial building block for discernment is the conviction that love is our ultimate calling—love for God, love of self, love for others, and love for the world. It is clear from Scripture that there is no other adequate measure of success for us as Christians (Matthew 22:37-40; 1 Corinthians 13; 1 John 4:7-12). That we are to love God and others (including our enemies) is one thing we know for sure is the will of God!

This simple truth is easily lost in the press of church and organizational life. We rarely hear leaders ask what love might be calling them to do in the context of making major decisions. We can often detect a slow drift—imperceptible at first—from serving people to using them, from loving people to doing what is expedient, from being honest with them to spinning truth ever so slightly. By the time we notice how far we have drifted from this most basic aspect of God's will, we are in very dangerous waters!

The good news, of course, is that the Holy Spirit has been given to us to provide in-the-moment guidance for understanding the demands of love in the particularities of our situation. When seeking to discern God's will, it helps to keep before us the question of what love requires, and then create space for listening to what the Spirit says in response.

The fifth building block is that we are committed to doing the will of God as it is revealed to us. It does no good to discern the will of God if we are not committed to doing it—but sometimes that's the hardest part! Chuck Olsen and Danny Morris note, "The question of willingness must be answered before the process of discernment begins: Are we willing to do God's will even before we know it? Or do we prefer to play games with God by saying, ‘God, show me your will and if I like it, I will do it.' Spiritual discernment is not a game, and playing games with God leads to nothing but frustration."

Jesus is very clear that "whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother" (Matthew 12:50; Mark 3:35). As we are faithful to discern and then actually do the will of God, we become the intimate family of Jesus.

Taken from Pursuing God's Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups by Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright 2012 by Ruth Haley Barton. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.

September17, 2012 at 8:00 AM

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