Part 5: Discerning and Doing the Will of God

Editors note: During the launch of the fall ministry season, we offer you part 5 of our eReflections series encouraging you to establish spiritual rhythms that will strengthen the soul of your leadership. Click on the link to read part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 of this series.

“Decision making has its limits. We make decisions. Discernment is given. The Spirit of God, which operates at the deepest levels of the human psyche and within the mysteries of the faith community, brings to the surface gifts of wisdom and guidance which we can only discover and name.”

Danny Morris and Chuck Olsen

At this point in our exploration of the spiritual rhythms in the life of the leader you might be wondering, how does the work of ministry get done?  The work of ministry gets done as we experience deeper levels of spiritual transformation which enables us to discern and do the will of God.

Beyond the chaos that is created by facing ourselves more honestly in God’s presence and letting that which is false within us fall away, a quietness descends that is pregnant with the presence of God. Over time, as we cultivate disciplines of rest, solitude, silence and self-examination, we find we are brought back from the brink of dangerous exhaustion to a state of quiet alertness that is able and ready to receive guidance from God. A knowing comes, a still, small voice whispers, a gentle blowing of the Spirit can be felt and we are awake and alert enough to recognize it. And we actually have enough energy to do what the still, small voice tells us to do! (See Elijah’s story in I Kings 19)

Beyond our normal patterns of trying to wrestle from God the wisdom we think we need, discernment is given as pure gift. We find that the transformation we are experiencing in God’s presence really is leading us quite naturally to a greater capacity to discern the will of God, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. Through the gentle but persistent nudging of the Spirit we begin to know what is called for in those places where we need wisdom. We discover that that wisdom is often very different from the solutions we normally think our way into. And when the wisdom is just not there yet, we are restrained enough to wait until discernment is given.

The Heart of Spiritual Leadership

The transforming leader is growing in awareness that the things most needing to be fixed, solved, and figured out in our lives will not be fixed, solved, figured out at the thinking level anyway.  They will be solved at the listening level where God’s Spirit witnesses with our spirit about things that are true (Romans 8:16).  This is the level at which God speaks to us about those things that cannot be taught by human wisdom but can only be taught by the Spirit. It is the level at which spiritual discernment is given as pure gift.  (I Corinthians 2:12, 13).  It is the level at which perfect love casts out fear so that we are free to respond to the risky invitations of God.  (I John 4:18)  The leader who listens on these levels and leads from that place is a different kind of leader indeed!

The choice to lead from the place where we are growing and changing, listening and responding to God in risky ways is a vulnerable approach to leadership because it is a very tender place.  It is a place where we don’t have all the answers, where we are not always in control. However, if we are willing to lead from this place, we finally have something real to offer to others—something that actually corresponds to what people around us are seeking. A way of life that works.  Peace that comes from learning how to wait on God.  Awareness of God’s unconditional love and presence as the bedrock of our identity. Real change in the areas of our lives where we need it most.  Wisdom and guidance that leads in far more satisfying directions than our own human wisdom. A heart that is compassionate towards others because that is what we have experienced in God’s presence.

Furthermore, the quality of our leadership is decidedly different. Rather than leading from a place of being frenetically busy, we are leading from a place of rest in God. Rather than running on empty, we are being energized by the strength of soul that comes from being replenished in God’s presence. Rather than being driven by the inner compulsions of the false self and the external demands of other people’s expectation, we are learning to respond to God’s call upon our lives in ways that are congruent with the self he knew and brought lovingly into being.

While it may seem counter-intuitive and even a bit dangerous to lead from this tender part of ourselves which we may be accustomed to keeping hidden in leadership settings, true spiritual leadership hinges upon the capacity to lead from our own “transforming center”—the true self that is hidden with Christ in God and is cultivated in the spiritual rhythms that keep us open and available to God.  In short, the transforming leader who is committed to the rhythm of discerning and doing the will of God is the kind of leader that gets the real work of ministry done.


If you feel challenged to practice discernment as the heart of your spiritual leadership consider joining us for Discernment: The Heart of Spiritual Leadership. A retreat intensive for Christian leaders on November 13-17, 2011.

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2011. Not to be used without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder and chief essence officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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Thank you, Ruth. So many refreshing reminders that I have needed and are helpful as I see God leading me to another time around the mountain of resetting rythms of work and rest, of learning to lead of of health and fullness.

Ruth, your writing always reminds me of the kindness of God…a much welcomed reminder in my inner world. THANK YOU.

I love your phrase “calendarize our lives.” The beauty is in the rhythm!

Until we as leaders understand that discerning and doing is a both/and not an either/or we will never be the spiritual leaders God intends and needs for us to be. The discipline of creating a scared place to meet God is essential to our spiritual formation so that we then can be spiritual leaders. Our challenge is doing both simultaneously and until we calendarize our lives toward sacred space as part of our daily rhythms we will find ourselves doing more than discerning. That is just the way minsitry is!

The decision to lead from the place where we are learning to listen IS a vulnerable place, and so out of step with the current leadership culture in so many of today’s church, and yet it is the only place in our leadership where we have anything that is authentically more about God and less about me. The more I listen the more comfortable that becomes. Thank you for your work.

The fact that you know this is a vulnerable approach to leadership shows that you are leading this way or have at least are doing it somethimes. How wonderful!

I read this to Dick as he is painting the windows in our new home at The Springs….a retreat center. We both resonated with your writing and reflected on decisions made over the years that have been counter intuitive…..yet very much the will of God input lives….the place of growth is listening on a regular that the smaller decisions carry the wisdom and discernment of God. Thank you. Sibyl

Well put. Fun to think of you reading this to Dick while he was painting at you new home that I am sure you arrived at through discernment.

I appreciate the thought of “leading from a place of rest in God”. It seems so counter -ntuitive to our Western mindset. It reminds me of a quote from a friend when we play golf. He says “Swing easy, take the extra yards” Believe me, learning to “swing easy” ain’t easy!

You’ve got that right! Christian leaders can be a pretty intense bunch.

This kind of leadership seems to be the kind that can sleep peacefully in the storm, awaken in wind and panic without being drawn into the disorientation and, then speak the right word that brings peace to both the place and the people. How I need to learn to lead out of a quiet center!

Yes, it’s what we all need. May God grant us this grace.

Excellent writing and a great reminder!


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