Invitation to Discernment in Community
Note: The following case study from the NEW Pursuing God’s Will Together is fictitious and yet it is all true. Everything that happens at “Grace Church” is based on the real life experiences of leadership groups from various churches and organizations, highlighting some of the questions and issues that invite us to embark on the journey of pursuing God’s will together.
The question is deceptively simple to ask and exquisitely difficult to answer: Am I truly seeking to do Thy will… or mine? –Gerald May
The leadership team of Grace Church wanted to learn how to discern God’s will together as they made decisions. Theirs was a large, well-established church in a busy suburb of a major city in the Pacific Northwest, and they had a passion for becoming a gathering place for spiritual seekers. And their vision had become reality! They had been able to assemble a top-notch team of individuals who were gifted and experienced in ministry, and they wore cool jeans. Most did not have any formal theological training, but they had innovative ideas, bright minds and a passion for Christ; through a variety of life experiences and marketplace opportunities, they knew how to develop and market their ideas effectively and implement them with excellence.
A GATHERING OF BRIGHT MINDS
The elder board comprised leaders experienced at running successful businesses through good strategic planning processes and sound financial practices. There was also an attorney in the mix to make sure they always had good legal counsel, plus a brilliant strategist who had come to Christ through the church and was brimming with ideas about how to “take it to the next level.” Since these individuals were well-connected and successful in their careers, they also had the funds to back whatever plans and visions they agreed on. They found it deeply fulfilling to be able to connect their financial successes with the opportunity to help fund such a significant spiritual endeavor. What had started out as a small group of families with a shared vision had now mushroomed to around two thousand in attendance on Sundays.
In addition, many in the local community were benefiting from their wide array of ministries. They had been able to purchase a large warehouse, which they had renovated into a multipurpose space used for worship as well as housing the many ministries that kept the place bustling with kingdom activity seven days a week. On the surface, it was all good.
WHAT LIES BENEATH
Beneath the surface, however, there were other realities that needed attention. The staff was exhausted from continually trying to meet the needs of the community in ways that were bigger and better. There had been a moral failure involving one of the founding members, and although appropriate disciplinary action had been taken, there had not been open communication with those close to the situation. He and his family left the church abruptly, and many were still grieving the loss of their friend and colleague.
In addition, there had recently been a disagreement among the elders about purchasing a piece of property and expanding the ministry. This had created two factions in the congregation, one of which eventually left, bought the property and started another church several miles away. Public statements about how this would “expand the work of the kingdom” did little to heal the disillusionment among those who had been caught in the relational crossfire.
There were also stress cracks between the elders and the staff as relationships became increasingly hierarchical and businesslike. The staff felt that the elders wanted to see more bottom-line growth (attendance, offerings, new and innovative programs), but they weren’t convinced that the elders really knew what it took to pull this off. The elders were now asking whether they had “the right people on the bus.” Staff members were aware of conversations in which people’s leadership “capacity” was questioned, and they feared being fired.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
The senior pastor, the only staff person who was also an elder, carried the weight of being the one who continually represented the two groups to each other; this often resulted in miscommunication and misunderstanding. Several staff marriages were troubled due to pace of life issues and unresolved tensions. Those who were observant noticed that these couples attended fewer and fewer events, and when they did, the spouses in particular were aloof and guarded.
All of these dynamics created a prevailing mood of fear and uncertainty. Although staff and elders rarely got together as a group, the interactions they did have were characterized by posturing and maneuvering. Things were still going well externally, but there were aspects of the church’s life where real wisdom was needed. How were they to discern what the real issues were, let alone God’s will regarding them?
WHEN HUMAN WISDOM ISN’T ENOUGH
This is just one kind of situation in which a leadership group might realize that they have reached the limit of what human wisdom has to offer and acknowledge their need for discernment. Some- thing is not quite right. There is a realization that the methods they have used to make decisions in the past are not adequate for what they are facing now. Everyone is running so hard and so fast that no one has time or space to listen to God. They realize that even though they might have discerned God’s will in the beginning, and that was how the whole venture got started, along the way something shifted. As things got larger and more complicated (or remained small and still became complicated!), they relied more on the wisdom of “experts” than on a mutual commitment to discern and do the will of God together. They might even have elevated leaders who were wise by human standards but were ill-prepared for spiritual discernment.
It could also be that everything in a church or organization is going well, and yet their leadership group is facing important and far-reaching decisions—such as an expansion of the physical plant, adapting a multisite strategy or making an important new hire—that require discernment rather than relying solely on their own thinking and planning. How does a group of leaders discern God’s will together on such matters? How do they become a spiritual community in which discernment can take place?
WHEN LEADERSHIP GET EXCITING
Such questions and experiences—as unsettling as they can be—serve as a powerful invitation to move beyond our reliance on human wisdom to the adventure of discerning and doing God’s will together as leaders. The leadership group at Grace Church will go on to discover what we all have a chance to discover: that corporate discernment, like all spiritual disciplines, is a concrete practice that opens us to the surprising activity of God in our lives. And that, friends, is when leadership gets exciting!
Want to join Grace Church for the journey? Ask for Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups at your local bookstore, purchase online from the Transforming Resources store and get a signed copy, or start reading it on your Kindle today. Visit the book site to get additional resources including our first of our video series entitled, Do Something Before You Do Everything.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2012. This excerpt is from Pursuing God’s Will Together. Not to be used without permission.
Ruth Haley Barton (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder of the Transforming Center. A teacher, spiritual director and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.
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