Pursuing God’s Will Together: Review from the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care
Kent Carlson, Co-Senior Pastor of Oak Hills Church (Folsom, CA), reviews Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups, by Ruth Haley Barton (InterVarsity Press, 2012)
Ruth Haley Barton, in her book, Pursuing God’s Will Together, has presented a vision of a spiritual leadership community that if taken seriously, would drastically and in severe and wonderfully redemptive ways, completely alter the reigning ethos of leadership in the religious world. Robert Mulholland’s first statement in his endorsement captures the potential earth-shaking effect of what Barton has written: “This book needs a warning label: ‘Content may be disruptive to your understanding of Christian life, leadership and community.’”
How true! Without pulling any punches, Barton argues that leadership in the church should be substantially different than how it is in the world. We should offer an alternative path. A path that places a premium on listening together to the Spirit of God and submitting our will and opinions to the communal experience of discerning God’s will together. As Barton says in her introduction, “This approach to leadership presents unique challenges because it requires us to move beyond reliance on human thinking and strategizing to a place of deep listening and response to the Spirit of God within and among us” (11).
In my experience, most of what we learn about leadership in the current religious community borrows heavily from the secular entrepreneurial world. We are taught about mission statements, organizational values, vision-casting, strategic planning, management of personnel, overcoming obstacles, enlisting key opinion leaders and stake-holders, and many other activities, all of which are certainly important and have their place. But Barton paints a picture of a distinctly different leadership model. It is a model that is built upon a desire to recognize the movement of the Spirit of God among us and the spiritual maturity and sensitivity that is required to hear the Spirit’s voice and to respond accordingly.
Barton realizes that this counter-cultural and paradigm-shattering model requires an almost Copernican-like revolution in our approach to leadership and therefore spends the first three chapters of her book detailing what this would look like in the life of the individual leader. If a leader is going to be part of a discerning community that prioritizes listening to God and to each other, she must first and foremost be a person who is pursuing her own interactive life with God, growing spiritually, and trusting deeply in the goodness of God. Barton wonderfully emphasizes that the whole discerning process simply does not work without an intense commitment to the individual leader’s own spiritual formation. This is one of the most profound yet painfully obvious truths in her book. I found myself saddened at the thought that deep and authentic spiritual maturity is not typically mandatory for Christian leadership. It is not uncommon in many leadership circles to, in Barton’s words, “observe people capitulating to what is worst within them—bullying, powering up, resorting to subtle manipulation, shading the truth, leaving in a huff, and so forth” (38). Barton calls us to another way.
Barton’s third chapter, “Leaders Who Are Discerning,” paints a thrilling picture of leaders who are learning how to put aside our driven and unformed opinions in favor of a life of sensitivity to the Spirit of God. Here Barton introduces us to a certain kind of prayer that she will develop in greater detail later in the book, the prayer for indifference. I found myself wondering how I could have traveled so far in my life with God without ever interacting deeply with this kind of praying. It embarrassed me. In meetings I will tend to bring my passion, my intellect, my knowledge, my insight, but I have seldom found myself challenged to put all that aside for the benefit of being indifferent. At first blush that almost seems irresponsible to me. If I do not carry the passion for whatever issue is being discussed, who will? Barton, though, places this prayer of indifference at the core of the discernment process. As long as I am too heavily invested in the result of the discussion, it will be very difficult to hear the voice of God. Dallas Willard refers to this, I believe, as abandoning outcome.
As I reflected on this, I found myself thinking (and embarrassingly so, again) that if I prayed this prayer of indifference, and really entered into it, that might give those who have an opinion different than I some leverage in the discussion. What if they did not really mean their prayer of indifference? What if they were faking it? They might win. God forgive me. Barton has painted a picture of Christian leadership that simply does not work unless the leaders are all humble and authentic followers of Christ who have learned to put aside their opinions and ideas for the sake of hearing God. What a concept!
From this emphasis on the individual leader’s spiritual formation and discernment, Barton devotes the next part of her book, chapters 4 through 8, to the development of a community of discerning leaders. She marches right into the heart of our activist tendencies and emphasizes that who we are becoming as a leadership community is far more important than what we are trying to accomplish. As she says it, “[T]he mission always wants to overtake our essence as a community gathered around the presence of Christ” (111). As a die-hard activist, someone whose passion is to get something done, to make a difference, this presents some difficult challenges for me. If I value community and the community process of discernment, I may have to scale back a bit on some of my agenda. I may not accomplish all the things I want to accomplish. Barton acknowledges all this, and gently and patiently admits that it is “very hard to resist the temptation to value doing over being and becoming” (112). Still, Barton argues, we must lead in a way that fundamentally flows from our connectedness to the God we all follow. A Christian leadership community ought to reflect the presence and wisdom of God in our midst.
Barton realizes the danger that some may consider all this community and discernment talk a fun and entertaining conceptual adventure that we can imagine in some alternative universe that we may visit someday. So she devotes the last part of her book, chapters 9 through 12, to some very practical, hands-on, almost step-by-step processes that leaders may follow if they wish to experience discernment in community. She acknowledges that the process is not always linear and that real life situations may cause us to have to jettison some steps and make the leadership decisions we have to make when we need to make them. Still, this communal experiment in discernment is worth pursuing and developing. At the core, we desire to hear from God and follow him.
There are a number of issues that this book stirs up in me that deserve hours of luxurious conversation. First, there are the never ending and rapid fire decisions that most Christian leaders have to face countless times on a daily basis. There is simply no way to submit the vast majority of decisions I am required to make every day to the rigorous, slow, and reflective process that Barton outlines in her book. Therefore, and Barton touches on this briefly, we have to develop the ability to discern what needs to be discerned. We may not need to enter into a lengthy discernment process to decide the times of the Christmas Eve services, or the place we will have our staff retreat, but certainly there should be some process in place for the decision to build a building or to hire a new senior pastor. In between these two extremes are a host of decisions that fall into a kind of middle ground where we may be able to find a rhythm or a sacred confluence between strategic and practical thinking and the discernment of the Spirit’s voice.
Second, I am struck by how central trust is to the discernment process in community. I must be able to deeply trust the other members of the group in order for discernment to work well. Most Christian leaders have had many experiences with people who play the “God card.” We are in a discussion and someone hoses down the fire we are building by declaring that they believe God is calling us to do such and such a thing. For discernment to work in community, leaders must develop a rigorous humility and an ability to stay fully engaged while detached at the same time. This kind of trust can take years to build. And with rotating leaders on church boards and rotating pastors, it is not surprising that this kind of trust is seldom experienced with any depth. Perhaps a return to the ancient Benedictine vow of stability would be in order here.
Third, I found myself wishing that Barton had spent some more time on the issue of personality. Passionate and activist individuals tend to misbehave in groups. I speak autobiographically here. I rarely am not “all in” during a conversation. I love the lively discussion, the banter, the dreaming, the problem solving, the arguing, the sharpening of ideas. And I want to believe, perhaps foolishly, that some of this has brought value to the church where I have been a pastor for almost thirty years. Yet I know this kind of personality can be overwhelming and can stifle the opportunity for others to speak. At the same time, there are those whose personality allows them to not “show up” during a conversation. While they may use the excuse that there is not room in the conversation to show up easily, and they are most likely correct in this, still, that might be an excuse that allows them to stay disengaged and distant. The idea that there is one certain kind of “discernment personality” is not very attractive to me. I believe it would be fun to explore how we can value each other and learn from each other in this.
Fourth, emphasizing being a community of discernment will most likely force us to redefine our understanding of success. Most of what we have learned about success in our culture centers around numerical growth and multiplication of activity and programming. This is taught to us in many subtle and not so subtle ways. For the spiritual community that is learning discernment, the pace of life will have to slow down. We will have to create space to listen to God and to each other. This may result in what some may consider missed opportunities. We may not be able to do all the things we currently are doing. We may have to come to deeply believe that the Kingdom of God is active and operative even when we are not putting out product at our typically feverish pace. We may need to learn how to trust God in all this and success may be more related to our faithfulness in listening than in our accomplishments.
Finally, it is good for us to recognize that however we pursue this life of communal discernment, we will do it imperfectly. There is not much in most of our training that teaches us how to listen deeply to God and to each other. This is sadly true. Yet, we can begin to experiment together. The leadership team at our church has had a number of very significant experiences of communal discernment over the years that have profoundly and wonderfully impacted our church. But I would not say that we are a church that has mastered this by any means. To the contrary, most of us on our leadership team embrace the activist, strategic approach to ministry. Yet we feel a calling together to pursue this. Our elder board has been studying Barton’s book together and we are seeking to apply it to two fairly large decisions that will need to be made in this next year. That seems to be a good and reachable goal for the moment.
Visit the Pursuing God’s Will Together book site for videos, free downloadable resources, and information about upcoming events around the topic of corporate leadership discernment.
If your leadership group has been working with the practice of corporate leadership discernment as described in Pursuing God’s Will Together (or other works on this subject), how is it going? What are the challenges and learnings, gifts and graces you are experiencing as you seek to open to God in this way? Leave a comment below.