When Human Wisdom Isn’t Enough: Becoming a Community for Discernment

One great need of the church today is to experience the dynamic leadership of Christ as its Head…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.”  – Paul Anderson

The leadership team of Grace Church* wanted to begin learning how to discern God’s will together as they made decisions regarding their church. Theirs was a large, well-established church in a busy suburb, founded on a passion for becoming a gathering place for spiritual seekers.  And their vision had become reality.  They had assembled a top notch team of individuals who were gifted and experienced—and they wore cool jeans!

Most of the leaders in the church did not have any formal training for ministry, but they were alive with 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 and implement them with excellence.

The elder board was made up of leaders experienced at running successful businesses through good strategic planning and sound financial practices. There was an attorney in the mix to make sure they always had good legal counsel and a brilliant strategist who had come to Christ through this church and was brimming with ideas about how to “take it to the next level.” Since these individuals were well-connected and had been successful in their careers, they had the funds to back their plans and visions and found it deeply fulfilling to connect their financial successes with the opportunity to fund such a significant spiritual endeavor.

Trouble in Paradise

What had started out as a small group of families with a shared vision had now mushroomed into a congregation that numbered around two thousand in attendance on Sundays, in addition to many from the community who were benefitting 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.

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. One of the founding members had experienced a moral failure and although appropriate disciplinary action had been taken, there had not been open communication with those close to the situation. Since he and his family had left the church abruptly, 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.

Stress Cracks

There were beginning to be stress cracks between the elders and the staff as relationships became more and more hierarchical and business-like. The staff felt 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 the question about whether they had “the right people on the bus” to pull off the growth they were envisioning. Staff members were aware of conversations in which people’s leadership “capacity” was being questioned and were afraid of being fired.

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. 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 ranged somewhere between posturing and maneuvering to just being nervous and uncomfortable.

Several staff marriages were stressed 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, they were aloof and guarded. Things were still going well externally, but there were aspects of the church’s life where real wisdom was needed. How were they to clarify what the real questions were, let alone discern God’s will relative to those questions?

Beyond Human Wisdom

This is only one kind of situation in which a leadership group might realize they have reached the limit of what human wisdom has to offer. Something is not quite right. They realize 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. Even though they may have discerned God’s will in the beginning to get the whole thing started, somewhere 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 “the experts” than pursuing 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.

Does your leadership group have spiritual practices for discerning God’s will together?

Bring your team to an upcoming discernment retreat this fall. Two dates. Learn more and register.

It could also be that everything is just right and yet the leadership group is facing important and far-reaching decisions—such as expansion of the physical plant, adapting a multisite strategy, or making an important new hire—that require real discernment rather than just pressing forward based on their own thinking and planning. How does a group of leaders become a community that is able to discern and do God’s will together in a variety of situations that require the wisdom that comes from the living Christ?

From Decision-Making to Discernment 

Becoming a community for discernment at the leadership level will not happen by accident because there are so many forces—internal and external—that pull us in other directions. Becoming a community for discernment begins as the leadership group develops a shared understanding of what discernment is, a shared conviction that discernment is the heart of spiritual leadership, and a shared affirmation that discerning and doing the will of God is how they intend to lead. This is no small thing.

Oftentimes when individuals are invited to serve as elders, deacons, or board members in churches and ministry organizations, the definition of spiritual leadership is assumed or (at best) it is very general; the expectation for what spiritual leadership actually requires from the individuals involved is unclear and ill-defined. That is why it is essential to establish a Biblical understanding of discernment as the heart of spiritual leadership, as well as making an honest assessment of any obstacles that might be present. Then discerning and doing God’s will together becomes the group’s “true north” so they can explore an actual process for corporate leadership discernment.

Post-Resurrection Leadership

Eastertide is an excellent time to consider whether or not we are allowing the living Christ to lead his Church—and when I say Church, I mean any group of Christians gathered in Christ’s name to be Christ in the world.  As we continue to live into the truth of the resurrection, let us ask ourselves brave questions about whether or not we as leaders have practices in place that enable us to pursue His will together rather than our own. As Gerald May writes, “The question is deceptively simple to ask and exquisitely difficult to answer: Am I truly seeking to do Thy will…or mine?

*Grace Church is a fictitious church representing a composite of experiences the author has had in a variety of church and ministry settings.   The story of how their staff and elders become a community for discernment is told more fully in Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups.

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2014.  Adapted from Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups (InterVarsity Press).

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 (Oct 2022).
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The Global Outreach leadership team at our church has been on a 17 month journey of discerning God’s will using the applications of this book. Can’t say enough about how this book has changed our way of thinking and the way we do “business.” When we get out of our own way, amazing things happen! At this very moment, for the next two days, our entire church leadership team is at a retreat seeking God in prayer because they have witnessed the power of these practices in our missions team.

What an encouraging testimony! Thank you.

I’m not a church leader but lead a business and have experienced some of the ugliness described. Found it easy to fall into all elements of ugly truths and get tangled up…one day when struggling with some of the ugliness I stumbled onto 1 Corinthians 13 as it was book marked by my wife on my computer…it was a neutralizer…and I couldn’t argue with it. I wonder how often this true north is neglected.

What a great story of personal and group discernment. We can not lead the church solely on what makes sense to our minds. May we all be willing to be open to God moving us in surprising ways.


“The question is deceptively simple to ask and exquisitely difficult to answer: Am I truly seeking to do Thy will…or mine?” Gerald May is so insightful! As a leadership body we were using “Pursuing God’s Will Together” through the last year, rallying to the thoughts, praying over the points we needed to grow in…and then, WHAM! A decision was made without the discernment steps/movements we’d so clearly understood. And let me tell you – there was NO consolation. What a year it has been. How I wish our Team would have stepped back from what seemed like the ‘right thing to do’ and discerned the Resurrected Lord’s direction. We are still feeling the “ouch” of a process fraught with business and bottom line at the heart of it. The Body has been wounded. Key families have left – as recently as last night – because they are still grappling with the fallout of “the decision.” Trust broken, relationships severed… i could say so much more. Here’s the good news: Jesus still loves His church. Jesus is still at work in hearts. We’re learning to listen for his voice…

I just wish we hadn’t rushed ahead with a decision without a period of discernment

Thank you for your honesty, Brian. I am very moved by your story and have found myself praying for you and your community since I read this. Henri Nouwen insightfully remarked that “what is most personal is most universal.” I have always taken this to mean that even though it is hard to share the more painful aspects of our human existence because it seems so very personal, anytime we are willing to share with this kind of honesty, others are resonating and benefitting from it. I pray that your honesty caused us all to perk up and pay attention to what can happen when we get lax in discerning and doing the will of God–even those of us who think pretty good at it! Blessings on you always…

Hi Ruth – I led our new Leadership group on a retreat this past weekend. It is springtime here in our area, and the signs of a new season of openness and growth are showing in the Team as well. One highlight – we ended with washing each other’s feet. This moment “caught” and went on for a long time. Some of the guys (just so happens the group is all men for this term) could have used their tears to wash their washee’s feet! God is good in spite of our great shortcomings.

Bless you.

Ruth Barton has encapsulated in this fictitious story the realities of a believing community invited to become Christ-followers together. The scenario helpfully fosters further readiness to recognize the initiations of Christ and anticipates this with ‘key moves in discerning God’s will together’. I would appreciate hearing more of Ruth’s ‘concrete ways of opening to the transforming presence’ and what she has observed as a workable ‘process for corporate leadership discernment’.

Thanks, Ron! The “more” you are asking for is contained in the book Pursuing God’s Will Together (IVP) and will also be taught in detail at our Discernment Retreats–both are highlighted here. Let us know what you think!

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