From Decision-Making to Discernment: One Leader’s Experience

“If we are not pursuing the will of God together in fairly intentional ways, what are we doing? Our own will? What seems best according to our own thinking and planning? That which is merely strategic or expedient or good for the ego?” —Ruth Haley Barton

Years ago I remember watching the doctor who invented the “Heimlich Maneuver” demonstrate the procedure on television.  A few days later my wife and I were eating at a banquet with a friend who suddenly began choking on a bite of food.  As our friend slowly turned blue in the face, my wife urged me to do something, anything to save our friend.  In desperation I hastily performed the Heimlich maneuver, all the while thinking, “I cannot imagine this is really going to work.”  Much to my amazement and relief, it did.  The food became dislodged, and our friend lives on to this day!

That experience is much like what happened when I left the 7th retreat in my Transforming Community experience. The retreat was entitled The Art and Practice of Spiritual Discernment and Ruth Haley Barton had presented teachings that excited me.  And scared me.  And depressed me.  And beyond that, I couldn’t imagine that it would really work!

I was excited because for the first time in my 30 years of ministry I had heard someone offer an in-depth presentation of personal and leadership discernment, soundly rooted in both Scripture and Christian tradition.  I was scared because making decisions through discernment rather than simply through the rational processes I was accustomed to would push me way out of my comfort zone.  And I was depressed by the thought that I had been missing the mark so clearly as I made decisions in my own life, not to mention how I led decision-making in the congregation I pastored .

Yes, God in his grace had guided me in the past despite myself.   But I wanted to do better, both in my personal life and in my ministry.  Now I knew I could.  Little did I know I would soon have the opportunity to put into practice my new learnings about discerning together as leaders.

An Opportunity to Practice

A few days after returning from the soul-stretching Transforming Center retreat about discernment as the heart of spiritual leadership, I was contacted by the chair of a search committee in our congregation who was seeking a new staff member.  The committee had become deadlocked around two candidates, according to the chair.  Every attempt to end the stalemate had failed, and the committee wondered if I would come and advise them about how to proceed.

Of course, I agreed to attend the next meeting though I was clueless about how to help.   Then my mind turned to what I had just learned a few days earlier.  Should I share the material I learned at the discernment retreat with this struggling committee?

I remember sitting with the committee in a member’s home on a cold winter’s night, a fire roaring in the fire place.  I remember telling the committee about my retreat experience, and how I had learned some things that might be helpful.  I began by reminding them of the Quaker belief that unity within a body is a clear sign of the work of the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ.  I asked them not to come to our church with a divided recommendation about this staff position (as had happened in past searches), but to continue working with one another until some semblance of unity was achieved.

I walked them through the steps of corporate leadership discernment, and spent considerable time explaining the attitude and prayer of indifference.  I led them through a time of listening and prayer.  Ever so slowly, I could feel the tension in the room melt…and not just because of the roaring fire.

Truthfully, I shared this material out of desperation, not knowing what else to say.  And I confess thinking to myself, “I cannot imagine that this is really going to work!”

But Does this Stuff Work?

As the meeting drew to a conclusion I recommended the committee call it a night and allow members to pray and mediate over their decision before reconvening.  They did.  And after their follow up meeting, the committee chair called, ecstatic that the committee had reached a unanimous decision about a candidate to recommend.  What was stunning about the chair’s enthusiasm is that the candidate that eventually emerged was not the one she had favored just a few days before!

Needless to say, the “discernment stuff” worked.  Our church went on to hire the recommended candidate, and that hire has proven to be one of the best in my 20 years of ministry in this church!

Since then, we have used the practice of leadership discernment to help us decide other issues.  We are not experts in discernment—far from it.  Indeed, these days we are focused on developing the habit of discernment as a precursor to the practice of discernment.

But we cannot and will not go back to the old decision-making model of beginning with a brief prayer; conducting a logic-based (though often emotionally heated) discussion loosely governed by Roberts Rules of Order; taking a vote (usually creating “winners and losers”); and ending with an even briefer (“How quickly can we get out of here?”) concluding prayer.

There is, after all, a much better and far more biblical way.

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©Rev. Dr. David Hughes, 2011. Feel free to share this article using the buttons below; please do not reproduce and distribute without permission.

David Hughes

is the Transforming Center Ambassador. David holds an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, a PhD from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and comes to us after thirty-six years of ordained pastoral ministry – twenty-two of which were spent at First Baptist Church of Winston-Salem.
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Randy, please forgive me delayed response! You ask a great question that speaks to the need for us as church leaders to guide our congregations into a holistic journey of spiritual transformation. So, for example, if we introduce the practice of spiritual discernment in our congregations but never talk about the rhythms of solitude and silence, prayer, or self-examination, we may inadvertently generate confusion and frustration among our members. Those who look to us for bold, visionary, decisive leadership may view our desire to honor the process of discernment as “passive” leadership, or leading from behind. Moving a congregation on to the journey of formation requires lots of time and energy, not to mention prayer, but over time that journey will reap much good fruit, including the fruit of discernment.

Thanks, David, for breathing a little ‘inspiration’ via personal story! I am an alumni of TC7, and that same retreat led to a very similar ‘ah-ha’ (dare I say ‘oh my’) moment. Part of my work allows me to speak to pastors about this journey toward discernment (more like a LEAP of faith followed by a long, slow walk of obedience) and this testimony is a very powerful tool in that work. Any advice on ways to stay the course of discernment while intentionally moving a congregation (who are paid by their employers to be ‘bold decision makers’) to embrace discernment as a way of life (being) toward a way of doing?

Thanks for the personal testimony of someone who has experienced the Transforming Community and particularly the discernment retreat. If we will grow in our wisdom and discernment and pray for it, we will not grow elderly, but we will become elders that invite the next generations into that process of listening to God and one another and the spirit in our own hearts.

Thanks Sybil!

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