Finding God’s Will in Community: Exploring a process for corporate leadership discernment

“If we’re not discerning God’s will together in fairly intentional ways, what are we doing?”
—Ruth Haley Barton

It was a conversation similar to many I’ve had with Christian leaders. A pastor from a large church in Colorado was telling me his church was going through a major transition as it tried to respond to the growth it was experiencing. It had outgrown its facility, so the obvious question was: “Will we add on to it or start another church?”

But clearly this was only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface larger questions lurked: What should be our emphasis now? Does our mission still capture what we felt called to? Is our current leadership structure effective for what’s emerging now? Can we keep going this way or will we burn ourselves out, adding a building campaign and more people and activities to our plates?

Sensing the weight he was carrying, I probed a little deeper and asked, “How are you going about answering these questions? Does your leadership team have a clearly articulated process for discerning God’s will in these matters?” A look of disorienting awareness crossed his face as he realized the answer was no. After recovering a bit, he said, “But we do always have a time of prayer at the beginning of our meetings.”

The Nature of Spiritual Leadership

Many of us have a vague idea that there should be something different about our leadership as Christians—particularly if we’re leading a church or Christian organization—but the difference often gets reduced to a perfunctory prayer at the beginning of a meeting. What is it, then, that distinguishes spiritual leadership?

At the heart of spiritual leadership is discernment—the capacity to recognize and respond to God’s will, both personally and in community. It requires moving beyond our reliance on cognition and hard work to a place of deep listening and response to the Spirit of God within us and among us.

It’s one thing to rely on what feels like a subjective approach when it pertains to one’s personal life, but it’s much riskier when our decisions involve large budgets, other people’s financial investments, the lives of multiple staff, reports to high-powered boards, and a customer base with its expectations. Is there a trustworthy process for actively seeking God’s will in the decisions we’re making?

The practice of corporate discernment, like any Christian discipline, requires creating space for God’s activity in our lives, making ourselves available so he can do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. The spiritual leader is distinguished by his or her commitment and ability to guide the discernment process so everyone can affirm a shared sense of God’s desire for them and move forward.

Through the practice of discernment in community, we open ourselves to a wisdom that’s beyond human wisdom. But it doesn’t take place in a vacuum, nor by accident. We must first cultivate an environment where discernment can take place and then enter a process that enables us to actively seek God’s will in the decisions we face.

Cultivating an Environment for Discernment

The Scriptures indicate that the ability to discern God’s will is a natural by-product of spiritual transformation. Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good, acceptable, and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Therefore, a community dedicated to spiritual transformation provides the right environment for discernment to take place.

We cultivate this environment by committing ourselves to spiritual disciplines—personally and together—that enable us to keep offering ourselves to God for the work that only he can do.

When the leaders launching the Transforming Center began meeting, we desired to experience spiritual transformation in the context of community. This led us to establish rhythms of prayer, Scripture reading, self-examination and confession, solitude and silent listening, worship, and intercession that called for personal transformation.

It was out of our commitment to be together in ways that were spiritually transforming that we began to discern a calling to do something together. It’s only as we’ve struggled to stay true to our own spiritual transformation process that we’ve continued to discern what our calling is and stay true to it.

We continue to discover, sometimes painfully, that when our commitment to basic spiritual disciplines in community slips, we become muddled in our capacity to be truly discerning. Rather than acting from a clear sense of God’s desire for us, we become driven by our own agendas; rather than experiencing God’s peace, we become frantic; rather than finding clarity, we become lost in a swirl of inner and outer chaos.

Entering into the Process of Discernment

As we cultivate an environment in which discernment can take place, we notice it begins happening naturally. However, there are also times that require intentionality and focus in seeking God’s will. Discernment as a spiritual practice is not mechanical, nor is it always linear. As we become more comfortable with the process, we experience it not so much as a step-by-step procedure, but as a creative mix of dynamic elements.

The process starts with asking the right question and framing it around our desire to know the mind of Christ on this particular question or issue (1 Corinthians 2:16). Then we want to be sure to involve the right people. It’s amazing how we can become so stuck in organizational “silos” that we overlook those who might have important contributions to make to the discernment process.

Discernment with others at the leadership level requires an extraordinary amount of safety in each other’s presence, so it is important to establish clear guiding values and principles that will govern the process and the relationships of those involved. Discernment requires much more than a perfunctory prayer at the beginning of a meeting; in fact, it involves praying without ceasing using prayers conducive to the discernment process—the prayer of quiet trust, the prayer of indifference, and the prayer for wisdom.

The Heart of the Discernment Process

The heart of the discernment process is listening on all levels. We structure our meetings to listen with love and attention to our experiences and the experiences of others, to the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit deep within ourselves and others, to Scripture and Christian tradition, to pertinent facts and information, to those who will be affected most deeply by our decisions, to that place in us where God’s Spirit witnesses with our spirit about those things that are true. When we embark on a true discernment process, we ask, “What voices do we need to hear, and how do we make sure we’re really hearing them?”

Within our commitment to listening, we also build in time to listen to God in silence and then reconvene to share what God is saying to each of us. In fact, this silence is one of the main features that distinguishes spiritual discernment from human decision-making. After we reconvene and listen again, we may be able to select an option that seems consistent with what God is doing among us. Since discernment doesn’t always come immediately with great clarity, we may select a couple of options, seek to improve upon them so they’re the best they can possibly be, and then weigh them to see which seems most consistent with what God is doing in our midst. We might ask questions like: What’s the thing God is making natural and easy? What brings a sense of lightness and peace, even in the midst of challenge? Does one option enable us to do something before we do everything?

Another important aspect of spiritual discernment is to give space for individuals to seek inner confirmation and agree together. Sometimes in the excitement of the moment we can get carried away by groupthink or herd mentality. It’s important to allow for time apart to become quiet in God’s presence, to pray and think, to see if we’re at peace with the decisions being made. If after some quiet, individuals continue to experience deep, inner peace around one of the options we’re exploring, then affirm that together. If anyone has questions or reservations, honor that person by listening and seeing what God has to say to you through them. Trust God to work through this person’s hesitation.

Just Do It!

Once the leadership group has thoroughly explored the options and clarity has emerged, this is the time for those charged with leadership to look at each other and say, “To the best of our ability, we agree this particular path is God’s will for us, so this is the direction we will go.” Then we rest in God, thanking him for his presence with us and for the discernment given.

Now it’s time to move forward with the planning and implementation, confident that “the one who calls you is faithful and he will do this.” (1 Thessalonians 5:24)

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2019. Adapted from Pursuing God’s Will Together. All Scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version.

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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I would like to know more about the Discernment Summit for Leaders that you have planned for Jan.30-Feb.1
Thank you.
Pat Valliere

Thank you. This is great advice and a really helpful article. GOd bless you today and always.

Everytime I avail myself of your teaching I know it hits home. You have a way of finding and speaking into the areas that are most important, and nailing the issues with clarity. This is one area that needs a total revamp, rather than leading impatiently and feeling pressured to make decisions quickly, this offers a higher road to discovering the truth of how God speaks and how we discern together His will for His church. Thankyou

You’re welcome, Jenny!

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