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  • Christine Wethman

Listening for the Deeper Question

Open with Prayer - An act of compliance or commitment? DISCERNING GOD’S WILL TOGETHER – LISTENING FOR THE DEEPER QUESTION Discovering a Process of Leadership Discernment

By: Christine Wethman, MS Positive Organization Development and Change

“Open with prayer.” This trilogy of words is probably the most common item found on agendas for church leader meetings. While it is certainly fitting and proper to seek God’s blessing upon the meeting discussions and agenda, it is often merely a perfunctory act of compliance rather than a commitment to “pray without ceasing.” [1 Thessalonians 5:16] A church was outgrowing its worship facility. Should a new building be started? Should there be an addition to the existing building? A church received a financial gift. How is God calling the congregation to use that gift? Answers to questions like these questions really boil down to: · What is God calling us to do? · Do our mission and vision statements still capture what we feel God is calling us to do? · Is the leadership structure effective for what lies ahead of us? · Can we keep functioning in this manner or will we burn ourselves out if we add more activities (or even continue to add the ‘usual’ activities to our plate)? Delving into this deeper layer of questions brings up additional dilemmas that raises even more questions for many congregational leaders: · How are we going to go about answering these questions? · Is there a clearly articulated process for discerning God’s will before we begin answering the questions? Quite often, when a leader is asked this question, the response is: “Well, we open our meetings with prayer.”

SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP: UNDERSTANDING IT As Christians, congregational leaders typically have a slight awareness that there should be something different about their leadership. Where does that difference usually appear? A perfunctory prayer at the start of a meeting? That often-trite petition seems to get lost in the shuffle until the beginning of the next meeting. Leadership Styles Democratic leadership, transformational leadership, transactional leadership, strategic leadership. Do any of these names sound familiar to you? All of these (and more) might be distinct styles of leadership. For us, the question then becomes: What distinguishes spiritual leadership from other kinds of leadership? Bottom line? Spiritual leadership requires discernment. What is discernment? Recognizing and responding to God’s will (1) personally and (2) in community. What does discernment require? · It requires setting aside our own perceptions and understandings; and · Moving to a place where we can deeply listen and respond to the God’s Spirit within us and among us. It is one thing to rely on what feels “right” in our own lives when making personal decisions. However, when it comes to larger decisions such as budgets, campus development, mission direction, or serving others who have expectations of us, risks multiply. Is there a trustworthy practice for actively seeking God relative to decisions being made by a leadership group? Bottom line. Yes. It’s called discernment. From the Latin word discernere, meaning “separate,” discernment separates what’s important or true from what’s not. However, to understand corporate discernment, requires us to first look to our own Christian discipline – creating space for God’s activity in our lives and making ourselves available to Him. It is in this space that God reveals His will.

What sets apart a spiritual leader from other kinds of leaders? The spiritual leader possesses two things: 1. A strong commitment. 2. The ability to guide the discernment process in community. Through this time of discernment, everyone can affirm together a shared sense of God’s desire for them and move forward. We open ourselves to receive the wisdom of God – which is beyond our own human wisdom – through this practice. The first steps. Cultivate an environment in which discernment can take place and then enter into a process that enables you to actively seek God’s will in the decisions you are facing.

Cultivating an environment for discernment. A community dedicated to spiritual transformation provides the environment for discernment to occur. This environment is cultivated when we commit 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 transforming leaders gather out of their desire to experience spiritual transformation in the context together they: 1. Read Scripture together 2. Experience self-examination and confession 3. Practice solitude and silent listening 4. Worship and intercession It is a commitment to BE together in ways that were spiritually transforming in order to DO something together. Staying true to the process of spiritual transformation, we continue to discern what is our calling and stay true to it.

What is the outcome of discernment? A clear sense of God’s direction as opposed to becoming driven by our own agenda. We experience God’s peace rather than a frantic, swirl of inner and outer chaos.

Entering into the Process of Discernment Discernment begins to happen naturally when we cultivate the environment in which it can take place. When decision-making calls for intentionality and focus in actively seeking God’s will, the spiritual leader calls people into the practice of spiritual discernment. It is important to remember that discernment is not mechanical; it is not always linear. It is not a simple step-by-step procedure. It is a mix of dynamic elements. According to Ruth Haley Barton (Northern Baptist Theological Seminary), “A church’s question about a building project might deepen into a question about mission and values. A meeting to set strategy gives way to a deeper question of whether God is really opening up new opportunities. What begins as a question about event scheduling raises a far-reaching concern or whether or not we are working and living together that creates in our lives space for loving God and others. Therefore, discernment begins with listening for the deeper question.”

The Right People need to be involved. Do not overlook those who might be able to make important contributions to the discernment process. Who else has gifts of wisdom and discernment that we value? Who might be able to help communicate the outcomes of the process to others in an inviting way to the larger community when the time comes?

Values and Principles must be established. Discernment with others requires an extraordinary amount of safety (trust) in each other’s presence along with great clarity about what values govern the process. There should be agreement on any values, like those that follow, that will not be violated for any reason no matter how expedient it might seem. · Commitment to Trustworthy Relationships in Community. We learn to come together and stay together in unity. This is the most enduring task as we pattern our relationships after Christ’s and His commitment to His disciples. · Commitment to Telling the Truth. God works through all truth. Even the truth that sometimes slows us down, complicates matters, or takes us into uncharted territory. All this to the end of bringing about the gift of discernment. Even when truth is hard, we must take great pains to affirm the courage that it takes for each one of us to bring the truth that God has given to the discernment process.

When anyone has deep reservations or resistance to a particular direction or decision, we trust the Spirit in that person and wait for deeper understanding and unity. God often uses this principle to save us from ourselves. When we compromise basic values for any reason we have compromised our essence and then we do not have much that is of value to offer others.

Pray without ceasing. Discernment requires much more than a perfunctory prayer at the beginning of a meeting. It involves several kinds of praying throughout the process. 1. Clarify the question for discernment. 2. Assemble community for discernment. 3. Establish guiding principles for discernment. Begin with a prayer of quiet trust such as that found in Psalm 131 in which psalmist acknowledges his total dependence upon God. Read this prayer of quiet trust and allow a little time for silence. This gives the opportunity to shift back into a position of trust rather than human striving. Pray for indifference – not apathy. Pray that we would be indifferent to everything but the will of God. Indifference in the discernment process means that I am indifferent to matters of ego, prestige, organizational politics, personal advantage, personal comfort or favor, even my own pet project.

God’s will, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. This takes time. It involves a death to self. It is required before we can see God’s will taking shape in our lives. When we have reached a point of difference, we are ready to pray for wisdom. The prayer for indifference is an important prerequisite to the prayer for wisdom because the wisdom of God is often foolish to man. Indifference to matters of our own ego, in particular, prepares us to receive this gift.

Listen. Listening is at the heart of the discernment process. We must listen deeply to the experience that caused us to be asking this question in the first place. Example of deep listening: New Testament believers were faced with the question of whether or not Gentiles should be required to be circumcised in order to be saved. Who did they listen to? Many sources – the apostles and elders. When listening is thorough, it is clear to everyone that the wisdom of God has been given.

The discernment process involves: 1. A major commitment to listening with love; 2. Attention to our experiences; 3. The inner promptings of the Holy Spirit deep within ourselves and others; 4. Scripture and tradition; 5. Pertinent facts and information; 6. Considering those who will be affected most deeply by our decisions; 7. Arriving at that place in us where God’s v places in us 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 that we hear them?

Not clear? Select an option consistent with what God is doing among you. Discernment does not always come with as much clarity as it did for the New Testament church. You might wish to select an option or two and then try to improve upon those options so that they are the best they can possibly be. Then, weigh them out to see which one seems most consistent with what God is doing among you. Questions help weigh out what these alternatives are might be: · What is the thing that God is making natural and easy? · What brings a sense of lightness and peace even in the midst of challenge? · Is there an option that enables us to do something before we do everything?

Seek inner confirmation It is possible to get carried away by what is happening in the moment. It might be good to allow people some time apart from the group to become quiet in God’s presence, to pray and think, and to notice whether they are at peace with the decisions being made. Taking a break and then coming back together and check in with each other to see what God is saying to them in their quiet listening is a good thing. If anyone is still having reservations or experiencing questions or resistance, honor them by listening to what it is they are experiencing. See what God has to say to you in it. Perhaps one element of a particular option needs to be tweaked or a larger adjustment needs to be made. Trust God to work through this person’s hesitation.


Agree together. Once the leadership group has thoroughly explored the different options, hopefully the clarity that emerges points toward one of the options or some combination of the options is particularly graced by God with wisdom and truth. This is the time when those responsible for providing leadership look at each other and say, “To the best of our ability, we agree that 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 gift of discernment as it has been given. Then, it’s time to move forward into planning and implementation, confident that “the one who has called you will be faithful to bring it to pass.”


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