Most Christian leaders have a vague sense that our approach to decision making should be different from secular models, but we are not quite sure what that difference is, according to Ruth Haley Barton in her book Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups. Spiritual discernment 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.
A problem with spiritual discernment is that it seems subjective and mystical, whereas typical leaders are more drawn to objective and pragmatic decision-making techniques. Many poor church decisions have been made by leaders who thought God was telling them to move in one direction when the objective evidence indicated that the wise course of action was in a different direction. So how does the author recommend proceeding?
Before even starting on discernment, the author recommends that each member of the leadership team go through a spiritual transformation process involving adopting a number of spiritual practices, and that the team as a whole agree on values that will undergird their community. The recommended discernment process itself involves the following steps:
- Preparation: clarify the question, gather the community for discernment, affirm guiding values and principles
- Seeking leading: pray for indifference (i.e. absence of any personal bias), test for indifference, pray for wisdom, prayer of quiet trust
- Discerning God’s will: listen to the question, listen to each other, listen to pertinent information, listen to inner dynamics, create silent space for God, reconvene and listen again, select and weigh the options, agree together, seek inner confirmation
- Act: communication with those who need to know, make plans to do God’s will as you have come to understand it
The last chapter is entitled “But Does It Work?”, and while some readers will enthusiastically embrace the author’s advice, others may be left wondering. The recommendations concerning the use of liturgical prayers and other practices based on monastic and Quaker traditions may not appeal to everyone. Nevertheless, anyone who is tired of church leadership meetings which seem to ignore God’s leading will find some useful ideas to consider inside this book.