I was recently challenged by a quote by Ruth Haley Barton:
“The spiritual leader is distinguished by his or her commitment and ability to guide the discernment process so the community can affirm a shared sense of God’s desire for them and move forward on that basis” (Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership).
I don’t know about you, but I find myself so easily slipping into a mode of ministry where I make decisions, instead of slowing down and patiently discerning God’s desire for my ministry, whether that is simply leading a small group, or leading the leaders of small groups.
Let me offer my best definition on discernment before moving forward.
Discernment is the growing, prayerful ability to recognize and respond to the presence of Christ in all things, big and small.
The foundation of discernment is the development of an ongoing, prayerful dialogue with the one Holy Spirit who indwells all of us. Jesus tells us in John 16:13a, “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (NIV). As we engage in this dialogue with the Holy Spirit, we begin more and more to be able to distinguish between the real and the phony. We begin to see people, places, and things for what they really are – we see everything as God sees it.
Discernment is also based on the goodness of God. Psalm 37:4 states: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (ESV). We all struggle with believing that God’s heart and God’s call toward us are loving and good. I know that I have struggled, more times than I would care to admit, with the question, “What if God calls me to something I hate?” In discerning, many times we will discover that God calls us to something seemingly humanly impossible. But again, discernment is not about what decisions I can make and carry out in the power of my flesh, but rather what God wants to do in and through me through the resurrection power of his Spirit.
The other very real struggle with discernment is the lack of certitude that accompanies it. As we grow in our ability to discern, we will also develop a spirit of humility. We recognize that as we discern, our flesh wages against the Spirit of God, which means our discernment is not with certitude. As we recognize and respond to the presence of Christ, our decisions are open-handed, approached with gentleness and humility.
So how do we as leaders grow and model discernment to our community?
- Pray, pray, and then pray some more. Specifically, pray for God’s wisdom. Proverbs 3:7-8: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones” (NIV).
- Give space and time for silence. Listening is central to discernment; therefore, we need space to listen. After someone speaks, take a few moments to prayerfully ask, “Lord, how do you want me to respond to this person?” We need to become more comfortable with silence, knowing that the one Spirit may be speaking to our hearts, which leads me to the third point.
- We need to be more focused on transformation and not just information. I struggle with this because it can be so subtle. But when I lead my small group, am I more concerned with getting through the material? Or am I intentionally being attentive to the work of the Spirit in all of our lives?
- Allow others to speak into my life. Discernment is a communal exercise; we need each other as we seek to grow in the recognition of Christ’s presence. Recognizing that discernment is a community activity is one thing; the difficult task is allowing people to actually speak deeply into my life.
How have you sought to incorporate discernment into your ministry?