Have you heard the word discernment lately? I ask you with a smile because in every direction I turn I meet a leader or a congregation in the process of discernment. As I have reflected upon what I have heard and experienced, I think it is time that leaders take a good look at the intrinsic value of discernment in their leadership style and decision-making.
What is Discernment?
Discernment is a unique discipline that takes practice and insight. It is wisdom based upon facts as well as context, options, implications, and motivation. It is a learned skill that focuses on the process of reflection based upon the values, principles, and integrity of the leader and others engaged in the process.
Too often a leader will discern a direction for an organization or make a decision involving the people entrusted to his or her care and then ask those followers to trust their discernment and decision-making.
What would happen if you, as the leader, would become vulnerable enough to depend on the discernment of a larger body of followers who might be as focused on God’s direction as you are as the leader?
Let’s take a moment to read the scripture, reflect upon it, respond to it, and at the end of the day return to assess what has been learned through implementation and experience.
Read Philippians 1:9-10
This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. (CEB)
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, (NIV)
The apostle Paul prayed for Jesus’ followers in Philippi to have discernment so they could judge the right way to go in life. He prayed that they would be able to decide what really matters and to make their judgments accordingly.
What does it mean to discern something? Discernment, at its best, is the ability to recognize small details, accurately tell the difference between things that are similar, and make intelligent judgments by using such observations. This ability was important to Paul. He writes to the Jesus followers in Rome to be transformed by the renewing of their minds so that they could discern the will of God, that which was good, acceptable, and perfect (Romans 12:2).
Paul’s prayer is not just for individuals but for the entire church body. We usually think of discernment as an exercise of the mind and heart of the leader, but discernment is also of the mind and heart of the body of people who are making decisions. Your commitment to leading people in discerning and doing the will of God is what distinguishes you as a spiritual leader. You help people to think for themselves and to discern who to follow and to whom they should listen.
A Model of Discernment
Let me offer one model which will assist you as a leader, especially during these days in which we are living. This process is known as “The Fenhagan Model For Corporate Discernment.” It was developed by James C. Fenhagen and can be found in his book, Ministry and Solitude.
It is designed to assist in making decisions regarding ministry opportunities or projects. It is to be used when groups are making major decisions and are looking for the best direction for the church or organization. It is a process of prayer, meditation, and openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It engages participation in searching the scripture, prayer, and listening to God and one another.
Starting the Discernment Process
The process begins when all possible information is gathered, clearly identified, plainly described, and made available to those who will be engaged in the deliberation.
First, start with scripture. Below are examples to use for setting the context. You might have other scriptures to help frame and focus your discernment.
- Psalm 119:125: I’m your servant! Help me understand so I can know your laws. (CEB) Or, I am your servant, give me discernment that I may understand your statutes (NIV)
- James 1:5: But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask. (CEB)
- Gaining discernment or sound judgment involves trusting God and one another. King Soloman advised his son to hang on to discernment so that he would stay safe and secure on life’s course:
- Proverbs 3:5–6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence. Know him in all your paths, and he will keep your ways straight. (CEB)
- Proverbs 3:21–23: My son, don’t let them (common sense and discernment) slip from your eyes; hold on to sound judgment and discretion. They will be life for your whole being, and an ornament for your neck. Then you will walk safely on your path, and your foot won’t stumble.
- And as we mentioned before, the apostle Paul prayed for the believers in Philippi to have discernment so they could judge the right way to go in life:
- Philippians 1:9–10: And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ. (NIV)
Second, provide a time to ask and answer questions regarding the information provided. Too often in this process, we use only the information that helps move toward the decision we want. Making all information available allows persons the freedom needed to hear God’s direction in their discernment. God will speak through the persons who are gathered.
Third, is a time of sharing. Each person has the opportunity to share the reasons he or she discerns against moving in a particular direction. It is important that all people participate. If a person does not have a reason or wishes not to give a reason, he or she can pass. It is important that they have the opportunity to participate. When the decision has been made, it is important that all persons have participated.
Fourth is a period of prayer and meditation. After each person has reported, take the time to pray and reflect upon the seriousness of what has been reported. Ask the group to set aside emotions and preferences and to listen closely to what God is saying.
Fifth, is another time of sharing. Each person has the opportunity to share his or her own personal discernment regarding moving forward. Again, it is important that all persons participate. If a person does not have a reason or wishes not to give a reason, he or she can pass. It is important that they have the opportunity to participate. When the decision has been made, all persons should have participated.
Sixth is a period of prayer and meditation. After each person has reported, take the time to pray and reflect upon the seriousness of what has been reported. Ask the group to set aside emotions and preferences and to listen closely to what God is saying.
Continue Until Consensus Is Reached in Discernment
If no clear consensus emerges, the process continues. Take the time to sort out and weigh the reasons behind the pros and cons, recording those reasons so that they are available to all, and to discern communally, in the light of what has been listed, the direction to which the community is called by God.
In commenting on this aspect of the process, John Futrell, in his book, Communal Discernment: Reflection on Experience, writes, “…if the conditions of authentic communal discernment have been fulfilled (i.e., if there is genuine openness to the Spirit), the decision should be made clear, and confirmation should be experienced unanimously through shared deep peace…finding God together.”
Final Steps for Discernment to Reach a Decision
Through scripture, prayer, reflection, and conversation, your church or organization can reach a decision. Even though you might want total agreement, the reality is there will be some who disagree with the decision being made. So, here is the final part of the process.
Ask each participant the following questions:
- Do you agree with the decision? If the answer is yes, you have affirmation of the decision. If the answer is no, ask the following question:
- If you don’t fully agree, can you live with the decision? If the answer is yes, you have affirmation of the decision. If the answer is no, ask the following question:
- If you don’t agree, can you live with the decision? If the answer is yes, you have affirmation of the decision. Seldom is there a totally negative response. But if the participant says I don’t agree with the decision and I can’t live it, then say, “God must be saying something different to you. We are ready to listen and to learn what God is saying. What is God saying? How do we move forward?
Reaching a Decision
You will either get an affirmation of the decision or a new direction will surface. If it is a viable alternative, lead the process of discernment again. When you are vulnerable and listening to God and to the people, the right decision will be made.
Finally, when the decision has been made and everyone can live with it, give God thanks and affirm the corporate commitment to carry out the decision.
Paul’s prayer was for the entire church body to grow in love and to gain more knowledge and depth of insight so that the body might be able to discern what is best.
Your commitment to lead people in discerning and doing the will of God is what distinguishes you as a spiritual leader. Who you are is how you lead.
O God, thank you for your call upon my life. Give me the wisdom and insight to trust you in and through the people you have given me to love and serve. In all I say and do, may I be a reflection of your love and care, even in the decisions I make and help others to make. By your grace, let me and the people entrusted to my care, be a part of what you are blessing in the name of Jesus. Amen
Give God thanks for the people you encountered today. What decisions did you make? How were you able to cut through the confusion and ambiguity? Give God thanks for the wisdom you received to discern and understand? Are you able to be vulnerable enough to trust the people you lead to make decisions? What do you need to trust others as they trust you?