The need for spiritual discernment

A core conviction of our Trinitarian, incarnational faith is that the Father, through his Son, by the power of the Spirit is present and at work in our world. This work is God's mission, which embraces and includes all people everywhere.

Scripture then tells us that the Spirit forms, gifts and sends the church to participate with Jesus in God's mission to the world and refers to this participation as "ministry" (meaning "service"). And as noted by Andrew Purves in The Crucifixion of Ministry, we must put to death any wrong-headed ideas that this service is our own (as in "what we do for Christ"). The truth (which sets us free) is that it is Jesus' ministry--his service to the world, in the power of the Spirit. And how wonderful that the Holy Spirit calls and equips us to take part!

Speaking of taking part, Dietrich Bonhoeffer often referred to the ministry of Jesus as "place sharing." He understood that Jesus, through the Spirit, is sharing the "place"--the life--of every person on earth; having, through the Incarnation, united himself to all people. Our sharing in ministry with Jesus should thus be seen for what it is--our sharing in Jesus' place-sharing with particular people in particular times and places.

This being so, a requisite mindset and skill for ministry is that of spiritual discernment. Before we make ministry plans; before we construct ministry strategies; before we launch ministry programs; we first must pause through prayer and reflection, seeking God's answer to a vital and powerful question: What is Jesus doing? What is he doing in this place? What is he doing with this person? We must discern both his mind and his activity if we are meaningfully to share in either.

It is concerning this imperative of spiritual discernment that Ruth Haley Barton writes in Pursuing God's Will Together (a Discernment Practice of Leadership Groups). As the title implies, Ruth writes about a process that assists leadership teams in seeking together an understanding of God's will.

Too often, church leadership teams (in congregations and parachurch ministries) use a business model of strategic planning onto which they append prayer asking for God's guidance. Though business-based strategic planning approaches have their place in the church, there is great need for a process that is more attuned to the reality of Jesus' presence and activity. Ruth offers a process and a mindset that taps into that reality so that our ministry together is real participation in the ongoing ministry of Jesus.

As Ruth notes in her book, her model is not the only way for groups to discern God's will. However, I am finding it to be very effective. I'll soon be in Chicago at a conference where she will be training us in the use of her group discernment process. If you have experience with this or other similar models, I'd love to hear from you here.