I have just read How to lead when you don’t know where you are going: Leading in a liminal season (Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland 2019) by Susan Beaumont. It seems to me to be amazingly relevant as churches emerge from Covid-19. Life has so changed that we know that we cannot go back to our old way of doing church, but are not clear what the new normal should be. What is refreshing about Susan Beaumont’s approach to leadership is that it is decidedly ‘spiritual’. As she says in her introduction, she became dismayed at “the growing disconnect between the spiritual and organizational lives of congregation… My clients were working in overdrive to reverse decline and improve organizational effectiveness. Few ere engaging God as a partner in the striving”! As a result, she decided she wanted to be “a spiritual director” to churches, rather than as a consultant to church leaders. This book is the result.
The heart of the book is the chapter on ‘Deepening Group Discernment: Seeing What God Is Up To’. She begins with a quotation from Oswald Chambers: “God does not exist to answer our prayers, but by our prayers we come to discern the mind of Christ”. Unfortunately, many churches have replaced discernment with rational decision-making: “Most leaders prefer the familiar and predictable practices of decision-making, debate, and parliamentary procedure over the unfamiliar disciplines associated with sacred listening. It’s not that they don’t trust God to speak; they simply don’t trust themselves to hear”. Wow!
The first recorded Christian occasion of collective discernment goes back to the Council of Jerusalem called to discuss the question of admission of Gentiles to the church, which reached a successful conclusion when the church said that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15.28) that Gentiles did not need to take on the burden of the Jewish law to become Christians.
Discernment involves listening to God rather than to the opinions of others. Or as Beaumont puts it:
In group discernment, participants adopt a stance of indifference to anything but the will of the divine as discovered by the group, setting aside matters of ego, politics, opinion, or personal interest.
Unlike the normal democratic process, where a mere majority is sufficient, discernment involves consensus (which is different from unanimity!).
Listening to God involves cultivating stillness – “listening for the One true voice and learning to distinguish that voice from t he other voices that clamour for attention”. This requires structure and process:, for says Susan Beaumont, “without good process all manner of human dysfunction may find its way into the conversational mix”. For her there are six stages to the process: framing (establishing boundaries); grounding (agreeing guiding principles); shedding (setting aside “unhelpful biases and ego investments”); listening (which also involves summarising and interpreting what has been heard); exploring (possible options); weighing (through reflection); and choosing (decision-making).
“A discernment process”, says Susan Beaumont, “takes more time, energy and intentionality than a decision-making process”, but when important issues are involves, the process is well worth the investment. I smiled as I read this, for I have spent a lifetime engaged in group discernment. For the classic Baptist definition of ‘the church meeting’ where all the major decisions of church life are made, is that it “is the occasion as individuals and as a community, we submit ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and stand under the judgment of God that we may know what is the mind of Christ”. If Christ is to be Lord of his church, then we need to discern his will. In that regard let me close by reproducing from Radical Believers my ‘dream of a church meeting’:
I have a dream of a church meeting
- where everybody comes prayerfully prepared
- where members have to struggle to find a seat
- where there is an overwhelming sense of family
- where the voice of praise is never absent
- where Scripture is allowed to speak
- where ‘prophets’ are heard
- where experiences of God are shared
- where people listen with discernment
- where feelings are balanced with reason
- where faith is vibrant
- where everybody expects God to speak
- where business flows out of worship and worship flows out of business
- where the needs of the world are uppermost
- where Kingdom issues prevail
- where details are happily delegated
- where there is a genuine seeking after the mind of Christ
- where debate has been replaced by discussion
- where personal prejudices are set aside
- where the leadership is trusted
- where the voices of the few no longer dominate
- where nobody feels they have to speak on behalf of ‘other people’
- where angels’ advocates constantly look for good things to say
- where nobody feels uptight
- where nobody seeks to win
- where differing viewpoints are shared in love
- where the old are prepared to learn from the young
- where the young are able to share their dreams
- where constitutional niceties recede into the background
- where God has his way
That is what happens when a church truly seeks to discern the mind of Christ!