Discernment, in a most general sense, is the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and the activity of God—both in the ordinary moments and in the larger decisions of our lives. The apostle Paul says that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can discern what the will of God is, that which is good, acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2). This includes not only the mind of each individual but also the corporate mind.

Discernment literally means to separate, to discriminate, to determine, to decide or to distinguish between two things. Spiritual discernment is the ability to distinguish or discriminate between good (that which is of God and draws us closer to God) and evil (that which is not of God and draws us away from God). There are many qualities that contribute to good leadership, but it is our commitment to discerning and doing the will of God through the help of the Holy Spirit that distinguishes spiritual leadership from other kinds of leadership.

A Definition of Leadership Discernment

Corporate or leadership discernment, then, is the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and activity of God as a leadership group relative to the issues we are facing, and to make decisions in response to that awareness. Spiritual leaders are distinguished by their commitment to discern important matters together so they can affirm a shared sense of God’s desire for them and move forward on that basis.

It is hard to imagine that spiritual leadership could be about anything but seeking to know and do the will of God, and yet many leadership groups do not have this as their clear mandate and reason for existence. This raises a question: If we are not pursuing the will of God together in fairly intentional ways, what are we doing? Our own will? What seems best according to our own thinking and planning? That which is merely strategic or expedient or good for the ego?

Discernment together as leaders, on the other hand, opens us to an entirely different reality—the wisdom of God that is beyond human wisdom and is available to us as we learn how to open ourselves to it (1 Cor 2:6-16). This approach to leadership presents unique challenges because it 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. This is not to dismiss what human wisdom and strategic thinking have to offer us. Our ability to think things through and apply reason to our decision making is a gift from God; however, the Scriptures are clear that human wisdom and the wisdom of God are not the same thing, and part of becoming more discerning is the ability to distinguish between the two (1 Cor 1:18-31).

The Challenge of Leadership Discernment

One of the challenges to leadership discernment is that it can seem somewhat subjective and even mystical, which doesn’t always go over too well with hard-nosed business people and pragmatists—those who often make up boards and other leadership groups. It is one thing to rely on what feels like a more subjective approach when it pertains to our personal life, but it feels much riskier when our decisions involve large budgets, other people’s financial investments, the lives of multiple staff, reports to high-powered boards and serving a “customer base” (congregation or organization) with varying levels of expectation. And yet many leaders today are longing for a way of leading that is more deeply responsive to the will of God than to the latest ideas from a New York Times bestseller. We wonder, Is there a trustworthy process that enables Christian leaders to actively seek God relative to decisions we are making?

The answer is a resounding yes! and it is why we have published the forthcoming Transforming Resource®, Pursuing Gods’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice For Leadership Groups (InterVarsity Press June 2012). This book provides practical guidance for leaders and leadership teams who want to enter more deeply into the process of corporate discernment as a way of life in leadership.


©Ruth Haley Barton, 2012.  This excerpt is from Pursuing God’s Will Together. Not to be used without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Baptist Seminary) is founder of the Transforming Center.  A teacher, spiritual director and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Pursuing God’s Will TogetherStrengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.


How do you respond to the idea that discernment is what distinguishes spiritual leadership from other kinds of leadership? How would you describe the way your leadership group makes decisions currently?
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