Leading Spiritually From Within…. the Art of Discernment

by Christine Sine

by Christine Sine

I am into my gratitude theme, but yesterday came across this series I wrote several years ago that I thought some of you would appreciate me reposting. I have been reflecting on what I said back then and thinking AMEN. I have learned a lot in the last six years but what I say here still holds true. Its a little long because I combined 2 posts together but thought that for a good flow it was better. Hope you enjoy it.

Cross with candles

Leading Spiritually from Within

Writing this series on leading spiritually was something of a process of self examination for me. Listening does not come easily to me. I am a great multitasker and can easily get distracted from what I am supposed to be focused on.  So I don’t always take the time to give God or others my full attention. In a world that applauds multitasking especially in leaders, I know I am not alone in this but to be good spiritual leaders we need to be able to focus.

Spiritual leadership is about giving full attention to all that is happening in the moment in which we are living. So how do we equip ourselves personally to be good spiritual leaders?

When I think of leadership Jesus style I think of washing feet, hugging kids, embracing lepers, healing the marginalized. I also think of desert retreats, nights spent in prayer, walks with his disciples. The attributes of a good spiritual leader that I see expressed in Jesus life are contemplative, activist, servant, spiritual director, generosity, justice and love.  Some of these may sound contradictory but for me they imply balance. Activism should always flow out of a contemplative centre. Spiritual direction should always flow out of a servant heart that is committed above all else to the nurture and fulfillment of others. And a heart full of the love of God will always be generous and just.

This type of leadership places huge responsibility on us as individuals. In fact the more I have written, the longer the list seems to become so I have decided to break it into two posts. Today’s post talks about intimacy with God and seeking our true and authentic self. Tomorrow’s post addresses listening, acknowledging doubts and uncertainties, gratitude and seeking after love of God and neighbour.

1. We must above all else be committed to a journey into deeper intimacy with God. This sounds obvious but I have noticed that I can easily be fully engaged in my regular spiritual practices of prayer and bible reading and still not be moving closer to God.  I have mentioned in the past that the chronic randomness of our prayer and scripture study often disconnects us from the presence and purposes of God. It can become more of an intellectual exercise than a journey into intimacy.

What we need most are intentional and disciplined patterns to our prayer life and to our reading and study of God’s word that deliberately draw us into God’s presence and into a deeper understanding of God’s purposes. My blog series last year on Tools for Prayer was an attempt to identify some of the tools that can help with this. If, like me, you like variety you may enjoy experimenting with one tool for a season and then trying another. Just remember however that the goal of this is not experimentation itself but intimacy with God.

2. We must be seekers after our true and authentic self. Salvation is a journey from death into life, from blindness into sight, from solitude into community, from false self into true self. If, as spiritual leaders, our responsibility is to enable others to become all that God intends them to be, then we too must be committed to the process of becoming who God intends us to be. This is often a very painful journey of self discovery in which God slowly brings us face to face with the distorted and dysfunctional being at the center of our being. It is also a very liberating journey that brings healing not only for us personally but often for those we lead as well.

One of the reasons that I see activism and contemplation in balance is because it is often activism that uncovers our dysfunctionality. It also usually births within us a deep craving for the newness of life that God wants us to experience. It is this that hopefully drives us into the secure womblike safety of contemplation where we can be transformed and reborn. One of my guiding passages as I started to allow God to work his transformation in me was Isaiah 58:6-12. Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness. (v10) Reaching out to heal and make others whole is often part of the pathway into our own healing and wholeness. 

Contemplative practices like retreats, regular use of the prayer of examen, regular check in times with a spiritual director or soul friend are some of the keys to this journey, but obviously this is a topic that could give rise to an entire blog series on its own.

3. We must never be too busy to listen, never be too tired to pray. This prayer which I wrote a couple of years ago is a good mantra for me to go back to when I feel overburdened, overstressed or aware of another area in my life where I need transformation. Its intent is reflected in Ruth Hayley Barton’s beautiful discussion of Moses’ turning aside to the burning bush. “The practice of ‘turning aside to look’ is a spiritual discipline that by its very nature sets us up for an encounter with God.”(Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership p52).

Encountering God in the midst of heavy responsibilities requires these moments of deliberate turning aside, retreating into ourselves so that God can permeate our being.  Often a repeated centering or breathing prayer enables us to retreat in this way without being in a place of physical solitude.

4. We must be willing to listen to all the voices through which God speaks. As a keen organic gardener I know that diversity is an important priority in maintaining a healthy garden. I think that it is also an important priority in maintaining a healthy, spiritually leadership team. Jewish philosophers believe that argument is the highest form of discourse and that we cannot have a true discussion unless there are dissenting voices.

God often speaks loudest to us through those who are different theologically, culturally or socially and if we are not open to voices outside our own little enclave then we will never hear the voice of God clearly. Particularly if we are making major decisions we need to make sure that the voices we listen to are as diverse and varied as possible. This is just as important for personal discernment and spiritual growth as it is for group discernment and spiritual leadership.

5. We must take our faith practices and discernment processes seriously. It is often easier to discern the will God than it is to implement it. I am embarrassed at how often I make the same list of resolutions at my three monthly retreats and then go home and forget about them. Old habits die hard. We get out of a discernment meeting and immediately head back to our busy schedules ignoring completely the implications of our decisions. Unfortunately sometimes there is no one except God to keep us accountable to those decisions.

Keep a discernment journal for both your personal and group discernment sessions and revisit it regularly to see how seriously you have followed the promptings of God’s spirit.  What has God said? How has that changed the way you lead? How has it changed what you do and your leadership community do? I suspect that many good Christian ministries and churches fail because they don’t take seriously enough what God is saying in their midst.

Leading from within

Leading from within

6. We must be acknowledgers of doubts and uncertainties. According to Thomas Merton faith means doubt It is our doubts and uncertainties that keep us questioning and learning. They keep us flexible and creative – two essential characteristics of good spiritual leaders. The story of Thomas teaches us that Jesus comes to us in the place of our deepest fears and doubts and reveals himself to us. If we pretend we know everything we stop growing in our relationship to God and to others. We become set in our ways and become rigid in our leadership.

7. We must be seekers after the joy of gratitude. Gratitude opens us to the enjoyment of new aspects of who God is and what God is doing. Ann Voskamp in One Thousand Gifts, comments: learning to live in joy is learning to be grateful in all circumstances even in the midst of pain and suffering. The psalmist says: Giving thanks is a sacrifice that truly honours me. If you keep to my path, I will reveal to you the salvation of God. (Psalm 50:23) What is the path that reveals the salvation of God? It is the path of gratitude and thanksgiving. To grow in intimacy with God and move deeper into that loving union we all so desperately crave we must learn to live in gratitude.

Gratitude has other benefits that undergird our spiritual leadership too. It boosts our chance of success and keeps us flexible and resilient. It also increases not only our chance of happiness but that of our colleagues too. It even boosts our immune system.

8. We must be seekers after trust in God. That may sound like a strange thing to seek after, but to grow in our ability to trust God we also need to grow in our knowledge and connection to the deep and abiding love of God for us.

In his book Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, Richard Rohr says:

We will not trust spiritual power until we have experienced a God who operates in the same way, a God who is willing to wait, allow, forgive, trust and love unconditionally. (p89)

Do we really believe that God is trustworthy and wants what is best for our lives? Do we really believe God loves us? If we did we would seek to model that love rather than the critical, taskmaster, threaten God that our hierarchical leadership styles model.  Do we really believe that God’s purposes are higher than ours? If we did we would take discernment and direction from God far more seriously. We will learn to relax and allow God to move and like the children of God in the desert we will learn to stay put until God says so.

I think one of the reasons we so often surge ahead with our own ideas and plans is because deep down inside we don’t really believe that God loves us and wants what is best for us. We don’t really believe that God has either the desire or the power to fulfill the dreams he has placed in our hearts. We can easily start to believe that we, not Jesus are the saviours of the world and so we take on ourselves heavy burdens of responsibility that God does not intend for us.

9. We must learn to relax in the limits of who God has made us to be. A person who knows their own limits and those of the people with whom they work lives a life of balance, freedom and productivity. So many leaders leave pathways strewn with burnout for themselves and for others. they stray from God’s path because in their work consumed lives they have lost the ability to listen to the still small voice of God.

To me the best biblical example of burnout is the prophet Elijah as he flees into the desert running away from Jezebel. He has just defeated the prophets of Baal and yet here he is running away from a single woman. I love the gentle way God deals with him. He is fed, given shelter and allowed to rest. Then God gently tries to talk to him, but all Elijah can say is “I have been zealous for God”  (1 Kings 19). It seems to me that he is so consumed by all he has done for God that he can no longer hear what God is saying.

10. We must be seekers after the love of God and love of neighbour. Central to our understanding of the Biblical story is the knowledge that God is love. Jesus reminds us that the central commandment is “love of God and love of neighbour”. The epistle of James affirms that God’s royal law is: love your neighbour as yourself. (James 2:8) and Paul confirms that without love we are nothing but a noisy gong. (1 Corinthians 13:1-9) Theologian N.T. Wright says that the language of God’s kingdom is the language of love.

A leader who is not loving towards those he or she works with or lovingly concerned for those in the broader society is not a leader at all. This goes far deeper than just having a kind word to say to our colleagues. It means that to lead well spiritually we must be willing to lead as servants, put the needs of others before our own and be committed to the ways of justice, peace and generosity for all.  This means being concerned about issues of inequality, poverty and environmental justice to name but a few.

11. We must be seekers after the promised land of God. In my post on Where are we heading? I talked about the fact that God’s destination for us is his promised shalom world in which we find abundance and peace for all. We are all journeying towards this incredible new world and our central responsibility as leaders is to learn to live into that world and bring others into that world too. Does your leadership draw others towards a place of shalom, abundance and rest? Does it make your leadership community feel fulfilled, rejoicing in the presence of God?

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This post is a contribution to the series on Leading Spiritually.

Check out the other posts:

The Art of Leading Spiritually – An Invitation to a Journey

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Why Are We Leading?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Where Are We Heading?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – How Do We Do It?

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Discerning Together

The Art of Leading Spiritually – Discerning on Your Own

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