Discerning and Joining: Movements in Leading God’s People in Power

I’ve been thinking a lot about the tasks related to leading in congregations lately. More to the point, I’ve been thinking about how to create a culture within congregations in which they can act, or express their life powerfully (I like this word better than “effectively,” which carries certain ¬†organizational baggage for me. Power is a gospel concept, albeit conceived differently than many definitions). And this has to entail a vital sense that God is living and active and ultimately leading the congregation.

So, these days I’m thinking of leading the congregation around two movements: discerning and joining. Discerning relates to the leading of God’s Spirit and concerns the questions, who is God calling us to be, what is God calling us to do, and to whom, in the name of Jesus, is God calling us to belong. The ability to answer these questions depends on whether or not the word of God, in an ongoing manner, can be heard and spoken. In this way, the church is a community continually created and sustained by God’s Word. I mean by this more than simply the teaching and preaching of Scripture, although this is certainly part of it, but whether or not the living voice of God can be heard and a word from God spoken to the circumstances in which a congregation finds itself.

Maintaining such an environment, an environment in which the Word of God can continually be heard and spoken, is a big part of what it means to lead a congregation. To use a biblical metaphor, it means keeping the soil fertile (as opposed to rocky, hard, or weed-infested soil), or maintaining a certain ecosystem within the congregation. As I see things, this requires a set of tasks or responsibilities which tend to fall into the category often referred to as pastoral care. But the tasks of pastoral care support not just the lives of the members, but also serve the interests of the congregation’s capacity to discern God’s ongoing claim on their lives.

I want to point out that this is not the way leadership often gets described or defined by congregations. Leadership is seen as primarily related to strategic vision. State the direction and manage the outcomes. But for my money this kind of leadership is ill-suited for knowing and following God. This is not to say that this kind of leadership should never be used, but rather that it shouldn’t be the primary way we think about leadership in congregations. In contrast to the “discerning” culture I am advocating, a strategic culture might be characterized as a “deciding” culture.

Those who favor a “deciding” culture over a “discerning” culture point to the need to get things done and think of a discerning culture as too passive or soft. I am in favor of getting things done. I don’t think, however, that this has to come at the expense of discernment. In fact, it’s my sense that a congregation acts more boldly if it is convinced that it is responding to a specific sense of God’s calling.

So, how does a discerning community get things done? This is where joining comes into play. To discern the calling of God is one side of leadership within a congregation, joining in that calling is another. If discerning requires the hearing and speaking of the Word, joining requires emobiment. Joining is no less spiritual than discernment, just as discernment is no less practical than joining. Remember, administration is a spiritual gift according to 1 Cor 12. So, both discerning and joining are part of the function of spiritual leadership in a congregation. They do, however, require different gifts, and most are not good at leading in both.

“Joining” includes things like making structures and process clear, recruiting, training and honoring volunteers, maintaining feedback loops which include appropriate accountability, and authorizing other leaders to accomplish their tasks. All of these tasks should be done under the rubric of understanding, not efficiency. By this, I mean that the evaluative questions should not focus on the question, “did this work?” Instead, the questions should revolve around what we are learning, and, more specifically, what we are learning about God.

Most ministers get into the game around the tasks of discernment. Many of them are poor at conceiving and maintaining the crunchy tasks of joining. It is often unrealistic to expect them to be good or even interested in both. In Churches of Christ, we have thought of elders as “shepherds” and so have selected leaders who also tend toward the tasks related to discernment. Joining is neglected, especially in smaller congregations that can’t hire an administrator who keeps the trains running on time.

I am also nervous about combining “oversight” of both discerning and joining in a senior pastor. The preaching of the Word needs to be somewhat independent of the concerns of the institution. The sermon can’t simply be propaganda supporting the initiatives of the congregation.

I don’t think there’s one right way to do this, to get both sides done. I know congregations that are good at the first, but lose the power harnessed by discernment because they are poor at joining. And a congregation focused on joining without discerning is playing fast and loose with God’s calling on their lives. Strategic concerns swamp all others and the congregation is too often only the net result of human capacities. Congregations as expressed within the power of God find a way to do both.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
This entry was posted in Christian practice, missional leadership, missional theology, theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Discerning and Joining: Movements in Leading God’s People in Power

  1. Lynn says:

    Yesterday I was reading FAMILY The Forming Center. In the book there was a chapter on discernment. I felt like I needed to re-read it because it sounds like it would cause anxiety for many, including myself. Waiting and listening is not as hard as it used to be but also believing that others are waiting and listing to the same Spirit requires a huge amount of faithful trust. It sounds beautiful and no doubt would be powerful. It a world that constantly offers us want we want at every moment this is a discipline that would offer a slowing down. Good thoughts that continue to help me think about how to teach and model discernment even in my own home. This is the first time I have read the term joining in this context. Not sure I understand at what point of discernment the joining begins participation. I love that you write, it often speaks to me exactly where I am. Thanks.

  2. Kent Faver says:

    Joining is the bigger issue to me today. Discernment is doing fine.


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