The way we make decisions is broken

What is wrong with this picture?

Last year I was at a major international church meeting that had to make some big decisions. There was a lot of conflict and high emotion. Many people kept asking questions. I thought they had already been answered. So it was not possible to make decisions and so the issue ground to a halt because of confusion. Later I spoke to a Minister of that church who has incredibly high standing across the denomination. I made a comment about how so many people kept asking questions throughout the debate. His reply still shocks me today! He said, approvingly, that this was all part of the plan to derail that business. People were conspiring to prevent decisions being made.

How do you know if something is broken? I think something is broken if it doesn’t perform according to the maker’s promises.

When you think of church meetings that use parliamentary processes for their decision-making, what kinds of behaviors and attitudes do you see? What actions are valued and affirmed?

What I see, in the vast majority of cases, is:

  • people do not listen to each other
  • praise for people who criticise and pull down the opposition
  • political manoeuvring to prevent understanding, participation and power for others
  • cutting off the debate before all voices have been heard
  • privilege given to certain cultures, gender, ages and backgrounds
  • people are hurt
  • selfishness
  • lack of the joy and hopefulness of life in the Spirit
  • no consensus as to the will of Christ for his church
  • decisions don’t get made

What should we expect?

Through Jesus Christ, God has created us as a new community. This is a community that is identified by love, kindness, lack of envy, pride and boasting, it honors others, rejoices in the truth, protects one another, and is trusting and hopeful (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7). It is also a community that respects, needs and values the contribution that all members can make to its life. (1 Corinthians 12: 12-26). This is not an ideal to which we are invited to aspire. This is a God given reality in which we are expected to live, in the strength of the Holy Spirit.

What do you see?

What do you see in church meetings? Do the behaviors, values and culture match what you think a Christian community should look like? Do your church meetings reflect the maker’s promises about how Christian community operates? Do you make decisions that people respect and can work with? If not, then your way of making decisions is broken.

A discernment process that fails to take seriously the system in which it operates will have limited capacity for spiritual vitality. I invite you to look at the way you organise your meetings and make your decisions. Do they have a deforming or transforming effect on Christian character?

Please share your experiences of church business meetings. Tell us about when you have seen them support, or not support, the true character of a Christian community .



The spiritual foundations for discernment


Foundations matter

A long time ago I built a retaining wall in the backyard of my new house. At its highest point it was about 1.5 meters (5 feet) high. It was made up of large keystone blocks that weighed 20kgs (44lbs) each. There were over 200 of them across 25 meters (27 yards) of ground and five high at their peak. It took six months before they started to tumble.

I spent so much time getting that foundation of concrete wide and deep and flat enough to hold them. But I didn’t quite get it right. I was lucky that I only had to pull out 25 blocks to fix it.

The solid foundation for discernment is that it must have spiritual foundations. So there is no Christian discernment that does not have spiritual foundations. Discernment is the process of determining God’s desire in a situation, or being able to distinguish that which is of God and that which is not. Hanging out with God is inherently a spiritual activity.

From this understanding we can identify the spiritual attitudes and practices that support discernment.

Commitment to Jesus

Commitment to Jesus is the first prerequisite for discernment. Christ can only be known through the presence of the Holy Spirit made accessible through faith. The Holy Spirit makes possible an awareness of God’s character and desires.

God’s work in Jesus makes it possible to have unity with God. So all the barriers that prevent this relationship and the capacity to faithfully follow God’s way have been overcome. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we are sustained in relationship with Christ, invited to serve God and empowered to do so.

A yearning to find God

Discernment presupposes that the people want the will of God to be achieved and not their own. So nourish the spirit in you that hungers after God. Yearn to know and please God – it is not limited to the prayer cells of mystics.

Self-emptying and being filled with the Holy Spirit is a core practice of the Christian life. This is what makes it possible for us to distinguish between willfully pursuing our own preferences and willingly surrendering to the will of God. Radical openness is required in group discernment as well as is in our personal life.

Believing in God’s goodness

Discernment will often take us where we do not want to go. The Spirit will lead and at times we will be afraid. When we walk in the Spirit we go where God takes us. We can only let go of our own wisdom, fears and great ideas if we have embraced at a deep level the goodness of God. When we have developed spiritual confidence we can go anywhere in response to what we discern because we know that God desires good for us.

The goal of Christian discernment is to put people of faith in a place where they can participate in the hopes and purposes that God has in store for the community of which they are a part. That is always a good place to be.

Belief that we have no higher calling than love

The Christian life is a journey towards living a Christ like life. Christ reveals the true character of God. God is love and we show our allegiance to God as we love God, others and the world (1 John 4:8).

Cultivate a loving disposition because it is foundational for discernment. God will never do anything that does not show love towards people. A core spiritual foundation for discernment is to keep asking “What does love require?” And then listening for the answer!


The Christian life is impossible without obedience to the will of God. So there is no point making decisions in church meetings if we have not nurtured our capacity to follow God – come what may.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer the German martyr and theologian said about the Christian community “It is a gift that we cannot claim. It is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in which we must participate. … Christian community is founded solely on Jesus Christ…” (Life Together, NY, Harper Collins, 1954, pp30-31.)

The community of discernment finds its identity as it gathers around the person of Jesus. This community is transformed and reshaped by Jesus who stands at the center of our community.

Only when Christians convert to this sense of identity – as a community in Christ – is it possible to see that we are not just meeting to do business but that we are a spiritual community.

Spiritual foundations for discernment

Commitment to Jesus, yearning, confidence in God’s goodness, love, obedience and community.

Which foundations have you applied? Do you have any to add to the list? Please share them in the comments section.

Agendas – a road map for discernment

Why we have agendas for meetings

Church business agendas are not like a grocery shopping list. I use shopping lists to remind me what I need to buy. I rush up and down the aisles ticking them off. Usually I don’t notice other people unless it is to ask them to move out my way so that I can keep moving along with my jobs. Of course I do this in the nicest possible way. Thankfully church meetings never have this character.

Agendas are not a job list to get through as fast as humanly possible. Church meeting agendas are road maps to the destination called discernment. When followed they will lead us to the point where we can celebrate that we have discerned the will of Christ for his church in this time and place.

The road map to discernment will hold before us the final destination. It will take us to the resources that we need to get there. It will set out a sure and trusted route to take us along the right path.

What should be in an agenda?

Agendas will be full of spaces where prayer, Scripture, the people around us and the Holy Spirit can influence us.

Build your agenda with an eye to how you can grow the quality of your community life, hear one another well and respond well to what you hear.

Therefore agendas focus on process as much as task.

How to know when your agenda has worked.

Like all good road trips there is one question that is always asked. Are we there yet?

There are many signs that we have arrived at the point of faithful discernment. These are the wins that come from using consensus based discernment.

  • experiencing God’s presence with us in the meeting
  • feeling a sense of community among the group
  • achievement / movement on an issue and looking forward
  • growth as disciples of Jesus Christ.
  • confidence that we have arrived at the right place
  • energy and commitment towards doing what has been decided
  • spiritual renewal

The wins from an agenda that is focused on consensus building are in the quality of the fellowship that it creates among the participants, and their ability to implement the decisions that they have reached. Consensus based discernment helps us to be the church as God intends us to be.

Tell us what you include in your planning for in your church meetings. How do you know that you have nailed it?

Don’t start a discernment process without this!

How to be a natural at discernment

Being a natural at discernment is like anything else – you have to be born with it! I admit that on occasions I have been given to the odd case of envy. In my youth it was about my younger brother’s incredible ability to play any sport to which he turned his hand. That I couldn’t do. I knew the rules of the game but I was hopeless and he was “a natural”.

What makes a person “a natural” at discernment? Discernment is the outcome of a process. So do activities that put you where you recognise the wisdom and direction offered through the Holy Spirit. People who do that “naturally” have the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. These people have developed the spiritual practices that enhance sensitivity to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their life.

The good news is that every Christian, by definition, has the gift of the Holy Spirit in their life. Christian discernment needs Christians to do it. I am not encouraging you to hold tests to see who is a Christian in your church meetings. However the point is that it doesn’t matter whether you have great accountants, office bearers, lawyers, donors, etc, on your Committee. You cannot start a discernment process based on these expertise. The baseline requirement is to be a follower of Jesus.

How do we discern God’s will?

Discerning the will of God is not easy. If it was that easy then Christian libraries would have a lot less books in them. There are lots of reasons that it is hard. Some that come to my mind are:

  • people like to get their own way and are not inclined to take directions
  • the tools for listening to God are very different to those we use to listen to people
  • some people are inclined to associate their own ideas with God’s opinion
  • some cultures are cynical about insight coming through emotions and “hunches” rather than logic and reason
  • too often we do it on our own rather than with companions
  • we try to use methods that are not aligned with the way God does things
  • we haven’t been taught how to do it

Discernment requires the attitude of being genuinely open to, and expecting, the leading of the Holy Spirit. So openness to the Holy Spirit needs to be the base line orientation of a person’s approach to decision-making. Then it is possible to build the spiritual disciplines that help people to tune into the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Group discernment needs people who know how to discern God’s will for their own life

Before you can do group discernment you have to have learned how to do personal discernment. If you don’t know how to recognise when God is speaking to you then you will not be doing it in your meeting. When people learn to identify the movement of the Holy Spirit, how to be self-emptying, and when to let go and trust in their personal life then they will do the same in your meeting.

Don’t start a discernment process without taking seriously the capacity of the participants to engage in spiritual discernment. We like to assume that people called to make decisions on behalf of the church are mature, Spirit led people. They all can be – but it isn’t always how things work out.

The consensus building discernment process that we commend emphasises the importance of prayer, worship and growing the quality of community life. When these are present you ensure that in every meeting God’s claim upon your work, and the tools to hear God, are before the group. Assumed and embedded in these practices is the foundational conviction that it is only possible to make faithful decisions if the people gathered genuinely want, and know how, to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in their midst.

How do you go about building the capacity of your leaders to be a community of discernment? What resources can you offer us that can be helpful?