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The Distinctive of Spiritual Leadership

By Ruth Haley Barton

Many of us have a vague idea that there should be something different about our leadership as Christians—particularly if we’re leading a church or Christian organization—but the difference often gets reduced to a perfunctory prayer at the beginning of a meeting!

What is it, then, that distinguishes spiritual leadership?

At the heart of spiritual leadership is discernment—the capacity to recognize and respond to God’s will, both personally and in community. It requires moving beyond our reliance on cognition and hard work to a place of deep listening and response to the Spirit of God within us and among us.

It’s one thing to rely on what feels like a subjective approach when it pertains to one’s personal life, but it’s much riskier when our decisions involve large budgets, other people’s financial investments, the lives of multiple staff, reports to high-powered boards, and a customer base with its expectations. Is there a trustworthy process for actively seeking God’s will in the decisions we’re making?

The practice of corporate discernment requires:

  • Creating space for God’s activity in our lives.
  • Making ourselves available so he can do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.

The spiritual leader is distinguished by his or her commitment and ability to guide the discernment process so everyone can affirm a shared sense of God’s desire for them and move forward.

Through the practice of discernment in community, we open ourselves to a wisdom that’s beyond human wisdom. But it doesn’t take place in a vacuum, nor by accident. We must first cultivate an environment where discernment can take place and then enter a process that enables us to actively seek God’s will in the decisions we face.

Here are the critical steps a Spiritual leader must consider as part of the discernment process:

  • Ask the right questions
  • Involve the right people
  • Establish guiding values and principles
  • Pray without ceasing
  • Listen
  • Select an option that seems consistent with what God’s doing among you
  • Seek inner confirmation
  • Agree together as a leadership team

What does discernment look like in your organization?


Ruth Haley Barton is co-founder and president of The Transforming Center, a ministry dedicated to caring for the souls of pastors, ministry leaders and the congregations they serve. For more on the practice of corporate leadership discernment, please see Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups (InterVarsity Press, 2012).

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