Discern Direction By Dr. Gary Hoag
Discover the four critical practices that will enable you to discern direction for your ministry.
Recently, a non-profit ministry board chair and executive director asked me for advice on discerning direction for the organization they served. After further inquiry on my part, I learned that they were looking for clarity of direction and unity in ministry focus.
In plain terms, some of their missional efforts were working and others seemed like they needed to be changed. Opinions were mixed on where to go, what to change, and what to keep doing. Sound familiar? As I have both heard these questions before and been in similar situations, here’s the counsel I suggested.
Whether you call this Spirit-led strategic planning or simply doing a discernment retreat, I told them to find a 24 to 48 hour timeframe that worked for 100% of the board and senior administrators and to identify a location (hopefully made available freely by a friend of the ministry) at which to meet: an “upper room” of sorts.
At their gathering, I prescribed four spiritual practices to position them to follow the leading of the Spirit and seek the Lord together for unity and clarity of direction. I reminded them that there was no magic formula for how long this would take. I urged them to repeat these practices until they felt they collectively heard from the Lord.
I recommended that the God-ordained leaders – the board chair and the executive director – identify one (or more) Bible passages that relate closely to the organization’s mission (this counsel relates to pastors and church boards too). When they convened, I told them to read the text(s) aloud multiple times together. This exercise, described as “sacred reading” (or Lectio Divina), helps us hear what we might miss on one pass through the text(s).
After reading God’s Word, we must tune out noise and create space for the Spirit to speak to us. This might entail giving each person a journal and time to respond to what they heard from God’s Word. You may allot as little as 15 minutes or as long as one hour. My wife, Jenni, who hosts retreats as a spiritual director, often distributes lollipops and tells people not to come back together until they have slowly savored the entire piece of candy.
As individuals often have different views linked to organizational direction, rather than trying to control the group, open the floor for each person to share how they believe how the Spirit may be guiding through the reading of God’s Word and the time of solitude. Give everyone a chance to share.
Based on what the group members reported, take time to pray specific petitions in response. If you sense God is leading you collectively in a new way or confirming a path that some were unsure of pursuing, then thank God for the clarity and unity of direction. If not, then repeat some or all of these four practices.
Once your group feels a sense of direction, speak with one voice (unity) in a manner that is both encouraging and empowering (clarity) to the remaining members of the organization (or church). We often tend to wait until we have all the details figured out before we speak. Don’t do that. Such a path exhibits pride and requires no faith.
Instead, with child-like faith and dependence on God, move together in the way the Spirit is directing. If, however, you remain unclear regarding direction, don’t worry if the only thing you all feel unity and clarity about after the retreat is to take an extended season to pray and wait on the Lord for direction.
These practices are not original with me. They reflect spiritual practices in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. For example, up until Acts 11-13, the church was largely comprised of Jews. God had bigger plans. He used dreams, difficulties, and a miraculous story of deliverance to shake and wake those who were “first called Christians” to stop and pray.
When they were praying and fasting, which means setting aside their desires to hear from God, the Spirit helped them discern next steps. Barnabas and Saul were to go forth on mission. Little did they know the twists and turns that were ahead of them on that first missionary journey. They had unity and clarity about direction but not details.
Discerning direction is less about having everything figured out and more about positioning your group to rely on the Spirit to lead. As God guides you and as the group speaks with one voice as to the way you will go, don’t then say “we will take it from here God,” but instead, regularly inquire of the Lord together as you will likely have many twists and turns ahead.
Is it time for the ministry or church where you serve to plan a retreat to discern direction?
Gary Hoag, Ph.D., (New Testament, Trinity College, Bristol, UK), serves as a visiting professor at various seminaries, part-time as ECFA International Liaison, and is known widely as “the Generosity Monk” as he’s dedicated his life to encouraging Christian generosity.
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