Congregational Discernment Project

Paul Anderson, Director

George Fox University
414 N. Meridian
Newberg, OR 97132

Effective Christian leadership involves most centrally the capacity to facilitate attending, discerning, and minding the leadership of Christ. The difficulty, though, is knowing how to do it. As a contrast to authoritarian emphases upon particular human leaders, or democratic appeals to the lowest common denominator, authentic Christian leadership helps others come to a common sense of Christ's leadings in ways that have biblical, theological, historical, and practical integrity. This project conjoins the efforts of leading pastors, scholars, and church leaders in North America together in exploring how such a venture might take place within different Christian traditions, seeking to produce a set of ways forward that would make a timely contribution toward vitalizing the church. Beginning with a national pastoral leadership conference, this endeavor will be furthered within a set of pastor-scholar consultations, the publishing of findings, and other venues of influence.

The Need

In considering what sorts of things are needed for vitalizing the church today, several come to mind. Ironically, while all faithful Christians believe Christ rose from the dead, some struggle to live as though he were alive and at work in the church-let alone the world beyond. Due to this impasse, church polity tends to get either over-structured or under-organized. A horizontal approach to decision making, while democratic, might get political with one party pushing for a majority of the votes among elders on a particular matter in order to "win" a discussion. A vertical model of governance might involve making a decision at the top and then spending an inordinate amount of energy trying to motivate compliance among the non-consulted ranks below. A charismatic approach to church governance would be strong on spontaneity but might frown on analytical discussions about the wisdom of particular decisions made. And, a congregational or community-based model of church organization might suffer from lack of accountability to the larger whole. Sometimes the strengths of an approach outweigh the weaknesses, but any process can be improved with care. What is needed a model and vision of Christian leadership that seeks to facilitate attending, discerning, and minding the present leadership of Christ-the sort of approach than can take place within any organizational structure. This is what the present project seeks to establish.

Why This Venture Is Needed Now

Refugees from church conflicts abound, and unfortunate church tensions are a major factor in the setback of many a worthy venture. Well-meaning Christians-leaders and others-too easily get embroiled in difficult organizational situations, and they lose track of the larger mission and Christ's callings upon their lives. Likewise, far too many Christian organizations have simply borrowed from the world's methods rather than breaking new ground for others to follow. The teachings of Jesus and the experience of the first Christians, however, might have something to say to the church today and the world beyond. Some of these organizational limitations will be difficult to avoid, but more often than not, a more dynamic understanding of corporate discernment would make a great difference. Christian decision-making would shift from being a political transaction, based on secular business and managerial models, to a spiritual inquiry in which believers would be enabled to come together in unity around a common sense of leading. Some of the problems this project would address are as follows:

  • Church leaders too easily resort to force and coercion, when the Truth is always liberating. If leaders can be trained to help people discover together a sense of Christ's leading, all are winners.
  • Unstructured groups fail to maintain accountability and follow through. If leaders can be helped to understand the relationship between responsibility and authority, loose structures can be maintained with accountability.
  • Sometimes uses of the Bible or Christian tradition are either too brittle or too subjective. They consider structure or example, but fail to appreciate why biblical approaches were employed and what the spiritual dynamics were that produced a particular way forward. Time and again the biblical witness points to the work of the Holy Spirit leading the Church, and taking this fact seriously is to conjoin biblical authority and interpretive adequacy.
  • Biblical models of leadership may be used by Christian leaders, but sometimes they are employed with very little appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of the model being used. The fact is that there is more than a single model of governance in the New Testament, and learning the strengths and weaknesses of each can help a Christian leader be more versatile within one's own tradition and situation.
  • Raising up the present leadership of Christ becomes a new, working definition of what Christian leadership is all about. Christian leadership is not a matter of setting structures or giving orders; rather, it is more a factor of helping others ask better questions in seeking to live responsively under the present leadership of Jesus Christ.

Many books are available on matters of church governance and corporate decision-making, but the following combination makes a fresh contribution: a) an analysis of church governance issues in the New Testament era, tracing developments throughout church history looking for strengths and weaknesses of prevalent models; b) independent reflections of how the leadership of Christ can be discerned within varying church polities and structures; and c) the developing of a corporate model of decision-making and discernment that can be applied with modification across denominational structures. Our hope is to engage a meaningful dialogue with the real-life ministries of leading pastors in order to recover the experience of the Christians of Acts 15, who declared: "It seemed right to the Holy Spirit and to us." If Christian groups could learn how to get to that place, and learn how to listen corporately to the present leadings of Christ, the world would be a different place indeed!

The way to approach this subject should begin with inventory-how do pastors currently approach decision-making processes, and how are things working currently? A second level of inquiry regards biblical, historical, and theological inquiries into Christian decision-making in corporate settings. A third level involves pastoral leaders experimenting with how their approaches might be adapted to include a more effective means of facilitating the attending, discerning, and minding of Christ's will in Christian community. A fourth level, then, involves evaluating and reflecting upon learnings and gaining better clarity upon how to move forward in the future. Central to this endeavor are the following biblical, theological, and historical convictions:

  • Christ is alive and wanting to lead the Church.
  • His will is not divided, and it can be known if it will be sought.
  • No one has sole access to God's truth and Christ's leadings, but neither is anyone deprived of such access.
  • Authentic Christian discernment begins and ends with submitting oneself totally to the Lordship of Christ, aspiring to conform faithfully to the clear teaching of Scripture, the wisdom of the Church, and the witness of the Holy Spirit.
  • Effective Christian leadership helps people understand the issues better, allows time for weighing the factors involved, instills a sense of attentiveness around the discernment process, and draws input from all relevant sectors of the discussion.
  • Effective Christian leadership helps people distinguish between matters of preference and matters of conscience.
  • Effective Christian leadership helps people come to a unitive sense of Christ's leading, releasing positive energy around the task of moving ahead with a clear sense of the Church's mission, not if it is the Lord's will, but because it is his will.

The Project

This project began with three components: a national pastoral leadership conference held in Colorado Springs (January 16-18, 2005), a two-year consultation involving six pastors from different denominations and three scholars in different disciplines (biblical studies, church history, and theology), meeting together and exploring in further detail how congregational discernment happens effectively across different denominational structures and church polities, and publishing out of these deliberations. In addition, two more phases have been added: a second national pastoral leadership conference held at George Fox University (May 31-June 3, 2009) and a Discernment Leadership Initiative Program, setting up fifteen new centers of dialogue around the nation. Our hope is to find new ways of stimulating the Christian imagination as to how to help leaders learn more effectively how to facilitate responsiveness to the dynamic leadership of Christ. When that happens, Jesus' prayer-that the Father's will might be accomplished as perfectly on earth as it is in heaven-will be answered.