Discernment is the Christian practice of seeking God’s will when making decisions. Robyn Mellar-Smith reveals findings from her research into this topic in a New Zealand Baptist context.
Now during those days he [Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles (Luke 6:12-13).
Within congregations, the process of discernment involves prayer, listening to God, reflecting on Scripture, and listening to the community of faith, with the intention of making a decision that is guided by the Holy Spirit. This all takes time. As Martin Copenhaver says, “Spiritual discernment, rightly understood, is truly countercultural. It uses silence, it requires that we take our time, it redefines our precious sense of individualism.”1
Thesis study about discernment
I have long been interested in the topic of discernment. So, when I was studying for a Master of Applied Theology degree at Carey Baptist College in 2015‑2016, I decided to shape my thesis around this topic.
This was a year-long project where I interviewed nine experienced New Zealand Baptist pastors in depth, asking them about the place of prayer in their decision-making as individuals, with their leadership teams, and with their congregations. I was very grateful for their candour and helpfulness.
This study showed that the pastors and their churches generally engaged in three different types of prayer practices to help them make decisions:
- spiritual practices to open them and their congregations to God, such as reading Scripture
- petitionary prayer prior to making the decision
- deliberately listening to God and expecting to hear God speak either through illumination of Scripture, the prompting of an action, a quiet whisper heard in one’s mind, or an inner witness to something someone said.
Generally, the pastors who had been mentored in listening to God’s still small voice, and who had experience in hearing that voice, gave more time to trying to discern God’s guidance than those pastors who did not have this experience.
Differing views and practices
The place of prayer in decision-making for experienced New Zealand Baptist pastoral leaders was directly related to three specific, and intertwined, viewpoints or practices:
- the pastors’ view on finding the will of God
- the participants’ individual experience in listening to God
- the pastoral leaders’ commitment to discerning the mind of Christ amongst the body of Christ.
One of the most interesting things I found reading the related literature was the four different views of finding the will of God.2 Broadly, the Blueprint, or Specific Will view holds that God has a perfect will for each of us. Therefore, as believers, our role is to find what God’s will is for each decision we need to make.
The Wisdom view disagrees with this, believing that God’s sovereign will cannot be known. Accordingly, we need to make our decisions based on biblical principles, praying and trusting that God will guide us.
The Pragmatic Christian Wisdom view proposes that the Bible is only one strand of decision-making, and that experience is just as important.
Finally, the Relational view of finding the will of God considers that knowing God’s will is not enough: we need to get to know God himself. As we do this, discernment in decision-making is a natural part of our relationship with him.
I deliberately resisted cataloguing the pastors in my study under these headings. However, amongst the interviews, there were examples of each of these positions on finding the will of God.
As I considered the place of prayer in decision-making for these pastors, it became apparent that around one third of the pastors sought God about decisions and then told their leadership teams and churches how they felt God was leading, and the team/congregation generally accepted this and followed the leader’s decisions.
Another third of the pastors deliberately sought God together with their leadership teams. Facilitating discernment processes with their leaders was very important to these pastors. The remaining third of the pastors facilitated discernment processes with their whole congregations.
This relative lack of congregational discernment surprised me, as one of the key distinctives of Baptist church life historically has been congregational government. Factors which probably influence this absence of congregational discernment are
- the influx into our New Zealand Baptist churches since the 1960s of people from other denominations who have different leadership structures
- the charismatic renewal
- the effect of business models of leadership on our church structures.
One of the pastors said to me, “You know that whole foundational idea for us that, ‘gathered’, we discern the mind of Christ? Many Baptist churches are pretty under‑resourced to actually do that.”
Applying what I learned
Through doing this study, I have gained ideas for different discernment processes for individuals, leadership teams, and congregational discernment. I have applied these ideas within individual discernment processes and group processes over the last year in my role as Lead Pastor at Eastview Baptist Church.
Two books that I found particularly useful for this were: Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church by Danny Morris and Charles Olsen and Discerning God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups by Ruth Haley Barton.
Discerning God’s guidance is important in our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. It is essential for our church leadership teams and our congregations to be guided by the Holy Spirit as we make decisions. Discernment is a process that takes time but yields rich rewards.
Story: Robyn Mellar-Smith
Robyn Mellar-Smith is married to Grant and they have five children and two gorgeous grandchildren. Robyn trained on the Pastoral Leadership Training programme at Carey Baptist College from 2006-2008, and then from 2009-2014 was the Pastor of Epuni Baptist Church in Lower Hutt. Since February 2017, Robyn has been the Lead Pastor at Eastview Baptist Church in Botany, Auckland.
- Do you take time to pray and try to listen to God when making big decisions?
- Have you been part of any sort of discernment process and, if so, how did you feel it went?
- Lynne Baab warns that many churches today look for consensus in their meetings, and then call this discernment. “Consensus plays a significant role in the discernment process, but consensus can enable a group to decide among several options that are all undesirable and do not reflect God’s priorities.”3 How does your church attempt to listen to God when making decisions?
- Martin B. Copenhaver, “Decide or Discern,” The Christian Century (2010): 31.
- Douglas S. Huffman, ed., How Then Should We Choose? Three Views on God’s Will and Decision Making (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2009) describes three of these views in detail.
- Lynne M. Baab, The Power of Listening: Building Skills for Mission and Ministry (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 69–70.
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.