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One of the challenges for boards of Christian organisations, whether they be churches, Christian schools or some other type of Christian ministry, is the ever increasing compliance load they face. The need to undertake major compliance work tends to reduce the time in board meetings that boards spend on strategic discussions, but more importantly it tends to crowd out the active seeking of God in decision-making and the key part that discernment plays in the governance of a Christian organisation.
Resolve does a lot of work with Christian schools. The modern Christian schooling movement began with the desire, among other things, to see Christ as central in all aspects of the school’s governance, leadership and operations. This is common to almost all Christian based organisations we work with. In those early years, when resources were scarce and the very viability of the schools were threatened, there was perhaps a greater sense of mission and heavy reliance on God to come through for the school. There were limited options the board and school leadership could do in their circumstances, other than to pray and seek God’s guidance and help on issues they faced. Perhaps with time, greater resources and seeking to be “more professional” in our board work, we have pushed God to the edges.
It has been interesting to observe from many years of going to all sorts of ministry board meetings, that generally the spiritual aspects of a board meeting tend to be relegated to a brief prayer and devotion at the start of the meeting and a brief prayer at the end of the meeting. What happens in our decision-making in between those “book-end” prayers may or may not be glorifying to God and I sometimes wonder if we have even sought out what God would have us do, rather than just us asking Him to bless what we have decided to do. I will be the first to admit that I have been involved in many such meetings and have also been someone who has led those meetings.
Australia’s Christian Management Advancement Standards Council simply put it in their nine “principles of ministry governance”. Their number one principle is “God first”. The list then goes on to talk about governance, finances, accountability and so on; things that we tend to concentrate on for board improvement and operations. Don’t get me wrong; all these subsequent things are important, but I believe there is a tendency for boards to skip over the first point – putting God first.
Romans 12:2 is a verse that many of us are familiar with in respect of the transforming of our minds, though we should not forget the second part of the verse; it is so that we can discern what the will of God is for us. This is for us as individuals but also for us corporately.
So, what does all this mean if you are on the board of a Christian organisation? What do we need to do about it? I am personally challenged to seek change in a number of areas:
- Spend more time reading the papers before the Board meeting as well as thinking and praying about the matters we need to work through as a board. This needs to include significant time listening to what God sees as important, not just what I can work out on my own.
- Looking at issues with a sense of indifference. This is not saying that I don’t care about the issues before the board, but that I approach things by putting aside my own agenda and really listening to God and others in working through decisions.
- Discussing the need for more time in board meetings to seek God’s will, to discern what He would have us do. This will perhaps include instituting some new practices:
• extended periods of time in prayer.
• reflectively reading the Scriptures in a meeting (Lectio Divina).
• stopping in the midst of discussions for a time of prayer and silent listening to God on an issue.
• discussing as a group to better to reach a consensus on matters (rather than trying to rush to a solution).
• seeking a sense of consolation or desolation on decisions (that is, do we feel a sense of peace or dis-ease about an outcome?).
The idea of seeking God in the midst of decisions in a group setting is not new – St Ignatius in the 1600s through to the Quakers, the Anabaptists and the Methodists all had processes and structures that would help them to slow down and listen for what God wants on decisions rather than rushing headlong into what they personally wanted to do.
Sometimes making decisions as a board can be difficult and stressful. Sometimes it is really difficult to see what we can do where no one suffers or gets hurt. Some of the decisions we face can be major in the life of the organisation and/or the people impacted by a decision, yet we tend to want to make decisions in our own strength and logic. We tend to call on the creator of the universe as a last resort to help us, or perhaps not at all.
The issue of discernment can be a difficult one at times.
As the 19th century theologian CH Spurgeon put it: “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is the difference between right and almost right”. It is often easy to choose between right and wrong in a Christian context but it is the closer decisions that are the hardest.
More modern authors have been exploring in recent times the issue of group spiritual discernment in its application to leadership teams and boards of both churches and other Christian organisations. These more modern authors include Ruth Haley Barton, Kim Butts, Gary Hoag and Elizabeth Liebert. These authors identify a number of practices and processes for boards and leadership teams to follow as they seek to focus more on discerning God’s will on issues.
The common ones include:
1. An agreed process and use of spiritual discernment as a group in the making of decisions.
2. The need for individuals in the group to be seeking discernment on matters before they come together.
3. The need for the individuals to be indifferent to the outcomes as they start discussions.
4. The need to clearly frame the issue/s, especially if they are large and complex.
5. To gather data and information that is helpful for the issue being look at.
6. The centrality of prayer, Scriptures and silence in the meeting.
7. The key of listening carefully to God and others.
8. Exploring options as a group in forming a tentative decision as a consensus.
9. Seeking confirmation from God about the decision.
10. Finalising the decision and putting it into action.
You will probably look at this list in relation to spiritual discernment and think “that will take a lot of time which we don’t have!” Yes, significant time is involved in establishing strong spiritual discernment processes and that is probably one of the biggest issues that a board faces – creating the time in meetings for the really big issues it needs to work through and moving through the compliance and routine matters in a timely fashion. The running of meetings, setting agendas and board operations are major topics in their own right.
The process of including spiritual discernment in board decision-making (especially for big decisions) will take time to implement and a commitment to slow down meetings and move out the matters we have perhaps unnecessarily cluttered our meetings with. It is a journey, but one I pray that your board will go on and bear much fruit as a result of this undertaking.