Strategies for Discerning God’s Will for Your Church


July 25, 2019

By Cody Collier

A few years ago, I was invited during the summer to lead a workshop with clergy and laity on a subject that I am very passionate about in my own ministry: communicating the church’s story as spiritual leaders. The purpose of the session was to connect their church’s powerful story with strategic planning and with renewed focus, spirit, fun and accountability. 

In the beginning, some participants were consumed with rushing through the schedule while others were surprised by the lack of real leadership discernment they had experienced in the past. Establishing some time apart to plan, pray and to be proactive in fulfilling the mission is hard today when leaders are already overwhelmed by life and its many demands. They were reminded of their important role as storyteller, catalyst, encourager and spiritually-centered Christ followers.

Vital and fruitful congregations understand that there are seasons when the church needs to take a spiritual pause to listen for the voice of God as they seek to be clear about its mission, become more outwardly focused, and become oriented toward the future. Too often we have pushed for just a little time in spiritual formation rather than engaging in spiritual disciplines and the slow, patient work of God. We need to provide space for God to lead us and inform our feelings of burn-out, loss, uncertainty, conflict, feeling stuck, and the need for some congregations to heal and move forward. It’s the opportunity to ask: Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me!

This kind of group discernment is not meant to feel like one more thing to do or add to your very full schedule. Instead, it is to provide a time for us to be attentive to the activities of God, to seek seriously for God’s way, and to faithfully respond to God’s awakening call to press toward the mark. Thomas Merton once said that Americans feel guilty every time they slow down. Effective church leaders help congregations set the pace and achieve wildly important goals through worshipful work and a message of hope.

I believe spiritual discernment as leaders and congregations helps us to write a new chapter to our story and offers us a better way to tell our story that we can live into as the body of Christ. I like Gil Rendle’s questions, Doing the Math of Mission for how we care for the organizational story and give it clear purpose. Here are some of the key questions for a useful analysis and planning for your church:

  • Who are we, now, as a congregation? 
  • Who is our neighbor, now? 
  • What is God calling us to do, now?
  • In order to address God’s call, what are we called to do in the next three years?
  • How will we do it?
  • How will we measure our progress toward fulfilling our call?
  • What changes do we need to work on from what we are learning?
The work of discerning God’s will becomes Holy conversations to discover an accurate description of the present moment that is both inside of the congregation and outside in the mission field. I would invite pastors in new appointments and those continuing in their present setting of ministry to partner with laity in building meaningful covenant relationships, compelling goals, clear communication, consistent trust, corporate accountability, and, ultimately, a full realization of God’s abiding presence. Some essential discernment practices for leadership groups:
  • Host a vision retreat
  • Practice exercises in breathing and relaxation
  • Prayers for releasing our fears, needs, and hopes
  • Reflect on the scriptures: Examine what you have heard and ask how it applies to your story/ministry setting
  • Listen in silence for God’s guidance, faithful response and companionship
  • Debrief what has gone well and share present challenges. Where did we sense God’s presence and the Holy Spirit’s nudging?
  • Remember to lift up the Conference priorities: New Missional Leaders, New Places for New People and Pathway out of Poverty
  • Identify two or three priorities to focus on using the questions above for discernment
  • Develop a plan with SMART goals which will provide accountability
  • Express gratitude to God

Faithfully and regularly living such practices as congregational leaders can help mold your church into one that is growing in grace, discernment and in making new disciples for the transformation of the world.