Discernment: A Rare Commodity

As churches and individual citizens, we often choose our own leaders. But why do we so often choose poor leaders? I propose that we too easily look at false “images” of spirituality and leadership that not only poorly assess leaders, but undermine our own view of the gifts God has given us.

I had close contact with 2 churches that brought in new pastors. Both these churches were some of the largest in their communities, and they drew leading citizens from their areas. As one would expect, when it came time to select new pastors, both churches assembled search committees made up of some of their most respected members. Both churches spent the better part of a year conducting nationwide searches, interviewing potential candidates, presenting them to their congregations, and finally selecting their top choices.

With little doubt, much prayer was involved in the selection process; yet both churches wound up with choices they would regret. One of the candidates turned down the call within days of receiving it. The other candidate proved to be a domineering “pastor” who was asked to leave the church within just a few years.

My focus is not to analyze these 2 individual stories, but to reflect on a lack of discernment. Both these pastors came across as strong leaders who spoke authoritatively and decisively. Apparently, that which the search committees and the congregations perceived to reflect leadership and spiritual maturity covered a great deal of immaturity that went undiscerned.

Surely the body of Christ must grow in discerning the will of God. However, the immaturity of our discernment begins on a less spiritual plane. I find that most people carry some image of what a spiritually mature person looks like, and they superficially measure others against this standard. In some circles this standard reflects academic degrees and professional experience. The “more spiritual” person by these standards is recognized by his vocabulary, position, knowledge, and the number of diplomas on his wall.

The standards of a second group tend to reflect the characteristics of boldness, an authoritative personality, and broad vision for others. Finally, a 3rd image of spirituality reflects the ideals of beauty, personality, and poise.

We might all agree that these characteristics are valuable in spiritual leadership, but we must also discern that the qualities can exist apart from true spiritual maturity. The spiritually mature Christian comes in many external packages. Spiritual maturity is measured by the degree of the individual's trust in the Lord, love for the Lord, and commitment to serving the Lord. Surely the spiritual leader must have additional leadership skills and qualities, but if we only see the external qualities, we failed to us discern the most important aspects of a spiritual leader.

Just as Samuel was reprimanded by God for looking at the physical characteristics of David's brothers as the evidence of God's choosing, discernment must focus on attempting to see the heart of the individual and hearing the leading voice of God. Individuals and congregations who only look at an external image of spirituality will select pastors and civic leaders who lead their followers to wander aimlessly or even into evil. World history records many leaders who stood out from their peers because of their intellect, their vision, their persuasive authority, their commanding presence, their good looks, or their sense of concern. Most of these have been forgotten, but some remain in our memories for having revealed their inner spiritual emptiness through moral failings or having led their followers to commit her renders acts.

Though this discussion could end here, perhaps the greatest effect of our lack of discernment is to undermine ourselves. I remember the days when I wrestled with feeling overlooked by God. As the teen, I sought God with all of my heart, but I did not seem to elicit His favor as did others who had tears streaming down their faces or who seemed to radiate joy. My wrestling with a false image of spirituality festered into an anger and bitterness toward God for not giving me the emotional feelings I saw in others. It took many years for me to learn that the external expressions of some were merely the expressions of their personality. Surely they loved God, but there expressions of love need not be the measure God used to impart his love to me. Where some are emotional, I am very analytical and philosophical. I now have my own set of three diplomas, but I know that these degrees do not reflect my spiritual maturity.

Pervasively, our American culture is shaped by a “celebrity” view of leadership. We look for leaders that look good, talk well, our outgoing, and exude confidence. Unfortunately, most of those who attain celebrity status have few of the qualities of true leadership–spiritual or otherwise. By poorly discerning the gifts of others, we fail to rightly discern the true gifts God has given each of us. I pray that our Christian schools can help raise up a generation that looks to the heart of man rather than merely to his external qualities
a generation that looks where God looks.
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