by Daniel Bacon
Six principles for discerning God’s direction drawn from Acts 15.
How good are you at making decisions within your mission? Based on recent research, the track record for corporate America isn’t so good. Business decisions are often flawed, and one study of over 2,200 executives revealed that the majority felt bad decisions were as frequent as good ones. Another study of twenty thousand executive searches found that forty percent of their senior-level hires failed within eighteen months. More than half of teachers in the U.S. quit their jobs within four years (Heath and Heath 2013).
What’s missing? While analysis is helpful in making good decisions, a solid process is even more important. That process must include both objective and subjective elements. I’m convinced that for good decision-making to take place in mission organizations, that process must also be healthy.
Mission group decisions are not made in a vacuum. Things like cultural dimensions, church polity, organizational size and culture, and generational value differences will play a significant part in shaping group process. It is also important to remember that ultimately there is no universally correct way of making decisions. While many factors play a part in shaping organizations and their decision-making styles, there are basic biblical principles that apply to any group process when seeking to discern God’s best for an issue.
Acts 15 as a Model
Let’s look at a case study on decision-making from Acts 15, when a history-making decision was made. What unfolds in Luke’s report on the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is an illustration of an effective group process. As many Gentile believers came into the church, a number of traditional Jewish believers demanded that these new converts be circumcised. The
argument about this issue resulted in what has been called the First Church Council.
This was no small difference of opinion. The Greek words here for sharp dispute and debate (15:2) convey the idea of great strife, discord, and a lack of harmony. In other words, it was apparently a heated discussion with emotions running high. Amazingly, there was a happy end to what could have otherwise been a very sad story.
Principles for Discerning God’ Direction
How then did this gathering of people with very different perspectives come to unity on a vital issue? What were the key factors that helped them discern God’s direction at this point? What can we learn from their experience? Let me share six principles.
The right people were present. Although some believers from the party of the Pharisees had the opportunity to present their grievance and demands, only the key decision-makers (apostles and elders) were actively involved in the discussion and debate, although many others were apparently in the audience (15:12, 22).
It is a basic, but important principle to remember that good decisions usually come when the right people are involved. By right people, I mean those who have the spiritual and experiential maturity plus the authority to make decisions of this magnitude. This debate required those present who were both aware of the issues and open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Personal preparation to be a participant in any group decision is
always important. By preparation, I’m referring not only to the issues, but the need for spiritual preparation as well. When our hearts or minds are distracted, or we are not in tune with the Lord, our contribution will likely be sub-par and perhaps even counter-productive. Good group process or practices are important, but in the end they are no substitute for personal preparation.
It is also important to consider who else should be part of the discernment process. In Acts 15, we see (1) those who would be affected by the decision (Gentile believers from Antioch and local Jewish believers), (2) some who had background experience (e.g., Peter, Paul, and Barnabas), and (3) others who had expertise or special credentials (James). These kinds of potential participants also represent “the right kind of people” who can contribute significantly to the discernment process of discovering God’s will.
They shared the right values. While nothing is said in Acts 15 directly about group operating values, we can only assume that as apostles and elders who submitted to godly wisdom and the application of biblical truth, there was an underlying willingness to listen to each other and seek God’s will collectively. Their corporate willingness to even bring it to a forum for group discussion and discernment demonstrated a degree of shared values (i.e., God’s perspective is important).
Ruth Haley Barton emphasizes that any kind of a leadership group needs to have the following critical ingredients as operating values in order to genuinely discern God’s guidance: (1) a shared understanding of what discernment really is, (2) a shared conviction that discernment is the heart of leadership and that the purpose is not just to complete an agenda list and make necessary decisions, and (3) a shared affirmation that discerning and doing the will of God is the goal of the process (Barton 2012, 14).
Why are values important, and what do they mean to an organization? Ministry strategy and direction always flow out of our values. Core values and beliefs are the starting point for all that we actually seek to accomplish and how we will go about doing it. Even vision and mission spring from biblical and core values. Leaders often focus so strongly on vision-casting and strategy that clarifying core values seems like an afterthought. But bringing values to the forefront and focusing on how the group will function and what priorities it will follow will set the pace for how any group can discern God’s best for them.
Another critical part of preparation is building trust within the group. If there is not buy-in to these shared convictions or values and a willingness to hold each other accountable, then discernment of God’s best and the process of seeking guidance will be hindered. All this to say is that each of us needs to be the “right kind of person” to make a meaningful contribution to the decision-making process.
It is a gathering of the “right people” then that makes discerning God’s will truly possible. Without total ownership of core values, a leadership group or team is in danger of drifting or stalling due to internal conflict or competing agendas.
They allowed adequate time for focused sharing and discussion. The problem before this Jerusalem Council was no small one, and serious effort needed to be taken to truly discern the way forward. Luke stated that, “The apostles and elders met to consider this question” (Acts 15:7). In other words, these key church leaders did not try to run from the threat or ignore it, but faced head on what was most important for the sake of world evangelism at this point. Because the problem was major, there was “much discussion” (i.e., enquiry, debate, or questioning). Following this prolonged period of interaction which Peter wisely permitted, steps were then taken to bring things to closure.
It seems that solutions or answers were not forthcoming until the participants had truly engaged in the issue, various aspects or opinions were heard, and all that was potentially helpful was taken into consideration. It sounds like they tackled the issue in a productive and constructive way, even though it may have been uncomfortable at times.
Patrick Lencioni highlights the fear of conflict (i.e., conflict focused on ideas and not personalities) as a factor that can hinder the effectiveness of an organization from finding the best solutions. Obviously, scripture has much to say about how believers should treat one another and the need to always speak the truth in love. Nevertheless, truth must be spoken and sought while at the same time maintaining an atmosphere of love and respect.
Too often, we hold back from challenging ideas or new ways forward for fear of either offending others or for self-protection. However, part of a healthy process is to widen our options and test our assumptions. Our goal in ministry is to discern God’s best, but in the process of doing that we may need to passionately discuss and debate ideas or plans in order for the best to emerge.
Sidenote #1: The prayer of indifference. One aspect of the discussion process that I have found helpful comes from Barton again when she talks about the group needing to pray for discernment as well as to talk about the issue. Often, we toss up a quick prayer for God’s blessing and guidance and then jump right into the agenda. However, Barton reminds us of the value of praying individually and corporately with the prayer of indifference:
At the beginning of any leadership discernment process, it is good to be reminded to ask for the grace to be indifferent to matters of ego, prestige, organizational politics, personal opinion, personal advantage, personal preference or even ownership of pet project. We ask God for the grace to desire his will—nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. (2012, 188)
Of course, beyond this we pray for wisdom and guidance and trust that God will truly lead the discuss process.
Sidenote #2: The danger of groupthink. The goal of a discussion is to come to unity of heart and mind about an important issue. However, along the way, we must be aware of the danger of what has been called groupthink, a phenomenon that occurs when the desire for group consensus overrides our common sense desire to present alternatives, critique a position, or express an unpopular opinion. Here, the desire for group cohesion effectively drives out good decision-making and problem-solving.
Perhaps groups or teams within mission organizations can be more susceptible to groupthink because of the high value of harmony and group unity. At the same time, allowing and encouraging thorough discussion and exploration of options or alternatives is also invaluable.
Danny Morris and Charles Olsen (1997) add the final step of “resting” in the process of decision-making and discernment of God’s will. By resting, they mean the allowance of additional time for the decision to “rest” on the minds or consciences of the participants looking for any signs of consolation or desolation.
Morris and Olsen ask, How does the decision sound later in the parking lot after the meeting, or in the morning having slept on it the night before? How does it feel when sharing it with a friend or even someone who did not participate in the discussions but might have a potential opposing view? Does it bring a sense of peace and rightness and seem to draw the group closer to God or is their disquiet?
Keep in mind that good mission leaders also encourage people to process decisions at their own rate, and not be forced to conform to the leader’s speed.
They checked scripture for alignment and compatibility with God’s revealed purposes or principles. As we look at the unfolding story of this watershed discussion, James injected a short statement in seeking to discern God’s best: “The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written…” (Acts 15:15). The test of consistency with scripture is crucial for any discussion about organizational plans and policies. At the same time, consistency with the God-given mission and core values of the organization is also a must.
James was seeking to listen to God and bring a biblical perspective to the debate. He carefully made the connection between what they were seeing in the conversion of Gentiles and the words of the Old Testament prophets. As Barton aptly puts it,
He connected the dots between Peter’s testimony and the words of the prophet Amos, who described the trajectory of God’s long-term plan: “And I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—even all the Gentiles over whom my names has been called” (Acts 15:17). (2012, 203)
It is hard to overestimate James’ contribution at this crucial point in helping these church leaders put their story within the larger story of God’s redemptive plan. He was able to demonstrate God’s perspective on this issue, which in the end is more important than personal experience.
They listened to the word of wisdom that would help confirm the discernment process. James was a man of prayer and well-grounded in scripture. Sensing the Holy Spirit’s prompting, he sought to bring to closure the debate with this simple, but profound statement: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).
There comes a point when someone needs to state what seems to be the conclusion based on all that has gone on before. Note, however, that James did not use the apostolic declaration of “thus says the Lord,” but rather it was his considered decision that they should act in the following way. Leadership discernment involves listening with love and attention both to God and to others, carefully examining the facts or data, and sensing what God is saying through scripture.
Having been a part of an international leadership team for a number of years, I recall some very sacred moments when major decisions were being strongly discussed that would affect the direction and welfare of our mission agency. More than once, I have witnessed a moment of truth or wisdom, when a participant or the group leader would sum up the discussion and say in affect, “This is what we should do.” With this came a sense of peace and assurance that God was confirming the right way.
To be able to state confidently, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28) is a bold step. Yet the apostles, elders, and others sensed the freedom to act on their well-considered conclusions. The response from the growing Gentile church, as well as the Jewish church, confirmed the rightness of their guidance.
They were willing to publicly demonstrate the process by which the decision was made. It is instructive to see how following the council meeting, the decision was passed on to the church in Antioch and beyond. The apostles and elders were not content just to announce the decision; they also wanted to give insights as to what was involved and how the decision was made.
In an apparently brief letter was a summary explanation of a carefully and prayerfully considered process which James claimed had the stamp of approval not only of the church leadership but of the Holy Spirit as well. He claimed divine approval for this outcome. What’s amazing is to see in turn how that letter was received and welcomed by believers everywhere. By sending Paul and Barnabas with the letter, they were able to communicate more clearly just what had happened and why, and likely were able to respond to questions or concerns in person.
It would be naïve to think that every major decision for an organizational change is welcomed and cheerfully embraced by all. Change doesn’t come easy for many of us. It isn’t so much that we fear change, but rather our perceived loss that makes the change process difficult.
Even though in Acts 15 it appears all was well, there was likely some grumbling and resistance as the implications actually began to sink in. However, the test of a godly decision actually led by the Holy Spirit is usually confirmed in the long run rather than just by initial popular acclaim or even criticism. Nevertheless, one necessary part of the process is to help those affected understand both the rationale for the change and how the decision was actually made.
What James was illustrating is the benefit of a process for all of us today to discern what is really needed and how to focus on what is at stake. We are all faced with a myriad of decisions to make on a daily/weekly basis. In leadership, however, often our decisions have much more of a public impact and can either help build trust or break it with followers or with those whom we are seeking to serve.
Seeking God’s best as a mission agency or field team is a challenging and sometimes difficult process. Nevertheless, God has not left us without adequate resources and guidance to choose what is pleasing to him and that which will further his kingdom purposes.
Haley Barton, Ruth. 2012. Pursuing God’s Will Together. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press.
Heath, Chip and Dan Heath. 2013. Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. New York: Crown Business.
Lencioni, Patrick. 2002. Five Dysfunctions of a Team. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Morris, Danny and Charles Olsen. 1997. Discerning God’s Will Together: A Spiritual Practice for the Church. Nashville: Upper Room Books.
Having served in Japan and Singapore, and as U.S. national director for OMF International, Daniel Bacon has focused on leader development among OMF personnel and consulting with other ministries. Daniel has a DMiss from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 18-24. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.