The Role of Spiritual Discernment in Developing Church Leaders

Those of us who have answered the call to mentor church leaders are, of necessity, in the “discernment business.”

Who is this person who sits before me? What are his skills and abilities? Where are her strengths, her weaknesses? What kind of scars does he bear? Has he experienced the call of God on his life? Are there fracture planes in her character that make her vulnerable to stress or temptation? What challenges are he and his church facing?

The answers to these and a hundred other questions must be “discerned.” And discernment is a subtle, complicated art. It involves (at a minimum) asking good questions, listening deeply, watching for signals, awareness of context, trusting intuition, and drawing conclusions from minimal data. Dead-on discerners are part psychologist, diagnostician, mind-reader, empathizer, good-guesser, and judge.

But is “Spirit-filled” also a part of the mix? Is there a spiritual component at the heart of discernment, especially the kind of discernment required of those who mentor ministers?

Discernment and the Spirit

In Scripture, discernment arises from more than a finely-tuned perception or a solid common sense. It involves more than reading body language or attending to relational nuances. Rather, spiritual discernment grows from a spiritual wisdom that is a gift of God. It is the ability of one person who has God’s Spirit to recognize another. Spirit calling to Spirit.

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. (1 John 4:1-3)

Here, John advocates a “testing” conducted by spiritual people on those claiming to be spiritual. The “spirits” he is concerned with (the ones to be tested) are the inner selves of church leaders—those who function as prophets, false or true. Not every leader can be trusted, John insists; they must be questioned, tested, tried. And so he advises his readers to use this measure: Will prophets acknowledge that Jesus—Son of God—was also a physical being?

John’s question is, by any standard, a rough means of discernment: a single query concerning the burning issue of John’s day—did Jesus come in the flesh? It is not the question we would ask today. Nor do we latter day saints have the luxury of a single question that neatly divides church leaders into true and false. Things are more complicated these days, the issues not so clear.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the continuing need for discernment. And John has put his finger on the prime issue: What should discerners “test”? What should they be looking at?

Already in this first letter, John has underscored the importance of doctrinal discernment and “knowing the truth.” Already he has emphasized ethical discernment and the need to “walk in the light.” He has repeatedly stressed relational discernment and the necessity of “loving the brothers.” But he is not content to leave discernment to doctrinal or ethical or relational spheres. He pushes on to encourage a discernment of the “spirit.”

So should we.

How Do We Test the Spirits?

As we take on the mantle of mentor and interact with church leaders, we must pursue matters ranging from the practical to the personal. But if we neglect spiritual discernment, mentoring is reduced to “how to” and mere problem solving. We have more to offer—at least we should have more to offer—than church growth advice and ministerial fine-tuning. Mentoring gives us the opportunity to “test the spirits,” a far more basic and profound exercise that, in the end, does far more good for the people we walk with and the churches they serve.

At a basic level, “testing the spirits” means intentionally asking certain kinds of questions.

  1. Does this person have God’s Spirit in him (or her)?
  2. Has the Spirit grown large in him?
  3. Does she demonstrate the Spirit’s fruit in demonstrable, trustable ways?
  4. Has he walked “a long obedience in the same direction” with the Spirit?
  5. Has she experienced an authentic, transforming, character-building encounter with the Spirit?
  6. What spiritual gifts are evident in him?

Some of these questions can be asked directly and openly discussed. Some require a softer touch and can only be approached obliquely. But they are important points of inquiry as mentors interact with church leaders and should be in the forefront of our minds.

I recognize that explorations of this territory can seem subjective and nebulous—especially when compared to the areas we’re more comfortable surveying: How is your marriage? What books are you reading? What is the most significant challenge you and your church face? All good questions, no doubt … all needed and necessary. But don’t, for a moment, think they are sufficient. Mentors have a responsibility to spiritual discernment that requires us to address issues other than resumes or church growth tactics or situational details. It requires questions about deeper things, probings that entail real soul-searching, inquiries into areas that help us determine what is in the heart of a leader.

The Spiritual Mentor

At a larger level, however, spiritual discernment means more than asking certain questions; it demands a mentor whose eyes and ears have been tuned to a spiritual frequency. It is a gift of God, an ability to understand spiritual truths because we have been equipped by God’s Spirit to appreciate things that can only be “spiritually discerned” (see 1Cor 2:12-15). Only a mentor who is “full of the Spirit” can effectively provide this kind of discernment. Only a mentor who is “led by the Spirit” can hear and heed the thoughts, attitudes, and spirit of another.

Thus, spiritual mentoring involves a discerning that cuts both ways. Yes, the person sitting across from us is being “tested” … we are intentionally taking his or her spiritual measure. But we, as mentors, are also being “tested.” The questions we ask, the way we listen, the advice we proffer is equally a measure of our own spiritual depth.

As we sit with church leaders, we’re going to use some basis for evaluating them. Personality. Persuasiveness. Chemistry. Charisma. Competence. History. Ministry experience. Demeanor. Public actions. Stated beliefs. Training. Relationships. Strategic thinking. All of these, of course, are important metrics in evaluating ministerial and pastoral effectiveness. But they are not the most important metric. As mentors, we should be wise enough to recognize that our prime basis for evaluation is a spiritual one, that our first questions should “test the spirit,” that our most crucial discernment concerns the spiritual walk, maturity, and wisdom of those we adopt as companions along the way. 

Spirit_Rest_of_Us_FINAL.indd[My recent book—A Spirit for the Rest of Us—explores how we can experience a more vibrant relationship with the Holy Spirit without jumping off a charismatic cliff. The clue is found in the Final Discourse, where Jesus speaks repeatedly and profoundly about the coming Spirit and how he will work in the lives of believers. In the Paraclete Passages, Jesus promises a Spirit who will live in disciples forever and bring companionship, competence, courage, conviction, and change. Published by Leafwood Publishers,]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.