In the 1970s, something known as the shepherding movement appeared in a number of charismatic churches. The shepherding movement basically took ideas like discipleship and mentoring and added an obscene level of control. 

How did it work? When you were part of a shepherding church, be assigned a “discipler”. One aspect of this relationship was you had to get your discipler’s permission before making certain decisions. Switching jobs? Getting engaged? Moving house? Buying a car? As long as your discipler gives you permission, you can do any of those things. 

A church in the Ithaca area had been into shepherding deeply, and some of their wounded occasionally ended up at the Vineyard while we were there. 

We can easily agree that this is unhealthy, ugly, and, well, bad.

However, contrast it to how most of us make important decisions. An opportunity arises, and we pray about it. We might ask for others to pray for us—usually requesting that God would give us wisdom as we make an important decision. Then we make the decision and announce it to friends and others who need to know. 

I believe these are two unhealthy extremes for making decisions. One has a twisted view of discipleship that is more about submission and control, and the other is simply rugged western individualism. One extreme says, “I need permission”, and the other says, “Nobody tells me what to do”. 

I’d like to propose a third way. 

Communal Discernment

There are a couple of ideas at the root of this idea. 

First is interdependence, which is simply the fact that we need each other. If I am going to thrive as a follower of Jesus or as a human, I need other people. And they need me. We all have things to offer and things we lack. 

Second is simply the idea that the church is to operate as a family. A church is to be communal. I’ve written previously about how leadership needs to operate in a communal manner rather than a hierarchical one. But it is how we should operate individually as well.

What I am proposing here is a process of community or communal discernment. And it involves inviting other people into your decision-making process. 

Who Do I Invite Into This Process?

Some of you may have seen some red flags when you read the previous paragraph, and I get it.  If you have been involved with controlling, domineering people, the idea of allowing others a place in your decision-making process can seem terrifying.  

The pastor of the church we were involved in when we moved to Ireland sat me down and told me that I needed to forget everything I’d done in ministry and submit to him. By that time, I’d heard enough stories about his need for submission, and it was kind of crazy. Even if I hadn’t heard the stories, that was a sentence that screamed, “RUN AWAY NOW!”

So, let me clarify, I am not in any way telling you to give someone else any degree of control over your life. If you have a decision to make, you should not give control of that decision to anyone else. 

In fact, if you are going to invite others into a process of communal discernment, invite people that you know and trust. People that you know want the best for you. You don’t need to invite someone because they have a title or some level of authority. Especially if you believe they are invested in your decision.

A Problem With How We Make Decisions

Why is it important to have others in this process?

It is well known that humans generally make decisions based on emotion and then justify their decisions with logic. When we really want something, we are able to do incredible amounts of mental gymnastics to convince ourselves it is the right thing. We have all done it.

That is not to say your emotions should not be a part of the process of making decisions…they shouldn’t be the only thing.

And the simple fact is, when our emotions are in high gear, especially when we are feeling a great deal of stress, it simply becomes more difficult for us to see the whole picture. 

Imagine this scenario. You have an opportunity that you are excited about. It will mean some major changes in your life, but you are still excited. Now imagine you gather three or four people you trust. They are mature, and you know they care about you and want the best for you. What if you were to sit down and explain the opportunity as best as you could? Talk about the potential gains and even some of the losses you foresee if you were to do this. 

After a time of prayer and silence, your friends asked you questions. They will all have different life experiences and will see things you won’t. You may be a ‘big picture’ person, and one of your friends is detail oriented. We all have blind spots…things that we just don’t see.

And they are asking these questions not because they want to control you but because they want the best for you.

Elizabeth and I had a major decision to make earlier this year. We had three potential options. As we went through a process of communal discernment with friends, it became clear that one of the options was not actually an option. But it was not until will had to think through the consequences of that option that it became clear it was unworkable. While we did not reach a final decision that day, having one option off the table, made it obvious that one option was our best.

Getting Started

We have been using a model one of the members of our leadership community at the Table drew up based on Ruth Haley Barton’s book Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. For anyone wishing to develop a communal discernment process, I would encourage you to read Barton’s book. (I have listed this book as one of the 3 of the Most Important Books I’ve Read).

Perhaps just start with something small. You have a decision coming up; maybe it isn’t causing you a lot of stress, but it is an opportunity to try it out. The process we use is a bit more detailed, but I wanted to provide a brief outline in case you’d like to try it.

1) Clarify the Question.

Are the right people around the table? What are the key values and principles?

2) Pray. 

Trust God to lead. Wisdom. Pray for indifference to any outcome…only the will of God.

3) Listen on multiple levels

What are we sensing? What might Scripture say? What are our experiences telling us? Who will be affected by this decision?

Consolations and Desolations.

Address if someone seems to be directing or monopolising the conversation.


4) Resolve together what the next steps might be.

Is a decision clear?

Do reservations and questions still remain? Listen to them.

Trust God through this process.

One Final Thought

Although we didn’t use the model we are now,[I have written previously about our decision to invite the leaders of the church in Ithaca into a discernment process concerning our move to Ireland. That was one of the biggest decisions we have ever made. And the road has not always been smooth. But it is so reassuring to know that I didn’t make this decision on my own. Several people, we know and care for sought  God and sensed this was the right path. And while this journey has had its ups and downs, We have had an assurance that we made the right decision.

Of course, a process of communal discernment does not mean you will never make a bad decision or look back with regrets. But if you’ve brought people who want the best for you into a process to help you discern God’s will, you will have a level of wisdom, peace and confidence you won’t otherwise.

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash