The Process of Discerning Leaders

I have never been asked to be a ballerina.  I have never been asked to attend time trials as a hopeful for the Olympic rowing team.   No one has ever asked me to consider whether I might appear on one of those quiz shows which are reserved for the extremely intelligent.  No one has ever asked me why I am not a boxer, or a chef or an accountant.  Those people who know me would know that a disaster would not be far off if I sought to undertake any of those activities.  It would not just be me who ended up in a mess, but all those who relied on me to undertake those tasks on their behalf.

But there have been a few things over the years which people have asked me to do.  They have asked me to do those things because they believed that I not only had either the skills to do them or the potential to learn how to do them, but because they also thought that I would enjoy doing them as well.   In fact there are some things which I have been asked to do, which as I look back now, I know that I would never have become the person that I am (a more complete version of me) if I had not done them.

I know that many of us have had that kind of experience: of being prompted by others to take on a new avenue in our careers, or to be brave enough to enter into a new relationship, or to do something which we have simply never done before.   I suspect too, that many of us have had the experience of being able to prompt others to embark on a new chapter in their lives as well.

In the life of the Church we are always involved in this task (which we call discernment), whether we realise it or not.  Before Wendy came to be our Parish Priest some members of the congregations, together with others from the wider Diocese along with our Bishop, sought to discern whether God was calling Wendy to be here as our leader.  At our annual general meeting each year we seek to discern wise and skilled members of our congregation, to work with our priest in the making of strategic leadership decisions about the management and administration of our Church through our Parish Council.

Every time a new person is appointed as a server in the sanctuary, or a worker amongst our children and families, or as someone who visits the sick and lonely on behalf of us all – every time someone takes on a new role of ministry in this parish –  a process of discernment has taken place.  We may not normally call that discernment, and we may not always realise that discernment is going on because actually it often comes so naturally to us, to make those kinds of decisions, but whether we name it as discernment or not, that is what is happening.

We know for ourselves some of those people in our congregations who have the kinds of exceptional gifts which are needed in order to be leaders in our Church.    We know too the very many gifts which we see embodied in all of the members of our Church.  Those gifts and skills and talents are not for us to keep for ourselves, as private possessions, they have been given to us by God.  And God has given them to us primarily for the building up of the Church, and for the extension of God’s Kingdom.

There are some people who we care for and respect very much, but who we nevertheless know do not have the skills or the temperament or the insights which are required by leaders;  and we know too, whether they are leaders at the current time or not, those people who we could trust (because of their vision, and skills, and commitment to Christ) to lead us in the future.

When I am in situations where I am trying to discern leaders for ministry, I normally begin by asking, “have I seen this person do things in the past, which would indicate to me that they would be able to do the kinds of things that I need someone to do in the future?”   But I also try to remind myself that not everyone who is able to do what is required, has had the opportunity to show me that they can do them.  So there is often a need to step out in faith.

In this Parish, as a part of our Christian responsibility and commitment, each one of us in this Church is being invited to be part of the discernment of future leaders for our community.   We have already made a commitment together to build a ministry team of leaders around our priest, which will share together in the leadership of the Parish.

Over these three Sundays we are taking our part in the process of discerning leaders for this team.  We are looking for five leaders to be part of this team, representing the 5 ministry areas which have been defined to reflect the priorities agreed by the Parish Council.  Each one of those different ministry areas will require someone who has the skills and God-given gifts to co-ordinate, and inspire and develop that area of our life into the future.  Those leaders will be building on the very strong foundations of ministry which are already in place in the parish, and they will rely on all of the rest of us, in turn, to use our gifts to help our activities to grow and flourish.

As we contemplate the different proposed ministry areas we may instantly have in our minds people who for many years have been involved effectively in the activities which are associated with them.

Other people may also come to mind, who we think will be able to undertake those tasks effectively, even if we have not seen them at work in leadership roles before.

As Anglicans we place a special significance on the ministry of those people who are set apart by ordination for particular ministries in the life of the Church.  In the Anglican Church (as with the other Catholic Churches of Rome and the East) we set apart people who have very distinctive gifts from God for the ministries of deacon, priest and bishop.  People are ordained as deacons to live out a very special ministry of bridging the gap between the Church and the world.  They act on our behalf in the wider community in ministries of service, and connection and social justice.  People are ordained as priests to (in a very special way) represent God to us, and us to God.  They gather us together as a community, and they give us the sacraments.

Alongside our discernment of lay leaders we have been invited by our Bishop to recommend to him any people in our congregations who we believe have the potential to be ordained as deacons and priests within the whole Church and with a particular focus of ministry in this parish.

This is an exciting opportunity for us.  Imagine how ministry might be expanded and developed here if Wendy and Robyn were to be able to be assisted by other deacons and priests, who would not be here for a few years and then move on somewhere else, but would focus their ministry here for many years to come, whilst also continuing in their other regular employment or in their retirement.

Any members of our Church who are discerned for ordained ministry (as deacons or priests) will be forwarded on to a larger discernment process in the diocese.  This reflects the importance that we place on ordained ministry, and the need for the discernment of those who are to be ordained to happen both at the parish and also at a wider level within the diocese.

So over these three weeks we have the opportunity and the responsibility to play our part in the discernment of lay leaders and of people who might in the future be ordained, for ministry here in this parish.  Our prayerful task  is to complete the discernment forms which have been distributed, indicating the names of those who we believe to have appropriate gifts for leadership; and to bring them back next Sunday to hand them in, and to offer them to God.  The two forms ask us to identify gifts in others, and to identify gifts in ourselves.

We are not voting in this process, people will not be appointed on the basis of having their names written down the most number of times.  A small group led by Wendy will work prayerfully and carefully through your recommendations in the coming weeks.  It is not an election, but it is your opportunity to be involved.

In the Bible there are many ways of calling and discerning leaders.  After Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension, the disciples needed to replace Judas the one who had betrayed Jesus.

And they decided to do this in a way which would seem very strange to us today, although it was very common in their own time.  They chose two men, and they cast lots to decide which of them would become an apostle.  Casting lots is like playing a game of chance.  A series of eaves of corn were held out, with one shorter than the rest, and the one who chose, by chance, the short piece of corn was the one who was appointed to replace Judas – that’s where we get the idea of “drawing the short straw” from.  It seems an incredibly basic way of choosing leaders.

Imagine if we had had five candidates to be the parish priest here before Wendy arrived, and we had simply asked each of them to choose a piece of corn, and then appointed the one who had chosen the short piece.  It is incredible, but that is how Matthias, the replacement for Judas was made.

But something extraordinary happens in the life of the first followers of Jesus.  After Matthias has been chosen the day of Pentecost comes, and the promise that the Holy Spirit of Jesus would be with those who followed him forever, becomes a reality.

The presence of the Holy Spirit is so great that these first followers of Christ are transformed.

The next occasion after Pentecost when the Early Church needs to discern leaders comes some chapters later in the story – we heard an account of it this morning from the Acts of the Apostles – when the first Deacons, of whom Stephen is the most famous were appointed for leadership.

Now that the Holy Spirit dwelt in the Church the casting of lots (that making of decisions almost by chance) was discarded, the Church knew that this was no longer an adequate way for decisions to be made.  Instead the members of the Early Church discerned the first deacons on the basis of their gifts and skills, their holiness, and the evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives.  That same Holy Spirit continues to dwell in the Church, in us who are the Body of Christ.

So we can have confidence that we follow this week, in the footsteps of the first followers of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, as we seek to discern leaders for this parish at this time.  The process that we are engaged in over these three Sundays has been designed to help us in this work of discerning leaders, and in being involved in it, we connect ourselves consciously with Christians down the ages who have been involved in this task in their communities as well.

We will not leave this important work to chance, we will not leave it to everyone else.  It is our responsibility, with the help of the Holy Spirit of God, to play our part in the discernment of leaders for the Church which we love so much.