Discernment and Governance:   The place of the Spirit in Administration (Part 1)

I want to reflect on an aspect of institutional functioning from a distinctly Christian perspective and ask:  in our organizations, what might it look like and feel like if we intentionally sought for wisdom and guidance from the Holy Spirit? 

For some, the only possible response is to say that yes, the Spirit leads the organization through the structures and protocols and processes by which we are organized.  Good structures, appropriate lines of accountability, good processes and the outcome reflects – through the decision-making mechanisms – notably through the discussions of those in senior leadership – the ‘will’ of God.  That is, the Spirit is not ‘immediately’ present to the decision-making process but rather is present through the governance structures that are already in place.   And as a rule this means that those in the majority are in alignment with the purposes of God.   Those in the minority when the vote is taken are, well, not recognizing the will of God.  And, if we are unanimous, then surely that means that we know what God wants [side note:  I always amazes me when organizations make reference to how the board was unanimous on something as though this is an even greater indicator that they know the will of God.] 

For others, however, the answer is that yes . . . we listen and we attend to the Spirit and we sense or feel or hear or know the Spirit’s witness and we act accordingly.   In this case, it is a group prayer that might lead to an outcome and in the process, good governance is sometimes viewed as an obstacle or a lack of genuine attentiveness to the Spirit.   And further, this approach as often as not privileges those we might describe as ‘spiritually confident’ – that is, they lack a healthy self-doubt and live with a presumption that they have a direct line to the purposes and intentions of God in the world and in the organization. 

My problem with the first response is the assumption that God always functions through and speaks through the formal structures and through those in positions of leadership and power.   And without discounting the place of and the importance of these structures, do we not need to acknowledge that we cannot presume that those in leadership necessarily have the wisdom to do what needs to be done?  And, further, that surely we cannot assume that our structures for good governance always serve us well.  

My problem with the second response is that as often we lack clear criteria by which the Spirit’s work or witness is actually discerned.  Who is to say who has the inside track on the Spirit’s intentions for the organization?  And more, clearly organizations only work well if there is a governance system in place and we cannot completely discard this system and expect it to serve us well in the implementation of our decisions.

Perhaps there is a third way.  First and obviously, I am going to affirm the critical and essential place of good governance structures and clearly defined parameters by which everyone knows who is accountable for what, and who has the authority to do what within the organization.   And, I could add, when we “discern” what Spirit is saying, we need those structures to implement whatever it is that we sense we are going to do.

Second, when the board of a church or the board of a university or a non-profit meets, not all the wisdom that is needed is actually in the room.   Surely we need to move into mechanisms and approaches by which there is a means by which the organization can hear from those who are not in positions of authority, governance and leadership.   Do we not need to attend to the margins?  Do we not need a way to listen to those who are in the pews, or in the trenches, or on the front lines doing what this organization is called to do?

Thus my proposal:  that within the rhythms and routines of good governance, we have a means by which we occasionally make the organization “flat” . . . where we suspend the structures and give everyone equal voice and encourage them to speak and insist that they will be heard and attend to how an where the Spirit might be “speaking.”

And yet, doing this assumes, as noted or implied, two things.  First, that whatever is heard through this process is incorporated into the work of those in leadership or governance roles.   And second, we have to have a clear and agreed upon criteria by which we will say:  what we are sensing and feeling and hearing is truly of God.  

I will consider both of these in next week’s blog. 

(To be continued)

Author

Gordon T. Smith

Gordon T. Smith is the president of Ambrose University located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Ambrose is an institution owned by the Church of the Nazarene and the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada. It includes a whole range of undergraduate programs, including education, business, music, behavioural sciences an biology, as well as history, English and psychology. Ambrose also includes an undergraduate school of ministry formation. And, last but not least, there is Ambrose Seminary, a fully accredited graduate level institution of theological formation. Gordon has been the president since August of 2012.

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