Discernment and Governance: The place of the Spirit in Administration (Part 2)

We need to make the case that the Spirit is present to and giving wisdom to an organization.   And yet, while as a default that would we can assume as a rule this happens through those in constituted positions of leadership and governance, surely we have enough self awareness to know that not all the wisdom that we need is in the room.  So, as I noted last week, we need a mechanism – processes – by which we can attend to a wider constituency – notably those at the margins and those in the front lines, those who are actually doing what this organization is on mission to do.

I propose three things.  First, as a regular practice and as an occasional practice when there is a particular knotty or complex issue that needs to be addressed, why not flatten the organization?   Whether we call it a town hall meeting or an open forum, this kind of event or activity can unearth profoundly helpful perspectives that might not otherwise reach the board table.   However, such a gathering is only helpful if:

  • There is a skilled and capable moderator who knows how to shepherd the conversation and the exchange – including the effective management of those who are angry, strident or domineering; and, with this, someone who can truly give voice to those who might not otherwise be heard [for whatever reason . . .they are preternaturally quiet or shy or fearful of conflict or feeling bullied and thus not inclined to speak out] in that without these voices and perspectives, the whole exercise is of little value;
  • There is a means by which what is “heard” through this process is brought into the work and processes of those who on the board or senior leadership level hear what has been said, account for it, recognize its significance and then – and this is crucial – report back:  there is both a process and an accountability.  It does not take long for people to get cynical about open forums when they are merely for show and do not actually make any difference; and,
  • There is a mechanism for discernment – that is, a means by which we know that what has been voiced and heard is wisdom for this time and this place.  And this is the rub, of course.  And on the whole it is accurate to note that we do not have an agreed upon consensus on this – whether through the science of good decision-making or the practice of communal discernment.   So, in what follows, I offer this provisionally – as a way to encourage thought and conversation: 

The criteria for discernment would at the very least include the following:

  • Consistent with institutional history, charism and mission;
  • Reflects an accurate read of current circumstances – naming reality effectively [no nostalgia];
  • Call for courage – which means, of course, that we only truly discern well when we are not overly anxious or hallowed out by fear;
  • A gracious humility – we are willing to do what needs to be done without assuming that we are something heroic or special or somehow have an inside track on the purposes of God.

More could perhaps be said, but at the very least, if God is present to us, there will be a sense in which the “word from the Lord” or the guidance of the Spirit will (1) be consistent with how God has been present to this organization thus far; (2) will reflect the new realities in which the organization finds itself; (3) calls for courage and does not arise out of fear or anxiety; and, (4) will not inflate our heads but lead us to a humble and gracious acceptance of that which we must do, even if it is done in obscurity. 

I would very much value hearing back on any or all of this – the comments on the Spirit and organizations.  Pass on your thoughts or comments to gts@gordontsmith.com

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.