Step 4: The Step Aside, Discernment
Yet he often withdrew to deserted places and prayed.
The step aside is the discipline of discerning God's direction in making significant decisions and determining spiritual direction. It is the step of discernment.
If there's a tipping point in ministry longevity, to borrow Malcolm Gladwell's term from the product innovation world, it is in decision making. Tentative, slow-moving, cumbersome governing systems tend to inhibit decisions and create confusion, frustration, and inertia in the organization, especially among leaders. Today most truly effective congregations operate in a trusting environment that can respond to the fast-moving world around them with efficiency and speed. They know how to make decisions. Stepping aside is part of that decision-making system.
The step aside and the step back are related, but only distantly so. The step back is the step of gaining perspective, assessing a potentially explosive situation by insuring that you are seeing the circumstances clearly. The step aside isn't about clarifying your personal vision of what is happening, but about discerning God's view and will about where you are and how you deal with what is happening. It is the discipline of seeking God's direction in your life and those you are leading.
Jesus stepped aside on many occasions. One instance was the night before he named the twelve Apostles. Luke 6:12 provides the physicians orderly account in his usual economy of words, indicating, "During those days he went out to a mountain and spent all night in prayer to God." There are no details about what Jesus did on that mountain or the process of elimination he used to make those important selections. What Luke wanted his readers to know is that Jesus went there to receive God's guidance in making such an important decision. As the theme verse for this step indicates above, it was his regular practice to do so. Several Scriptures confirm it---
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, He got up, went out, and made
His way to a deserted place. And He was praying there.
After dismissing the crowds, He went up to a mountain by Himself to pray.
When evening came, He was there alone.
During His earthly life, He offered prayers and appeals, with loud cries and
tears, to the One who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard
because of His reverence.
When He reached the place, He told them, "Pray that you may not enter into
temptation". Then He withdrew from them about a stone's throw and knelt
down, and began to pray.
Luke 22: 40-41
Here's a fallacy about leadership and decision making: stepping aside isn't about discovering our thoughts, validating our decisions, or selling our vision about mission. It's about discerning His counsel, His direction, and His wisdom to rivet us to His plan. Henry and Richard Blackaby, writing in Spiritual Leadership, explains it like this---
God doesn't want people to do what they think is best. He wants them to do
what He knows is best, and no amount of reasoning and intellectualizing will
This may be one of the reasons leadership tenure in Baptist churches is relatively short. The plans that dictate church administrative process and mission are too often the products of strategic planning, market studies, demographics, statistics, or community trends and less the result of what happens in the prayer room. Learning to step aside for prayerful discernment is a way to stay focused on the mission and hear from the One who called us to it.
Pastoral ministry and personal experience has intimately acquainted Harriet and I with the need to step aside and hear from God. All four of our pastorates were in highly transitional communities requiring significant church change if we were to fulfill kingdom mission in them. Which means, at one level or another. some conflict. There have been many occasions of stepping aside from the normal routines of church life to listen to the Father. Then there was the death of our son, Brian Eliot Holmes, in 2011. His murder shook us as nothing we had ever encountered. Being President of the South Carolina Baptist Convention that year brought the press and media to our front door. Our grief and the pressures of the moment were intense. Thankfully, a couple of church leaders pulled us aside for an evening of prayer and private grief. It was an occasion for listening to God. What a blessing.
You know, these five steps sharpen leadership distance in venues beyond the local church. As a pastor for thirty-five years and with a deep passion for church and those called to serve, it is a setting that gives me great concern. Still, Christian leaders in every life category should practice these steps to insure their persistence over the long haul of personal influence, in every leadership slot. Yes, it is admirable to learn what the great educator's think, how the mental health professionals deal with personality development, the best scholarship about parenting, marriage, careers, personal growth, or ethical challenges. But, the step aside tunes us to God so that we can pursue and apply His guidance in the important moves of life.
Stepping down, up, back, and aside are disciplines for the distance. Tomorrow I'll discuss Step 5: The Step Away, The Step of Refreshment.
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