Listening with the Heart

“Discernment, in a most general sense, is the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and the activity of God…”[1]  “Corporate or leadership discernment is the capacity to recognize and respond to the presence and activity of God as a leadership group relative to the issues being faced and the making of decisions in response to His Presence.”[2]

The title of Sr. Mary Margaret Funk’s book, Discernment:  Listening with the Ear of the Heart[3] itself offers a succinct definition of discernment.  “Discernment is the function of the whole person:  body, mind, spirit.  Discernment is an engaging process that takes time, energy and stamina.”[4]

Ben Campbell Johnson expresses that discernment contains the element of mystery.  “In some sense,” writes Johnson, “every meeting with God contains mystery…No revelation is ever full and complete, so mystery is ever present.” Luis Bush offers:  “Discernment is the ability to see the revelatory meaning in the ongoing process of one’s own or another’s life, to see, as the saints say, “with the eyes of faith” the salvific significance of what seem to be ordinary events.”[5]

Discernment is only significant to the work of a team when all are willing to listen carefully.  “All listening begins and ends in God.  The God who listens in infinite compassion is the God who creates in each of us the desire to listen to Him, to His world, to each other, and to ourselves so that, filled with His Spirit, we might continue His work here on earth.”[6] Biblical hospitality, which is foundational to Christian practice, has many dimensions.  Listening as hospitality opens the door for foreign opinions, differences in priorities, and other breach-laden possibilities, to be reconciled.  Listening is inherently a hospitable practice where meaning and understanding are sought and appropriate actions follow. The practice of hospitality as a Christian virtue is deeply embedded in Sacred Scripture. Like all biblical virtue, hospitality has its origin in God, who exercises hospitality as a mode of divine love and compassion for the human being, and particularly as a response to any form of alienation or breach of relationship.[7]

Listen to me!  Listening is prepositional.  We listen to, for, and with.  Discernment is the act of listening.  Listening is a true and fundamental practice of hospitality.  “Listening is always involved in hospitality.”[8] Spirituality, including biblical hospitality, has come to be recognized as a critical component for all organizations—secular and sacred. Bolman and Deal state

“Take on the challenge to search for “new ways to infuse secular organizations with soul and spirit.  Spirit…is “necessary for today’s managers to become tomorrow’s leaders, for today’s sterile bureaucracies to become tomorrow’s communities of meaning, and for our society to rediscover its ethical and spiritual center.[9] All organizations need to understand the role of soul, spirit, and discernment. Communication is God’s idea!  God is personal, present in the world today and still unfolding His purposes.  He listens; He speaks in a myriad of ways.

Donald Coggan wrote:  “Christians believe in a God who speaks.  Ours is not a silent God, a God Who sits, Sphinx-like, looking out unblinking on a world in agony…God speaks because he loves.  Love always seeks to communicate.”[10] He speaks through creation.  He speaks through friendship and mystery.  He speaks through awe and music; through imagination and intuition. He meets us in the vast silence and in the various sounds of community.

God wants to be known, and He thoroughly knows us.  He is both gracious host and intimate guest in conversation.  God’s character and ways define hospitality. Our responsibility is to be discerning.  “Discernment, which is important in any spiritual tradition, takes on a special importance in the Christian tradition because for Christianity the primary locus of divine revelation, both public and personal, is history…[12] Choosing discernment as the intentional way forward for any ministry team is counter the pragmatic, ‘get-‘er-done’ ways of Western Culture.  Discernment for teams reaches back into the ways and reasons for which a team is called into existence and forward into the new expressions from that team that will meet needs in the 21st Century.

Discernment fosters intentional hospitality towards others and allows passions, creativity, and ideas to flow as each listens deeply to their internal sense of what God is doing in them and what He is doing in the team.  “True listening will aim to illumine passion, not eliminate it and to master—even transfigure– passion, not destroy it.”[13]  In other words, both the people and the practices of the team will be shaped as we listen deeply to the Spirit.  Bishop Job Reuben states:

“We will discover that our relationship to one another is strengthened as together we seek God’s will above all else.  [Teams] often discover a new unity, faith, vitality, mission, and sense of God’s nearness as they fervently seek God’s will…we are called to leave the land of self-centered and self-serving decision-making for the promised land of seeking, finding and doing God’s will in all things.”[14]

While mystery is certainly entailed, discernment is anything but impractical!  Embracing the theological notion that God speaks today precludes any surprise that very practical outcomes are the result of listening to God and to each other.  Bush describes several outcomes of listening well as a team:  improved work environment, reduced tensions, with fewer mistakes and misunderstandings.[15]  These outcomes are aided when “[teams seek] to listen to what God is doing and saying by collecting insights, beliefs, and attitudes with regard to the people and the programs God is using.”[16]

Discernment is more than receiving a roadmap.  It is opportunity to listen carefully and with full-orbed intention of growing relationally with God and others by practicing hospitality.  Discernment is not a science, nor an art.  It is fundamentally relationship with all the accompanying messiness that relationships offer. Rightly employing listening as an indispensable aspect of discernment and hospitality will enable effective teams in service and ministry for this present age.



[1] Ruth Haley Barton, Pursuing God’s Will Together:  A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2012), 10.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Mary Margaret Funk, Discernment Matters:  Listening With the Ear of the Heart.  Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013.
[4] Ibid., 133.
[5] Luis Bush. “The Power of Listening.” Missiology: An International Review, January, 2005:  17-27.
[6] Anne Long, Listening (London, England:  Daybreak, 1990), 179.
[7] Scott C. Alexander and Mary C. Boys.  “Christian Hospitality and Pastoral Practices from a Roman Catholic Perspective.” Theological Education, Vol. 47, no. 1 (2012):  47-53
[8] Lonni Collins Pratt, Radical Hospitality:  Benedict’s Way of Love (Brewster, Massachusetts:  Paraclete Press, 2011), 264.
[9] Audrey N. Seidman.  “Listening for the Sacred Within—And at Work.” OD Practioner 43, no. 3, Summer 2011: 36-43.  Business Source Complete. EBSCOhost (accessed March 13, 2014).
[10] Donald Coggan, The Sacrament of the Word (St. Louis, Missouri:  Harper Collins, 1987), pp. 31-32.
[11] (Johnson, 2004), Viii.
[12] Sandra M. Schneiders, “Spiritual Discernment in the Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena.” Horizons9, no. 1(March 1, 1982):  47-59, ATLA Religion Database with ATLA Serial, EBSCOhost (accessed March 13, 2014).
[13] Christine Valters Paintner, the Artist’s Rule (Notre Dame, IN:  Sorin Books, 2011), 97.
[14] Rueben Job, A Guide to Spiritual Discernment (Nashville, TN: 1996), 15.
[15] (Bush, January 2005).
[16] Ibid.

Leading by Invitation

jim-sharonThe ancient story of Cain and Abel provides vital insight into leading people. Cain and Able, you will recall, bring their gifts to God. Abel’s gift is regarded favorably but Cain’s is not. Cain becomes depressed, the victim of perceived injustice, inviting God’s response.
This problem is as common as the story is old. Your Cain, perhaps, is another officer or a volunteer whose work is wanting and whose heart needs changing.

How should you respond? How will you show that person love while nurturing responsibility? There are two common answers to this dilemma: the leader who assumes a Parent-to-Child relationship, or a leader who takes the Adult-to-Adult approach . Which are you?

Let’s look at both models, comparing each to how God responds to Cain and how you might respond to your staff and volunteers.

Parent-Child Leadership
The “Parent-Child” model of communicating and relating to others is very common among Christian leaders and nearly always executed with the best intentions. It is common because it feels good to be a loving parent. After all, God is love and loving others is our first priority. Indeed, taking care of another–showing kindness, compassion, and empathy—is the very heart of Jesus. So protecting your volunteer as a father would protect his child must be the right response, yes?

Not according to Scripture. Look at how God the Father responds to Cain . . .

“Why are you angry?” God asks Cain. “Why is your face downcast?” (Gen 4:3-4)

God recognizes Cain’s feelings, but God does not take on Cain’s emotion. Instead, God invites Cain to see the source underneath his feelings. Do you see the difference? There is a wide gulf between caring for people and taking care of people. When caring for becomes taking care of, you assume a Parent-Child role. You take on the feelings of the other to manage his emotional response and protect him from feeling bad. The problem with this protecting response is that to protect the other you inevitably compromise truth. You withhold information, provide limited or false information. Your desire to reassure and protect becomes telling people what to feel, think, and do. Protection is appropriate for infants and toddlers, but parenting is counter-productive for leading adults. Further, Parent-Child leadership is not love.

In contrast, God’s love for Cain is expressed in encouraging Cain to recognize that his feelings are chosen. A truly loving Father urges his son to see himself truthfully by locating and owning the origin of his son’s emotions.

Adult-Adult Leadership
Adult-to-adult leadership starts with the assumption that a leader is not a parent overseeing children. Rather officer and volunteer are both responsible adults. Parent-Child leadership often backfires because the “child-worker” feels put-down and manipulated by the “parent–leader.” This leads to greater resistance, not greater commitment. The “child-worker” becomes frustrated, rebels, or merely complies with what is asked, doing the minimum he can to meet the requirement.

The people you lead do not need or want your protection. They are men and women who deserve your respect as adults, responsible for their own actions, decisions, and emotions. They are responsible for how they feel and what they do. So, God the Father says to Cain,
“If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:6-7)

God invites Cain to do what is right. The invitation offers a pathway for Cain to see the risk and prove his true character. If Cain obeys he will be accepted and gain mastery over sin. But if Cain refuses, the true nature of his heart and his offering will be revealed. Perhaps the sin crouching at your door is the need to lead like a Parent over children instead of a leader of responsible adults?

Great leaders lead by invitation, inviting all around them into honest conversations where difficulty is acknowledged openly, responsibility is owned completely, risk is stated directly, and a choice is given clearly. The secret to leadership by invitation is this: always frame issues in questions that invite responsibility for self-discovery and personal accountability.

[1]  See, Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment, by Jamie Showkeir and Maren Showkeir, 2008, BerrettKoehler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco  ISBN 978-1-57675-595-2

[1] For ease in reading, I use masculine gender to follow the Genesis story. Of course, the lessons apply equally to female and male leaders and workers.

Welcome Jim and Sharon Van Yperen

Tjim-sharonhe Jack McDowell School for Leadership Development would like to welcome Jim and Sharon Van Yperen as adjunct staff. Jim is the founder and president of Metanoia Ministries, a faith-based, non-profit organization serving through­out the United States, Canada and Europe with the mission to prevent and restore broken places in the church.

Metanoia Ministries provides innovative products and services to diagnose need, reconcile conflict, nurture one another community, and equip spiritual leaders with Christ-like competency and character.

Jim is the author of four books. He has written and published more than 100 articles and produced numerous resources on Christian leadership and biblical community, including:

Chapter 12: Conflict: The Refining Fire of Leadership, Jim Van Yperen, Leaders on Leadership: Wisdom, Advice and the Encouragement on the Art of Leading God’s People, Georg Barna, General Editor (Regal Books, 1997)
ISBN: 0-8307-1862-1

Making Peace: A Guide to Overcoming Church Conflict, Jim Van Yperen, (Moody Publishers, 2002)
ISBN-13: 978-0-8024-3185-1

The Shepherd Leader, Jim Van Yperen, (ChurchSmart Resources, 2003)
ISBN: 1-889638-44-7

Authentic Community: Practicing the One Another Commands, Jim Van Yperen, (ChurchSmart Resources, 2009)
ISBN: 978-1-889638-83-6

The Good Confession: A Tale of Failure and Forgiveness, Jim Van Yperen, (Wingfold Farm, 2011)
ISBN: 978-0-578-07514-3

Pathways to Peace: How to Conduct Church Discipline with Grace and Truth, Jim Van Yperen, (ChurchSmart Resources, 2006)
ISBN: 1-889638-60-9

Strategic Leadership Formation: Growing Character and Competence in Spiritual Leaders, Jim Van Yperen (ChurchSmart Resources, 2003) ISBN: 1-889638-41-2

Making Peace, Growing Redemptive Community, Jim Van Yperen, (ChurchSmart Resources, 2001)
ISBN: 1-889638-20-X

The Making Peace Seminar: Growing Redemptive Community in Your Church, Jim Van Yperen, (Metanoia Ministries, 2007)

1978: BA in Communications and Biblical Studies, Wheaton College, Wheaton IL
1980: MA in Missiology, Wheaton College, Wheaton IL

Jim and Sharon have been married for 40 years. They have two adult, married children Nathanael Van Yperen and Sarah Rae Smith, and eight grandchildren. Jim and Sharon live and work out of a studio on a small farm in Washington, New Hampshire.