As with all things, discerning God’s will for an organization is a gift. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” Eph 2: 8-9.

The Sacred Conversations framework and model provide discerning leaders with a helpful process for: Clarifying values, engaging in generative, future-focused dialogue, and—by working with each other and with the Holy Spirit—identifying possible courses of action and choosing better options around organizational matters such as strategy, structure, resource allocation, and staffing.

When applied to leadership and organizational discernment, Sacred Conversations provides a common and approachable language, principles, and rules of engagement to help leaders and teams: strengthen trust and interpersonal relationships, reconcile differences, make difficult decisions in service of their mission, build a stronger team, and build a thriving community.   

This article explains: 

  • What Sacred Conversations for discerning leaders consists of (the process), and
  • Promising practices for implementation based on 20 years of research and consulting expertise

Foundations of the Framework

As I have written, Sacred Conversations are human interactions designed to help participants involved become better versions of themselves. This is the definition that I provide in my forthcoming book, Sacred Conversations: How God Wants us to Communicate.  

Leaders of faith-based organizations and congregations benefit from dialogue--particularly in times of change. I firmly believe that Christ-centered, human dialogue is the only tool that truly leads to sustainable change in faith-based organizations.

But not just any form of dialogue will do. The conversations must be structured within a larger context. They must be reflective and filled with trust and love. They must foster discernment. And the dialogue must be action-oriented. Talk with no action doesn't get you anywhere. This is where Sacred Conversations can be a gift from God. 

The foundations of the Sacred Conversations framework include: 

  • Sacred scripture that addresses themes of love, communication, humility, and God’s holy will;
  • Ignatian exercises including prayer, meditation, visualization, visioning, reflective conversation, spiritual direction/companionship, discernment, and laboring together with the Holy Spirit;
  • Social scientific methods and promising practices pertaining to interpersonal and group discussion, decision-making, planning, prioritization, and change leadership.

Elements of the Sacred Conversations Framework

The specific elements of the Sacred Conversations framework that leaders find most useful include: 

  • Core principles and 7 Rules of Engagement
  • Conversational model (see Figure 1) and exercises to facilitate relationship and discernment
  • Simple Organizational Discernment Model to facilitate clarity, inclusion, discernment, and community
  • ABC’s of leadership discernment (see Chapter 6, Future-Ready Leadership )
  • Sacred Conversations Workshops
  • Roles and responsibilities for Seekers and Helpers
  • Companionship through external process facilitation

Perhaps the most valuable element for applying Sacred Conversations to leadership discernment is the companionship and expertise of an external facilitator. Would a surgeon perform her own surgery? Can a struggling golfer correct his own slice? Do professional sports teams win championships without a coach? Of course not! The best in any vocation rely on faith (first and foremost) and outside perspective--Professional Helpers. That's where a trained Sacred Conversations facilitator can help leaders make the most of their time together. 

I have found that group workshops and 1:1 conversations, when used in combination with prayerful discernment, insights, data, and input from key stakeholders, provide the greatest likelihood for successful leadership decision-making and organizational change. 

Promising Practices for Leaders

Churches, non-profits, and faith-based organizations are facing tremendous change that put pressure on their finances, ministries, schools, congregations, staff, and clergy. Here are some promising practices for putting Sacred Conversations to work to support leaders in making discerning leadership decisions. 

1. Be proactive--don't wait for external change to force the dialogue. 

2. Get a process--develop a common language for having difficult conversations about strategy, resources, structures, processes, staffing, and decision making. 

3. Don't reinvent the wheel--there are proven methods and tools like Sacred Conversations to facilitate transformative dialogue. 

4. Beware of change fatigue--don't waste time trying to "perform your own surgery." Your team will get disengaged and burnout. 

5. Ask for a Helper--We are all Seekers and have the potential to be Helpers. You wouldn't be a leader if you didn't seek God's will for your vocation or if you weren't good at helping others. But extraordinary circumstances require outside counsel. Be humble. Be vulnerable and ask for help. 

If you, your parish council, congregation, or diocese are struggling with difficult dialogues around strategy, structure, or how to move the organization forward, let's chat. 

References for deeper learning

  • Bridges, W. (2003). Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
  • Groscurth, C.R. (2018). Future-Ready Leadership: Strategies for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
  • Schein, E. (1988). Process Consultation: Its Role in Organization Development. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley.

About the author 

Christopher Reed, Ph.D.

Author of "Sacred Conversations: How God Wants us to Communicate."

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