Discerning with Four Voices of the Institution

f43e5458-6ca7-44bb-b766-37e9a9d494d7There are moments in the life of faith-based institutions when discernment is required. It is not enough to simply ask prayerful, spirit-led leaders to use their best decision making skills on behalf of the whole. Something more is required.

Perhaps leaders are selecting a new pastoral leader, claiming a new strategic direction, or determining readiness to begin a capital campaign. Saying a quick prayer at the beginning of the meeting and then reverting to business as usual doesn’t honor the need for authentic discernment.

Spiritual wisdom thinker and writer, Cynthia Bourgeault, teaches the Four Voices of Discernment Model. With slight modification we can translate her model for individual discernment into a working tool for leadership groups in institutional settings.

This model recognizes the need to listen for and synthesize four distinct viewpoints that speak on behalf of the institution; the voices of the false self, the soul, the spirit and the heart. These voices are more than the collective viewpoint of present leaders and members, these voices represent the institution’s collective memory, vocation, and aspiration.

Let us imagine a group of search committee members from a congregation that we will call First Church. These leaders are discerning between three candidates for senior pastor. All three are viable candidates and the search committee is evenly divided in their support. Let us consider how the committee might work with the four voices, to discern a way forward.

The Voice of False Self: The voice of the false-self of the congregation is reactive, knee-jerk, and tenacious.  It protects the institution’s ego identity, insuring that what already is will be defended and protected, and what emerges doesn’t threaten the traditions of the institution. It is concerned with security, survival, esteem, power and control.

The voice of the false-self is typically the first voice to reveal itself in any type of discernment scenario.  It is the institution’s prideful voice, and fearful voice.  We may be tempted to think of the false-self as the voice that must be overcome, but we must not dismiss the voice of false-self. It is the voice that protects the institution from carelessly denying its past. The false-self carries great energy and can generate great resistance. It must be listened to, and compassionately and carefully brought into dialogue with the other three voices.

The search committee at First Church considered which candidate the false-self favored.  They quickly settled on candidate A.  She was a known commodity who had previously worked at the congregation as an Associate.  She knew the congregation and its rich history.  Leaders knew they could work with her. She was a solid, although not particularly inspiring preacher and teacher.  Committee members felt that she would protect the church from running off course and would continue the current healthy trajectory of church programs and commitments.

The Voice of Soul: The voice of soul is the most authentic and truest self of the institution; the compass of the organization.  It reflects the inner essence of what makes the organization its distinctive self.  The voice of soul is a direct agent of the divine spark within the institution. The voice of soul is deeply rooted in what is true and deep for this congregation in this context, vigilantly guarding against anything that compromises the integrity of the organization.  It is invested in the God-given vocation of this particular institution: Who are we, really? Who are we meant to serve? What are we called to do or become next?

While the false-self protects the lower order needs of the organization (safety and security), the voice of soul pushes the congregation toward self-actualization, living into its divinely inspired vocational purpose.

The First Church committee carefully considered which candidate was favored by the voice of soul.  It took prayer, silence and some time to listen for this voice to speak.  Eventually, they determined that the voice of soul favored candidates B and C equally.  Both candidates were riskier choices than A. They were younger and less proven; but when committee members interacted with B and C they recognized a deep resonance with members of the team and with institutional history.  Both candidates seemed to “get” First Church, and both had distinctive visions about how the church needed to begin living its vocation in fresh and vibrant ways.

The Voice of Spirit: The voice of spirit is clear and aspirational, representing our highest spiritual striving. It is the voice of conscience. It speaks from beyond time and context. It is indifferent to the specific needs of this particular organization, but reflects the loftiest calling of institutional life together. It is concerned with universal morality and rightness.  As such, the voice of spirit often feels somewhat indifferent to this moment and these circumstances.  It doesn’t care what leaders eventually decide to do; the voice of spirit will always take the moral high-ground.

The voice of spirit makes itself known quickly and easily. However, it needs to be mediated over and against the other voices because it may be too altruistic on its own terms.  If the voice of spirit holds sway over all of the other voices, it is likely that the organization will be unable to sustain the chosen course of action.

It didn’t take long for search committee members to identity candidate C as the candidate of choice for the voice of spirit. This candidate had strong, almost strident opinions about the church’s obligation to live more fully into its social gospel role in the city. He strongly questioned the congregation’s lack of attention to racial and economic diversity. Search committee members knew that candidate C would elicit the congregation’s social conscience in important ways.

The Voice of Heart: The voice of heart is the voice of integration and insight. Like soul, the voice of heart is concerned with the deepest sense of organizational identity. While soul is navigated and revealed in layers over time, the heart springs whole out of a unitive, direct sense of abiding, beyond the fullness of time.  The voice of heart is the angel of the institution; it straddles the other voices and brings the other three voices into dialogue and eventually into alignment.  The voice of heart often reveals a previously unexplored option, or recasts the other three voices in an altered light.

The voice of heart has some of the characteristic elements of each of the other voices.   Like spirit, it feels spacious and free.  Like soul, it feels particular to this individual congregation, its context and this moment in time. Heart honors the lived experience and the felt needs of the false-self.

The search committee at First Church spent considerable time debating the merits of candidates A and C, who initially appeared to be their front-runner candidates. Through careful listening, dialogue and prayer they began to realize something previously unrecognized.

While A and C each had strong advocates on the team, they also fostered strong opposition. They were divisive candidates that seemed to pit the tradition of the church against its future. Slowly and prayerfully, the team began to recognize that the voice of heart was pulling them toward candidate B.  She had a strong pastoral heart that resonated with each of them. Hers was a fresh voice that satisfied the voice of soul and spirit.  The false-self felt oddly safe with her. The voice of heart helped the previously divided team coalesce around a single candidate.

To listen for the four voices of the institution is to recognize that the institution has its own heart, spirit and soul. We are called to discern on behalf of the whole. Listening for the voices will not make decisions easier.  In fact, it will add complexity and take considerable time. However, it will invite a discerning spirit that is often sidelined in traditional decision making models.


1. This process is adapted from an online course offered by the Contemplative Journal, “Four Voices Method of Discernment”, facilitated by Cynthia Bourgeault, May-June of 2015. This application to institutional settings is my interpretation of her process.  Much of the language that describes the voices is attributed to Bourgeault.