I have invested my adult life in studying and understanding Christian leadership. I’ve attended conferences, earned advanced degrees, and read broadly – for decades. But I cannot recall any discussion of discretion.
For the first 500 years of the church, discretion was considered the most precious gift, or charism, for the church (John Cassian’s Conferences). They understood that without discretion individuals and communities could easily be ruined. In fact, all abbots of monastic communities were to be distinguished by discretion (The Rule of St. Benedict). Without it we are dangerous – speaking too freely, giving people burdens they cannot bear, and offering superficial spiritual counsel.
Discretion is the opposite of our 21st century leadership culture that emphasizes bigger, better, and maximum impact as quickly as possible.
Discretion is the ability to wait to see what unfolds, to not act. It involves the humility and patience to know when to leave things alone, knowing when our interference will only complicate things. Flowing from a space of silence, stillness, and waiting, it breaks the illusion of our self-importance and omnipotence.
Why is this so critical? Discretion gives us, as the apostle Paul wrote, the keen ability to distinguish between good and evil spirits (diakrisis, 1 Cor.12:10). Moreover, it enables us to exercise self-control, i.e. lead a disciplined life.
We observe discretion in Jesus after having lost thousands of followers in John 6. Panic had likely set in and his brothers urged him to market himself by acting publicly so people could see the works He was doing, “for no one who wants to be a public figure acts in secret.” Yet Jesus calmly said to them, “My time has not yet come” (John 7:1-6).
This famous Desert Father story also gives us a picture of discretion: “(Abba) Moses also had the gift of discretion and knew when to hide. The magistrate heard about Abba Moses one day and he went to Scetis to see him. They told the old man. He got up and fled to the marsh. Some people met him and said to him, “Old man, tell us where the cell of Abba Moses is.” He said to them, “What do you want with him? He is a fool.” So the magistrate went back to the church…. When they heard [what Abba Moses had said] . . . the clergy were offended and said, “What kind of an old man was it who spoke like that about the holy man to you?” He said, “An old man wearing old clothes, a big black man.” They said, “It was Abba Moses himself and it was in order not to meet you that he said that.” The magistrate went away greatly edified.”
So how do we grow in this grace called discretion?
- We deepen our practice of silence, stillness and receptive awareness. This gives us the space to offer to God the daily pressures in our lives and allow them to fall away.
- We keep before us Jesus and the cross, remembering how He doesn’t work in a strategic way the way we think He should. He doesn’t take the world’s way of showing off but rather follows God’s way of lowliness. So when Jesus leads us to places of obscurity, we don’t find it strange and resist.
- We seek wise counsel regularly. One of the most striking teachings of John Cassian’s classic teaching on discretion is his emphasis on constant, humble submission of one’s thoughts to the “elders.” Why? So we can “discern what is correct and, in particular, avoid excess of any kind – even of an apparent good.”
Amidst the innumerable challenges of leadership, and the multitude of voices surrounding us, enrolling in the school of discretion may be one of the most important things we do.
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