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The Discerning Change Agent

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

“There are a lot of things that are super strategic and super important; a lot of things that are really urgent. But I think there is important work, especially of a change leader, of discernment.” -Change Agent of a Nonprofit

This quote captures the critical work of discernment that is required of change agents. I define discernment as “listening and responding” to others with the intent to “sift through our impulses, motives, and options to discover which ones lead us closer to love and compassion for ourselves and other people and which ones lead us further away” (adapted from Henri Nouwen’s definition, 2013, xv). Doing the work of discernment helps change agents see how and why people work together for positive social change.

In my dissertation research, I learned that the practice of discernment was often developed through the very life experiences that influenced a change agent's desire to enter into the work of change. Change agents in my study had experienced personal or societal challenges that motivated them to discern reality, design a path forward, and do the hard work to get there. Practicing discernment helped change agents understand interrelationships between people and systems in order to lead change well. By seeking understanding of interrelationships, change agents also saw fragmentation in both relationships and social systems. Despite this, change agents worked diligently to discern their participation in the change they believed to be possible and already taking place in their midst. Change agents consistently had a relational lens that shaped their desire to work toward a new and better reality for others. With an others-centered focus, change agents approached change with a committed carefulness to the act of discernment — without which change could easily be pushed forward without any consideration of restoring value and dignity to those who need the change most.

A change agent's commitment to the practice of discernment was also continuous throughout a change process. For this reason, I argue that their ability to discern is better described as a state of being. The act of discerning became a natural part of who they were as a result of the consistent exercise of discernment. Unlike habits, however, which can unconsciously take over our everyday lives, the practice of discernment as an automatic response to leading change was still intentional and grounded in the valuable insight gained to benefit the change agent’s work. With an awareness that change is constantly happening around them, participants were also keenly aware that consistent change requires consistent learning in order to adapt. This in turn requires consistent discernment to know how to enter into, engage with, and exit out of a change process — a process that involves constant communication with a variety of stakeholders. Therefore, discerning change agents continuously learn how to navigate change in ways that communicate care and advocacy for others along the change process. Learning continuously gave wisdom toward the change process and also contributed to the internal heart change that often took place within the change agents themselves. This discerning learning posture gives change agents both credibility and trustworthiness to guide change initiatives that would bring value to organizations and society alike. As such, the uniqueness of discerning change agent leadership is key to change success.

Figure 1 below portrays the dialogue between the discerning change agent and the three dimensions of a change process. In this visual, people (the first dimension of relationships), process (the second dimension of communication), and purpose (the third dimension of change mission) are seen interacting with one another in a Venn diagram. What is not seen is the change agent, because change agents typically operate under the radar and prefer to be proximate to the people they serve. Therefore, one can assume that the change agent is within the people dimension. The overlapping spaces of the Venn diagram are areas in need of constant discernment by the change agent in order for him or her to more fully understand the layers of interaction. The movement toward the right represents the enduring interaction of the three dimensions throughout a change process, as well as the learning that occurs with continual discernment.

It is important to note that while discernment was present throughout the participants’ work toward a social change mission, and described as a primary value, discernment surfaced predominantly in figuring out how to catalyze urgency for change that would serve others well versus change that would cause harm. The root of their hope to serve others well did not come from a desire to please people. Rather, their hope was rooted in a passion to respect or restore dignity to people. This is a critical distinction that brings to the surface the motives of change agents in this study. More will be said about this later in this chapter, but when people experience a change leader’s genuine love and care they not only want change for themselves, but also want to be partners in moving the larger change mission forward.


Henri Nouwen (2013). Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life. HarperOne.

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