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334 – The Discerning Leader (A Soul Talk With Steve Macchia)

This Week on Soul Talks

Discernment isn’t just learning God’s will for our lives. We may have limited our understanding of discernment in the past, missing the opportunity to walk with and notice God in a deeper way through life and leadership. Take heart — we can grow in our intimacy with Jesus, receiving his love and noticing his presence all around us. 

Join us for this episode of Soul Talks where Bill and Kristi interview Steve Macchia, author and founder of Leadership Transformations. They discuss his new book, The Discerning Life: An Invitation to Notice God in Everything, and equip you to discern God in new and life-giving ways.

Resources for this Episode:

The Discerning Leader

Bill and Kristi Gaultiere with Guest Steve Macchia



Hello friends. We are so glad to have a Soul Talk with you and to invite into this conversation our friend, Steve Macchia.

He’s the president of Leadership Transformations, a ministry that focuses on spiritual formation needs, soul care, and discernment process for leaders, teams, and churches. 

Steve is the author of a new book, The Discerning Life: An Invitation to Notice God in Everything.

I love that title, Steve. 

I love that your book is not so much about techniques, or getting what we feel we need from God, or when we need a need a word, as much as it’s about the relationship of noticing God and walking with the Lord through life and through leadership.


Steve, we’re so happy to welcome you to Soul Talks and get to have a soul talk with you and share it with our listeners. 

Thank you so much for joining us today, all the way from the East Coast. We’re talking West-East Coast.


Thank you very much, Bill and Kristi. 

What a treat to hang out with you two for a little bit today, and to hopefully be an encouragement to those who are listening in.


That’s our hope and prayer too. 

Well, I have just so enjoyed reading your new book, The Discerning Life

You have poured out a lot of wisdom, life experience, ministry experience, and your own intimacy with Jesus and it just exudes from this book. 

It’s such a great vision and invitation to life in the Kingdom of God, responding to him, receiving more of his life, and living out of that. 

I was so excited when I opened the book. I loved your opening here in the introduction. 

I want to just read it for our listeners. 

You said, “Far too often, spiritual discernment has been pigeonholed into the exclusive realm of decision making, learning how to make good choices, and know God’s will methodically and predictably.” 

And then you say at the end of that paragraph, “Or for others, it’s a tool to spiritualize every single decision. God, what fabric softener do you want me to buy at the store this week?” 

I thought that was so helpful that you just named right there some of the ways we limit discernment.



That’s been my concern that it truly has been a topic that’s been pigeonholed into the decision making realm.  It does include that. 

And eventually I do get to chapter eight, which is a process for discernment.

But the first seven chapters are dealing with, “How do we notice God? How do we pay attention to him in our personal journeys, in our collective relational journeys where we’re side by side, pointing him out to each other?” 

That’s really discerning God and discerning God together. 

Then we eventually can get to the place where, “Okay, so we’ve got an option A, option B, what should we consider?” 

Then we’ve got a process that we can walk through, but I really want to put the em-phasis on the syl-lable of relationships. 

You know, this is a relationship with God, noticing God, and relating to each other. 

You two do that so, so well in your writing and in your ministry.

I am just so grateful for the way in which you’re living the discerning life.


Thank you, Steve. 

It’s fun how Soul Shepherding and Leadership Transformations overlap in some ways. 

We’ve enjoyed following you over the years. 

I’ve enjoyed our conversations that we’ve had in the past.

Something I’ve really appreciated and respected about you, Steve, is that your ministry really comes out of your own intimacy with God, your own life, and just how you walk with the Lord.

I would love for our listeners to hear you share about your experience of hearing God’s guidance, just in your own life — maybe an example of that.

Three Little Words


Well, thank you. 

It has been a life of twists and turns, ups and downs, good days and bad days, great seasons and horrible ones. 

So the mixture of life for me has been a continual desire to pay attention, to notice.

One of the things my spiritual director said to me years ago was, “You know, three little words are very important — Isn’t that interesting?” 

So in times of trouble or turmoil or disappointment, or even times of great joy and delight, to be able to practice saying, “Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t that interesting that I’m noticing that or paying attention to that?  Or isn’t it interesting that I have that attitude or that desire to do X, Y or Z?” 

So it’s the noticing — the continual attentive noticing — and I’ve had some very dramatic experiences of this.

I mean, the startup of Leadership Transformations came in a very difficult season for my wife and I.

We were away for a long weekend before our son was facing a large surgery as he was entering into his senior year of high school.

We just needed a break because this was surgery number 13 for him over a 17-year period. 

It was that weekend that God woke me up with a dream, and he’s never spoken to me so clearly or dramatically before or since, but it was the start of Leadership Transformations. 

It was a dream for this ministry. 

I had to put that dream on the shelf for nearly a half a year while we were helping our son get through his surgery and post-op and all the rest. 

But I really do believe that God delights to speak to his children and to make himself known.

Even in strange and mysterious times like I experienced 21 years ago when that happened.

God makes himself known. 

God’s an initiator, he’s a lover, he’s a giver. 

If we just pay attention, we can notice him in everything and it’s remarkable. 

So I’ve tried to lean in that direction in my own journey sometimes, you know with a real sense of, “Yeah, that is definitely God.” 

And other times when I’ve needed friends like Bill and Kristi to say, “Oh, maybe that’s a little too Steve. Maybe you should go back to your prayer closet and listen more attentively.” 

So I need spiritual friends. I need the community of faith to help me discern what I’m discerning.



Gosh, I love what you’re saying about being curious and reflective and listening. 

You know, I too have struggled with this in my personality. 

I have been under this pressure, like, “I have to have the great ideas, I have to know what to do.” 

It was a big learning for me when I realized maybe somebody else has a better idea and maybe the best way to begin is to wait and pray.

Not push forward, but really tune into what God might be saying. Even listening to our dreams, we do that too. 

So I really appreciate that perspective.


Well, there are sometimes when God makes himself known and it’s crystal clear. 

I mean, we are all seeing it, you know? 

There are times when, as you say, we have to wait and just put a hold, or press the pause button, because clarity isn’t there and consolation is not there.

So we’re just going to hold it. 

Then there are times we have to make decisions and we’ve got options. 

So I think there are various times in our life, and even throughout our day, where we’ve got the clear and certain thing to do, or “I better wait on that or hold that.”

Or ”Let’s lean in and hear from God.”

Experiencing God’s Love


One of the things that I so appreciate about your book is that it’s really an invitation into deeper intimacy with Jesus. 

That’s what you’re talking about. 

It’s not this way of trying to secure ourselves by making sure that God is telling us exactly what to do at every minute, but we’re able to discern, you know, right from wrong, open door or the closed door constantly. 

Oftentimes, early in our faith journey, we look at discernment as being more of, “God just tell me what to do. Because I don’t want to mess up.” 

And we feel anxious because we don’t know God. 

We don’t yet appreciate the depths of his love and grace. 

We haven’t learned that lifestyle that you use and talk about in this book that’s so helpful about practicing a preference for God.  

I so appreciated that wording. 

I want to get back to that and hear from you on that.

But I also appreciated that in chapter one, you started writing about God’s love. 

I think that’s so important because we’re not going to be able to practice a preference for God if we don’t come to understand and experience him as loving. 

I think that you did a great job here of giving us a vision of God’s love. 

I’d love to just share some articulations you wrote from chapter one. On page 15, you said,

God’s love is vast as an ocean, abundant, lavish, generous. It’s eternal and unconditional grace-filled, joy-drenched, magnificent, glorious, marvelous, wonderful, amazing, inconceivable yet affectionate, warm, intimate, and heartfelt.” 

This is awesome. 

It’s such good wording and descriptions here. 

I would love for you, Steve, just to share a little bit how you have come to experience God’s love this way and to receive it.


Kristi, thank you for picking up on that because that is a foundational truth that I really want to lean into fully. 

I came to that realization slowly over time. 

But really it was through the ministry of spiritual direction, in my own choice, as a recovering workaholic, a perfectionist, a person who likes to get a lot of things done, and I will push my way through to make them happen. 

That’s my old me or my false me. 

Over time, God has just been peeling away one layer at a time of that drivenness to get to the place where I can truly receive the grace and the kindness and the mercy of God that I preach about and I teach about.

I want to tell everybody— I want to tell the whole world about it — but have I fully absorbed it for myself?

It was probably 20, 25 years ago when that first realization came that I’m preaching and teaching something that I’m not sure I fully have actualized in my own life. 

Here I was an adult Christian. 

But the driven side of me, I think, was really holding me back from receiving the fullness of the love and the grace and the tender, tender mercy of God. 

So I get all weepy when I think about how I was and what I was longing for.

In many respects, I was unable to really put words to it until I was in that quiet place with a person that I could speak honestly and forthrightly to, and lovingly receive kind words back to me. 

I really do think the Protestant work ethic has really harmed the understanding of the love of God, because we still think we have to earn it, or deserve it, or do better, or work harder.

That’s hard to break. 

I’m also writing for an audience where I really want leaders to pay attention to their need for the softer side of God and the softer side of this religious experience.

Really the softer side of leadership, because everything’s so harsh and hard and edgy and demanding, and our world is promoting leadership that kind of sickens me, frankly, right now. 

Where are we going to learn how to receive love and give love foundationally?


Really important. 

Yeah. We share your heart for that very much and appreciate your articulation of that. 

And you’re dedicating your life work to that. 

In the book, you share one discipline that you did that I think helped you to be able to agree with and receive God’s love. 

It was the spiritual discipline of winking.

God’s Affection for Us



Yeah, I was on a retreat and I was meeting with the spiritual director. 

It was not my spiritual director. 

It was another brother in this monastic community that I’ve entrusted a lot of my heart to — the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

These Episcopal monks that do an amazing job of spiritual and soul hospitality.

I was on a retreat and I was being led by one of the brothers and I was coming in with, I forget the storyline, but it was some sort of berating of self. 

He said to me, “You know, go back to your room and I want you just to wink at yourself in the mirror.” 

I’m like, “Wink at myself in the mirror?

He said, 

Yeah. Not because I there’s something weird I want you to do, or something where I want you to think so highly of yourself. I want you to do it as an expression of how God is looking at you. He is winking at you. He has such an affection for you.

It may sound super odd, but that spirit, that practice of winking at myself — no one sees it, no one but me because it’s in the bathroom, you know, it’s the mirror — but I’m winking to remind myself that there’s a God of the universe that actually has his eyes peeled on me, and has such an affection for me. 

He can’t get enough of me. 

I like considering him on the porch of heaven. 

He is staring at me like he’s staring at the two of you. 

All he wants is for us to kind of pay attention to that, to acknowledge that. 

And then to see his wink, and to acknowledge his wink that he is actually there. 

Gotcha. I love you. And I’m watching you. And when you come to your senses and you turn back home, I’m there to throw my arms around you, put a robe on your back, a ring on your finger, new sandals for your dirty feet, and throw a party in your behalf over and over and over and over and over again.

That’s incredible. Don’t you think?


I mean, that’s just awesome. 

Especially, coming from you, Steve, and your story as a workaholic in recovery.

A go getter, a charger, and for you to see the tender heart of the Lord and that wink — that gets our attention. 

We so resonate with you on the soft side of the Lord and that he develops that in us.

The best leaders for Jesus are those that have that sensitivity, that soft heart, not only to God, but to people.

To be empathetic in all of our leadership, all of our decisions.

Certainly our discernment goes best when we’re empathetic, and where we’re in relationships that are mutual and vulnerable. 

That’s where God does his best work.

Noticing God



If we can help each other pay attention, you know, like “How can I help you, today, notice God?”

What better question could we in the church be asking of each other than that? 

I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t anything more important. 

You know, “How can I help you get closer to God today?”


It’s really a question of spiritual direction, isn’t it? 

You know, how are you noticing God in your life? 




That prayerful attunement to what God is doing. 

So it’s really helpful that you’re putting this discernment need that we all have for life — the importance of having God’s wisdom — but putting it in this context of our relationship.

Putting it in the context of our practicing of God’s presence and preferring the Lord to anything else in life, including our ministry, including what we can do for God. 

But that flows best when, what we’re doing, we’re doing with God.

Practicing  a Preference for God


That’s right. 

Yeah, and that phrase, practicing a preference for God, which is nuanced around practicing the presence of God, which is the more well-known phrase. 

But one of my spiritual heroes, Rueben Job, compiled all these guides to prayer for all God’s people, ministers, and other servants. 

He did four of them in his lifetime with his friend, Norm Shawchuck, even even doing the last one while Norm had Parkinson’s or dementia, and didn’t even know his wife or his own name, nevermind his friend.

Rueben Job included that friend of his, because of spiritual friendship, on that fourth guide to prayer. 

He would always define spiritual discernment as very simply, “It’s practicing a preference for God.” 

I got to know him in his latter years and his dear wife. They gave me permission, when he passed away, to resurrect all of his material. 

Zondervan was willing to put a 50 page appendix in the back, which is some of Rueben’s finest quotes on spiritual discernment that I have gleaned over the years from him and have so appreciated. 

So I do have to attribute to him that phrase, practicing a preference for God, but it’s been a life changer for me.

That phrase in and of itself has been a dramatic life changer. 

I wanted the book to be titled that, but I lost that argument with the editors.


Yeah, we know how that goes.


Well, I think it would’ve been a great title because that really is the theme of the book and it’s such great and helpful wording. 

You mentioned one of the ways that you do that is through spiritual direction.

That helps you at your ministry.

Bill and I, at Soul Shepherding, train spiritual directors and certify spiritual directors, because we believe this is so helpful in our life with God in helping us to notice him, appreciate him, and have a preference for him. 

I love the way in the book that you said, “The primary seedbed for a discerning heart is caring for the soul.” 




That’s what your whole ministry is about and ours at Soul Shepherding.
We’re so blessed to get to do this work.

What are some ways that you are — daily in your life — practicing a preference for God?

What is a part of your rhythm that is helpful for you in caring for your soul and responding to God?

The Discerning Life


Great question. 

Thank you for your faithfulness, the two of you, for training spiritual directors and focusing on the shepherding of the soul. 

It’s so important.  What you guys do is awesome.

In terms of my daily routines, getting to a place of stillness is my number one goal. 

It was Henri Nouwen who talked about creating space for God, and I’ve become convinced that is the number one spiritual discipline —create space. 

It’s unhindered, uncluttered, and unhurried space. 

So it’s like Sabbath — a miniature Sabbath — every day. 

Finding a way to quiet myself into a reflective space so that I can receive whatever it is that God wants to give to me. 

Then it’s Lectio Divina, you know, in terms of opening the word and being in the word.

Praying, obviously, but more listening prayer than speaking prayer. I talk about that in that chapter.

Then a reflective practice of some sort, whether it’s journaling or examine.

There are varieties of ways — frankly looking through my photographs from the previous day. 

Noticing, you know, just sort of posturing myself to notice God. 

I was on a walk prayer walk the other day, and I took a picture of this amazing weed. 

I know it’s a weed, but it’s like a million white little flowers on this blossoming weed. 

And it just arrested me, and I just stopped and took a picture of it. 

Well, looking at that and just holding that can be such a great space for me to just say, “Thank you, Lord, for your amazing creativity and for that beauty.” 

I’m trying to pay attention to beauty and creativity. 

You know, two gifts that, again, for recovering workaholic, we don’t pay attention to — beauty and creativity.

I’m trying to exercise that other side of me and get to a more creative life giving space so that in my days I can be more available to the people around me.


It’s such a delightful illustration, Steve, of discerning life — noticing the weed has flowers.

It really is encouraging that if we can lean into this way of life, this practicing a preference for God, as you’re calling it, we have the ability to sort of hear God’s voice or sense his guidance or his leading when we need it in family, in leadership, and in so many different things.

We all have these times where we pray, “Oh Lord, I need to hear from you.”

But that conversational relationship in the moment of crisis or need comes out of noticing the weed that is a flower.

Being that kind of a person, living that kind of a life, having those kind of spaces.


Then being able to say to you, “Bill, look what I saw today, look at this amazing thing.”

And you can share with me what you saw today. 

Our relationship is based on noticing God so that when you and I are at a business meeting or a nonprofit board, and we show up for our meeting, we don’t sort of put on a different hat of being a power monger. 

We’re there to point God out to each other and lead together out of a space that is much more delightful, frankly.

My passion is leadership. 

You know, I really believe that as the leader goes, so goes the organization. 

More importantly, as the soul of the leader goes, so goes the leader. 

So let’s dig into the soul of the leader, and the leadership, and have it be about noticing God.

It is not rocket science, but nobody is doing this.

In so many churches and ministries, they’re walking in the door and they’re trying to do their leadership thing and make decisions and bark orders. 

It’s not appealing to me anymore.

I’m like the old guy in the room now. 

So I guess I can say some of these things like, “Let’s not do that. Instead, let’s pray and let’s share life story. Let’s listen to each other and pray for each other. And then let’s lead out of that space.”

Letting Go


In order to get to that place, Steve, you’ve identified and you write in the book, that the life of discernment isn’t just about what we accumulate, or I might even add accomplish, but instead what we let go of.

That so reminded me of what Jesus says in John 12:24, he says, “I tell you the truth. Unless the kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” 

This relates to discernment like you’re talking about, of this life of preference for God.

In order to prefer God, we’ve got to release some of those disordered attachments.


And we all have them.


That’s particularly a challenge for me. 

I want to hear what you’re going to say, Steve, because as a fellow workaholic in recovery, I think letting go of things is the biggest challenge for me. 

I’m just wanting to add more, right?

We can’t live that way and we can’t lead that way.


We can’t.

Really all good spiritual formation is learning how to let go. 

I forget who said that, but it’s a great quote. 

It’s learning how to let go. 

It’s learning how to die to self.

It’s learning how to live open-handedly. 

That’s hard to do because we’re graspers — we’re not open-handers — we like to grasp. 

We like to pull toward ourselves.

Think of the most humble person you know — they’re not grasping, they’re releasing.

They’re in your presence and they’re willing to be content with whatever comes their way. 

They’re not going to take anything from you ever.  They’re going to always give. 

So I think this attachment-detachment, you know, which is the historical sort of view of the spiritual practice, is that we need to learn to let go.

I was with a group of leaders a couple months ago. 

I will leave the group unnamed, but I almost got kicked out in the afternoon because I asked them to die to their preconceived ideas. 

Let them go. Can you let them go? Can you hold them loose? 

Even in this hot button issue, and this was a hot button issue, and they were so convinced that they were right, they were unwilling. 

They were fighting me on the theory of letting go. 

I said to them, you know, 

If I were to sit here and give three by five cards to every person around the circle and you write out your preconceived idea of what the best decision is, would you be willing to rip it up and put it in this bowl and let it just sit there all ripped up, even for five minutes? 

It’s not like you have to become an apostate because of this exercise, just hold it looser. And then maybe you’ll listen to someone who has a different opinion. 

But Bill and Kristi, I’m convinced that we don’t want to do that. 

Leaders don’t want to do that because we’re paid to be answer people, to be right.




As a result, we become brittle and kind of hard to hang around with. 

So I think the dying to self — the letting go — that’s a huge, huge topic.


So good. 

Yeah. We often talk about it using Dallas Willard’s phrase of abandoning outcomes to God. 

Yes. It’s a great key to life, to leadership, to all of our relationships. 

I really appreciate how you’re connecting that attitude also with the practice of setting boundaries and letting go of stuff that’s on my plate because the Lord hasn’t asked me to do it, or maybe asked somebody else to do it, and I can delegate it or I can refer it.

So just managing our schedules, and our lifestyle, so that we’re leaving that space to notice the flowers, to enjoy the moments, and to be in relationship. 

One of the great themes that you’re talking about here that we really appreciate is that our relationship with God is so connected to our relationships with people.

So, so good. 

So, friends, you’ll want to get a copy of this book, The Discerning Life: An Invitation to Notice God in Everything, the brand new book by Steve Macchia. 

It’s going to really encourage you in your relationship with God, in all your relationships, and in your leadership. 

Thank you so much, Steve, for being a guest with us on Soul Talk.

We’re just really thankful for you and for Leadership Transformations and your work. 

We know how much work it is to write a book. 

We’re currently writing a book ourselves, another one, and it is tough. 

It’s an honor, but there’s a lot.  It’s giving birth. 


It’s a labor of love, and you are doing it out of love. 

I thank you on behalf of every reader of your next book for laboring together, because you love God and you love his people and you want to help them. 

And you’re doing great work, the two of you.

I so love and appreciate both of you, and am grateful for your kindness to include me in your soul conversations. So thank you.


Well, thank you. 

It’s been a real honor to have this time with you.

Steve, would you be willing to say a prayer for our listeners as we finish our Soul Talks today?


Father, we just desire to be aware of you and alert to your presence and your power. 

So I pray for every listener today that they would just pause and notice.

Slow down long enough to take a few extra breaths and look around them at the beauty of your creation, at the beauty of the people that are in their life, the beauty of your word, the beauty of the gift of prayer.

Of time to be alone and still before you.

Help us all, oh Lord, help us all to practice a preference for you, which means we’ll have to let go of the very things that we think are so important that define us. 

Just give us a willingness to die to ourselves in order to live fully and freely in you.

Thank you for Bill and Kristi, and for their amazing ministry,

I just pray for their awareness of you.  

Even today, that you would make yourself known in life transforming ways. 

We will give you all the honor, the glory, and the praise, loving Father, gracious Savior, empowering Holy Spirit. 




Friends, thanks for tuning in and being a part of this Soul Talks, a ministry of Soul Shepherding. 

We look forward to the next time we can be in conversation with you. 

Have a great day.


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