Gift discernment?

July 4, 2012 | Editorial | Number 14
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

“Gift discernment,” as practised in many of our congregations, is neither. This sometimes agonizing ritual of finding enough willing members to fill the slots needed to keep the faith community functioning on an annual basis is often an arduous task for those assigned to find those volunteer bodies.

It is neither an in-depth look at the various spiritual gifts of the congregation nor a serious process of discernment that takes into account the Spirit’s nudging and “calling” for congregants at various points of their spiritual journey, nor is it a careful look at the cutting edge of changing needs in the development of a congregation.

More and more “gift discernment committees” hear that dreadful response that “I am just too busy to take anything else on” when attempting to fill positions each fall. This appears to be a recent pattern emerging in several congregations.

It would be far too harsh to imply that much of the language in our covenants of commitment and membership vows is so much high-sounding rhetoric, but there is a need to take a new look at what has become not a joy, but a burden of management, as we attempt to function as the body of Christ in a congregational setting.

Have we forgotten what we said as individuals, either at baptism or in joining a new fellowship of believers, when we committed to:

  • Active participation in the life and work of the congregation;
  • Openness to giving and receiving counsel;
  • Seeking to be good stewards of our time, personal gifts and money;
  • Participating in congregational discernment and decision-making; or
  • Renewing our membership in an annual celebration and renewal of our covenant?

Has the congregational leadership forgotten its promise to:

  • Be a discerning community that identifies congregants’ gifts and calls, and supports them in the exercise of these gifts in the service of the church and to others in need?

“Gift discernment,” as we too often vaguely both describe and practise it, is a two-way street: namely, the responsibility of church leadership to intentionally work at identifying the spiritual gifts of the congregation and the commitment of the members to then use those gifts in equipping the saints for the building up of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12).

Neither congregations nor their individual members stand still in this ongoing discernment process. Congregations change from year to year, demographically, in leadership and in what they hold as priorities in worship and service. Individuals are on a spiritual journey, defined and refined by their personal experiences of struggle, perhaps grief and loss, perhaps new spurts of growth and joy, or new insights and knowledge, the latter sometimes coming from their fellow travellers, sometimes from outside sources and influences.

And so it should be. Healthy congregations are in dynamic development mode. But it is a dynamic that is self-conscious and intentional, not one driven by default or the tired refrain of “we always do it this way.” Developing gifts and using gifts should be part of the same process. Perhaps before asking anyone to fill any spot, the congregation should take account of where it is in this development process and set up specific new goals for the new church year.

I am reminded of an encounter with one of our Anabaptist cousins several years ago when I was working with an inter-Anabaptist group. A Church of the Brethren pastor in Dayton, Ohio, told our group he had no problem with “filling the spots with volunteers.”

Fred Barnhart, a person with a vision for planting a new church on the outskirts of this southwestern Ohio town, who grew his flock from some 50 congregants to more than 600, told us with a confident smile, “I have no problem getting the work of my church done.”

His strategy?

“Whenever a newcomer shows signs of committing to regular attendance [and, consequently, membership], the first thing I do is spend an hour with him or her talking about their gifts. I take careful notes and put this into a database that becomes an ‘inventory of spiritual gifts,’ ” he said. “Then, when it comes time to fill all those volunteer spots and positions, I just go to my inventory list and the spot is filled. The person has already told me his or her gifts, so they can hardly say no!”

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