Saturday, July 24, 2010

Gifts All Around Us

Life Overflowing: God Gifts All Around Us

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

I Corinthians 12:4-7

Filling Slots

We’re entering into one of the most anxious months of the year in many of our congregations. Why is this such a “pressured” time? It’s because we’re focused on one question.

Will we be able to come up with enough Sunday School teachers for another year? (We hit a similar crunch time in the six weeks before annual meetings in the winter: will our nominating committee be able to “fill all the slots” on the ballot for elections?)

So how are we doing with this perennial task? How does your congregation go about assembling a full complement of teachers for Sunday School?

I fear that there are many nervous phone calls that go something like this: “Sue, we have three more slots to fill on our Sunday School teaching staff for this fall. The Christian education board is frantically digging up warm bodies, and you have to help us out. It’s been a while since you taught, after all, and you still have a kid in Sunday School—so you really should be doing your part, you know. If you and others don’t say ‘yes,’ we might just need to cancel third grade this year. No one wants that to happen. So, what do you say?”

Calling Forth Gifts

What if we approached the recruitment of Sunday School teachers—and all sorts of other servants of Christ in our congregations—in a completely different way? What if we started with the assumption that God is abundant, not stingy, and that in our congregations we have more than enough person-gifts to do God’s work? What if we led with opportunities, callings and gifts—rather than needs, obligations and guilt?

A visit with a prospective Sunday School teacher might sound like this: “Sue, our church’s ‘good gifts team’ has been praying for our Sunday School. And as we’ve been praying we’ve been surveying the whole congregation—with eyes peeled for the gifts that will help us pass on the faith to our kids. We’ve noticed that you seem to be especially good with children, that you have a flair for telling stories in memorable ways, and that you bring a calm and caring demeanor to all that you do. We believe God has gifted you. So we’re inviting you to consider the ministry of teaching in our church. We don’t expect an answer right away; please take time to think over, pray about and discuss this invitation with your family.”

Together, We Have What We Need

If you look carefully, you will not find the word “volunteer” anywhere in the Bible. Worldly wisdom suggests that if the church (as an organization) needs leaders or workers for certain programs, one option is to plead for volunteers. Works in the Kiwanis and the Garden Club—why not the church?

We can operate that way, if worldly wisdom is all we want to drawn upon. But what about the deeper, biblical wisdom that is ours? I can’t find any Bible stories that commend the notion of putting a sign-up sheet on the church door, in order to “fill slots” on parish leadership teams with grudging volunteers.

But what I do find in the Bible is an intense and comprehensive commitment to viewing the people of God as a community overflowing with gifts for the work of ministry. And wise, faithful Christians know that God has a penchant for giving gifts, one of which is the gift of identifying and calling forth such gifts in others. Church is a community of abundant gifts, and it is our delight to recognize these gifts and invite other disciples to share them, for the building up of the whole Body of Christ.

A neighboring synod has a mission statement that still knocks my socks off whenever I read it, especially the last line: “Together, we have what we need.” What an amazing statement of confident faith in the abundance of God who lavishly doles out personal gifts that put “legs” under Christ’s church. God has given us all that we need—but only “together.” Each congregation has more than enough gifts—but only if we notice and call forth all the gifts from all the people. Leave no one out!

For the Common Good

One of the best places to learn about all of this is the twelfth chapter of I Corinthians. Hard to imagine, but the early Corinthian Christians may have had too many gifts to contend with—so much so that they became over-focused on their gifts, with some gifts (e.g. speaking in tongues) being more highly prized than others. Differences of opinions over their rich gifts heightened divisions in their congregation, and Paul had to straighten them out and bring them back together.

The chapter is worth your own careful reading and reflection, but here are a few of the key points that Paul makes:

• God and God alone gives all good gifts.

• God gives those gifts purely as God sees fit.

• God loves wondrous variety in giving these gifts—no two persons have the same set of gifts.

• No one is left standing behind the kitchen door when God’s gifts are being given. No one goes away empty-handed.

• And, finally, all God’s gifts are given, not just for our personal happiness, but always for the common good. God’s gifts lead us always not to gaze at our own navels—but to confess before the world: “Jesus is Lord!”

Digging for Treasure in Our Own Back Yards

So dream with me, just a bit, about how we might receive in fresh ways God’s overflowing gifts to each of us, for the building up of the Body of Christ. What would it look like if we moved from a needs-based mentality (that often employs guilt and obligation as motivators) to a gifts-based way of life (that assumes the grace of God in Christ saves us in order to send us into God’s service)? Here are some markers…

1. We recognize scarcity-mentality as another form that faithlessness can take. We live in the confident that because God only gives gifts generously, “together, we have what we need.”

2. We look far and wide for the gifts that will serve God’s mission. We set aside old wives’ tales like: “Men never teach Sunday School.” Or, “We can’t ask retired folks to do that—they’ve done their time.” We regularly survey the entire congregation when mapping the assets of our faith community.

3. We replace Nominating Committees with Good Gifts Teams (or some other name that reflects our biblical consciousness of God’s abundance). The team spends significant time in prayer, Bible study, and focused reflection on the “feet on the ground” within the congregation. The team also meets regularly, thoughout the year, not just when it’s crunch time (before the start of the program year or prior to the annual meeting).

4. We promise never again to fall back on using guilt or obligation as motivators in seeking workers or leaders. We expunge from our vocabularies phrases like “calling for volunteers” or “digging up warm bodies” or “filling slots” (who really wants to “fill a slot” anyway?)

5. We assume that some of the best gifts available are right under our noses. A while back someone wrote a book with a great title: “Digging for Treasure in Your Own Back Yard.” Amen!

6. When we call forth the gifts of others we also provide training and support as they exercise their gifts. And we recognize that Sabbath rest is crucial for gifted people; no one is expected to serve on a leadership team or teach a class “forever.” Provide graceful ways for leaders to step back periodically, to recharge their batteries and prepare for their next “tour of duty.”

Your servant in Christ,
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

Questions for reflection and discussion:

1. Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Think about how your congregation recruits workers and leaders. What, if anything, seems “insane” about that process? How could your church take a fresh look at the ways it surfaces disciples for particular ministries?

2. Why is it so tempting to use guilt and obligation to motivate persons to “step forward?”

3. What is one gift God has give to you that the church has yet to recognize and call forth?

4. What is one step you could take to help your congregation move toward a gifts-based approach to calling forth workers and leaders?

This is the seventh in a series of articles on the theme Life Overflowing—an ongoing exercise in missional theology for the disciples and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod during the year 2010. These articles may be used for personal reflection; they may also serve as background study or a devotional resource for congregation councils and other parish leadership groups.

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