by Jonathan Leeman
Hopefully you have not had to deal with a Candace Whitcomb in your church, but my guess is that you’ve known one or two. Her story is funny and pathetic and all too familiar.
Candace Whitcomb is a character in Mary Wilkins Freeman’s 1889 short story “The Village Singer.” It begins with Miss Whitcomb’s dismissal after forty years as the church’s leading soprano. Her voice had begun to crack and those upper notes weren’t as strong as they used to be. So the church officers asked her to go.
As you can predict, Miss Whitcomb was none too pleased.
The following Sunday, a warm May morning in which all the windows of the building stood open, she had her revenge. Her house sat next door to the church, and just as her replacement, the young and delicate Alma Way, began her solo, old Miss Whitcomb, sitting at home, began pounding away on her parlor organ while loudly cawing another hymn to another tune. Poor Alma continued to sing, but Candace’s shrill strains were all anyone could hear.
LET ME DO WHAT I’M GOOD AT!
Like Candace, we often think we know what we’re good at, and that’s how we want to serve the church:
- “I play the guitar pretty well, you should use me in the band.”
- “I’m a good teacher, why haven’t you asked me to teach?”
- “Look, I’m competent with numbers. Put me, not her, in charge of the budget.”
In the meantime, we avoid other areas of service by feigning incompetence.
- “Oh man, I’d love to help out in the nursery, I’m just no good with kids.”
- “I’d take them a meal, but I’m sure my cooking would make them even more sick!”
Such attitudes become especially harmful when they are charged with entitlement: “I play the guitar pretty well, and I deserve to play in the band!” (No, we don’t say that, but we think it.)
What’s worse, we employ the Holy Spirit to back us up: “You know, the Holy Spirit gave me the gift of guitar playing. Do you really want to oppose him?!”
SPIRITUAL GIFT TESTS?
Many churches have used spiritual gift tests to help members discern their gifts. Such tests are not necessarily wrong, but they are a bit like the answers at the back of the math book. They might give you the right answer, but using them to avoid working out the solution misses the point of the exercise.
Also, such tests can work like self-fulfilling prophecies. We answer questions according to how we like to view ourselves, not as we really are.
But God has given all Christians spiritual gifts so that we can learn to submit ourselves and our resources to the good the church: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12: 7; see also, 14:12, 46). The Holy Spirit has not gifted Christians for the purposes of self-realization, self-actualization, or self-expression.
If my eyes are instead focused on the good of the body, I will be delighted to employ my gifts if they are required, but I should also be happy to serve in areas where I’m not as gifted—if that’s what the body needs.
Furthermore, it’s through the natural processes of loving and serving the church body (wherever the body needs it) that a person’s gifts will gradually surface. But that means, ironically, the first task is to cultivate a right heart, not to find the best place to employ our hands. The former, after all, is a lot harder than the latter.
HOW TO CULTIVATE RIGHT HEARTS
How do we cultivate right hearts? First, I’d encourage churches to avoid the short-cuts, like spiritual gift tests. Yes, they can help this or that individual, but they often cause people to focus on the wrong things. Also, they might simply reinforce people’s self-conceptions and cause them to miss learning new things about themselves, the kinds of things we can only learn through the rough and tumble of relationships. Which brings us to…
Second, we want to develop relationships where we give one another permission to challenge and encourage each other. Notice, this means changing a culture, and there are no short cuts for that. It can take years. But did you expect Christian growth to work otherwise? Another way to make this second point is to say…
Third, we want to develop a church culture of discipleship and service. Discipleship and service work together. Discipling occurs as older Christians serve with younger ones.
- If you’re the pastor, invite a young man to review Sunday’s sermon outline with you over lunch.
- If you’re the deacon of sound, ask someone to help you run the sound system for a couple Sundays in a row.
- If you’re a homemaker, ask a single woman to help you prepare a meal for the family with a newborn.
When these kinds of invitations characterize a church, people’s gifts will emerge. But more importantly, people will learn to love the church.
Fourth, we should encourage one another to jump in and serve wherever the body needs it. “You’re not good with kids? That’s okay. I’m awful. We can pass the screaming toddler back and forth between the two of us.”
HOW TO HELP THEM DISCOVER THEIR GIFTS
In many ways, teaching people to discover their spiritual gifts is like teaching your children to discover their talents. Will my five year old daughter be gifted at ballet? Piano? Writing? Hospitality? Right now, I know she’s gifted at cuddling and giggling, and that’s about it. But here’s what I want for her: to grow and expand and serve others in all the ways that God intends for her to do. To this end, I have four tasks:
- I want to cultivate her character, so that whether she’s working from a place of strength or weakness, she’s working out of love, not out of entitlement.
- I want to give her opportunities that let her test her gifts. I will encourage her to try a year of ballet or two years of piano. I’ll especially help her to try those things in which she shows natural interest or proclivity, which means being willing to spend a little extra money in those places.
- I want to consider her development and maturity as I encourage her in one direction or another. No doubt, maturity factors into what opportunities are within the realm of possibility. But the ability to assess her maturity and her capabilities depends on knowing her.
- I must balance how I spend my resources on her with how I spend them in other areas of family life. Some opportunities might be good ones on the surface, but for the sake of another child or limited resources, I must say no. And whenever I do say “no,” I can trust that there is a good lesson for her in it (going back to the first point).
Church leaders, I think, should view their congregations more like a family, and help members discover and employ their gifts in these four ways.