In the sixth post in our Foundations series, the Rev. Seth Richardson of St. Andrew’s Little Rock reveals why spiritual gifts are essential to mission—and just how we can go about discerning and exercising them. 

One of the most important things we can do as society that desires to be on mission making disciples is cultivate space for discerning and exercising the spiritual gifts as a regular,  foundational practice among our entire community. Cultivating this space helps form our community into disciple-makers, not just religious consumers who depend on charismatic leaders and energetic volunteers.

The problem, however, is that we are always tempted to de-grace and de-spirit the gifts. This happens when we need the gifts to tell us who we are, when we segregate certain gifts among a few, or when we functionalize the gifts by using them as a recruitment tool for staffing programs.

But the gifts of the Spirit are all about grace and all about the Spirit’s transformative, reorienting activity among us. Discerning and practicing the gifts leads us into deeper dependence on the Spirit and on one another.

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This all begins with intentionally anchoring the gifts to the Holy Spirit and to grace. The gifts are just that, gifts: grace-saturated and endued by the Holy Spirit, which the name “spiritual gift” suggests. If the gifts are truly gifts, then they are not inherent to us and we are not entitled to them. Unlike a talent, there is nothing to boast about because the gift is all grace.

The gifts are not our identity. We do not need them to tell us who we are. Rather, the gifts are the concrete ways our community depends on the Spirit to equip us for participating in God’s reconciling work in our community and in the world. This is exactly what Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. If our gifts are truly gifts, then discerning and exercising those gifts leads us into deeper encounter with Christ and with one another.

Discerning and Exercising the Gifts

When we create space for discerning the gifts of the Spirit, we are training our community to be sensitive to God’s work and voice in their life. Taking sufficient time to discern the gifts affirms the reality that this is as much about what God wants to do in us as disciples as it is through us making disciples. The in and the through are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing.

Discerning the gifts looks like being intentional to examine together (among people who know our stories and have witnessed what our lives are like) the Spirit’s work throughout the history of our life into the present. Then, rather than mulling over the results of a gift inventory exclusively in private, we bring our stories and self-awareness to our community and say, “This is what I see, what do you see? Does this fit with what you know about me and have seen in me?” We do this in prayerful submission to the Spirit and to one another.

Often the community will notice something the individual does not. The community might say, for instance, “Seth, have you ever considered that the Spirit has given you the gift of compassion?” For fear of failure or lack of self-awareness, I might not have had the eyes to see this about myself. This is a powerful moment for me and for the community because I must step out in trust, and in this step I learn to be a blessing to the community not by operating out of my perceived strength, but by actively surrendering to God’s gracious gift.

As we discern together, we are cultivating a culture of sensitive listeners (to ourselves and one another) and confident practitioners. In this way we become less of a community of religious consumers, and more of a community empowered to participate in God’s work in us and through us.

When we create space for exercising the gifts of the Spirit, we are becoming a relational community that witnesses to God’s kingdom breaking forth outside the walls of the church and into ordinary lives. The life of the church begins to revolve less and less around a centralized collection of a few charismatic leaders who put on programs. Stress is slowly relieved for those few who feel the pressure to “do church” well. More and more, the life of the church begins to revolve around the particular and varied ways the Spirit is working among everyone in the community – especially those on the margins who get sidelined in communities where ministry is relegated to the “most qualified.”

Creating space for exercising the gifts looks like decentralizing the work of ministry by empowering individuals in the community to live into the gifts. In short, this looks like cultivating a culture where leaders are equipping and releasing other leaders to live a life of discipleship on mission.

As simple as this sounds, the hard news is that this means the clergy (I’m implicating myself here) must learn to detoxify from whatever keeps us needing to be the sole proprietors of ministry. Delegation may be involved, but it is more than that. This looks like reorganizing our work so that we are always seeking to empower others to do the things we do.

Without denigrating the call to holy orders, we can still embrace the liberating reality that clergy are not called to possess all the gifts. It is a good thing (for us and for our witness to the world) that we must learn to trust the Spirit’s empowering of others to accomplish God’s work.

Messier and Slower, But That May Be a Good Thing

Cultivating space for discerning and exercising the gifts of the Spirit is messier and slower than the alternatives. It puts us (especially clergy) less in control. But this is ripe ground for God’s grace to rush into our lives in concrete ways – for the Spirit to interrupt our status-quo and bring transformation.

We might have never known, for instance, how addicted we are to being in charge until we started giving away responsibility to other gifted people. That can be devastating news for some of us, but, in this way, exercising the gifts of the Spirit can open space in our heart to receive God’s word of grace right where we need it the most.

The Rev. Seth Richardson lives in Little Rock, Arkansas with his wife, Caralisa, and is a presbyter at St. Andrew’s Little Rock. Seth most often thinks and writes about spiritual formation, theology and place. He probably drinks too much coffee. Contact Seth