Problems with Spiritual Gifts


Years ago I used to lead some seminars on Spiritual Gifts, and Spiritual Gift Assessments. They have value… I think. But maybe it is time to rethink their value. I recall people 10 years ago saying that for centuries Christians had ignored the important role that Spiritual Gifts have in the Bible… but that now things have changed, and now this important doctrine has finally been rediscovered. However, even back then when I was leading these trainings, I was wondering about that statement. Spiritual Gifts really aren’t particularly emphasized in the Bible. Even the section of the Bible that speaks of them most (in First Corinthians) speaks of Spiritual Gifts with a certain amount of ambivalence. If one removed all places where spiritual gifts are explicitly referenced, the Bible would not look much different.

I eventually began to question both the value and accuracy of what I was teaching.

  1. First, a lot of the information provided in the training for Spiritual Gifts was simply made up. Different programs and books on the subject varied. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but these programs would give answers to questions such as: How many spiritual gifts are there? How many gifts does each Christian have (or can have)? Does every Christian have at least one spiritual gift? When do we get our spiritual gift or gifts? Can we lose spiritual gifts? Can we make God give us the gifts we want? The problem is that for the most part, the answers were manufactured by the writers of the training… there is little to no guidance given in the Bible to these answers. But I think the lack of information actually tells us something. We probably should focus more on where God is leading us, recognizing that God will gift us in doing what needs to be done. In other words, we should not try to discover our spiritual gifts to figure out what we should do. Rather, we should discover where God is leading us and understand that He will empower us to do what He wants us to do.
  2. Second, the spiritual gift assessments often assume that the individual is the one best suited to determine God’s giftings. Not surprising. These assessments tend to be written in the United States, where individualism is the focus. But often the individual is the least suited to recognize God’s giftings. I have had people come up to me and say that God has given them a certain gifting. A common one is discernment— Someone would tell me that they have the gift of discernment. I would smile and nod… but I am thinking to myself… “Oh no you don’t!!” Often the church as a whole is more competent to identify spiritual gifts. The better assessments don’t just ask the individual to fill out the form, but also ask members in the church to fill it out for the individual as well. Still, if one has a higher score for “Helps” than one does for “Wisdom,” that is pretty minimal evidence that one has a spiritual gift.
  3. Third, often spiritual gift assessments are used backwards… to suggest what each of us SHOULD NOT be doing. “Oh… I can’t go visit my neighbors, I don’t have the gift of evangelism.” “I can’t serve food, I don’t have the gift of helps.” “I can’t lead a small group… I have no gift of teaching.” Such arguments are often self-serving… and God often uses people, at least for a short time, to do things that they lack skills, gifts, or passion for (talk to Jonah about that one). God is often glorified most in our succeeding in weakness.
  4. Fourth, spiritual gifts when spoken of in the Bible have a lot of warnings built into them. The gift to speak in other languages is talked about a lot by Paul, but much of his talk minimizes the gift, or provides distinct cautions. There is a lot of warning regarding prophecy as well. Having a spiritual gift in no way implies that one will use it wisely. Solomon, gifted with wisdom, still made some decisions that were clearly foolish in the long-term. Just like the Bible never suggests that a person should be taken as a pastor of a church by identifying a “divine calling,” it also never suggests that prophecy is true if it comes from someone with a gift of prophecy (even more so if the person self-identifies that gifting). For prophecy, the test is God’s canon. The Bible even makes it clear that miracles (seemingly undeniable proof of divine empowerment) are no proof that the person is a follower of Christ.
    5. Fifth, a focus on Spiritual Gifts often leads to the inappropriate lessening of other things such as skills and talents. I have heard people say that spiritual gifts are for spiritual ministry and talents are for non-spiritual.

My suggestions are two-fold.

A. Look at the big picture. I like SHAPES: Spiritual Gifts, Heart, Ability (natural and learned), Personality, Experiences, and Sphere of Influence. A broader self-understanding is likely to say more about what one should do than simply one small aspect.

B. Understand that as part of a community of faith, the needs, and evaluations of the (spiritually mature) church are often better at evaluating one than a self-evaluation. Recall that it was an outsider, Barnabas, who recognized the potential in Paul to serve in Antioch, and it was the church leadership of Antioch, led by the Spirit that identified Paul and Barnabas to serve as apostles. The Damascus Call of Paul may have been important to him… but in serving the church, the confirmation of the Twelve, along with the church of Antioch were critical.

So how does this apply to a potential missionary?

  • Mission agencies don’t simply look for that (ever elusive and theologically doubtful) thing called a missionary calling. Nor do they look for the “gift of apostleship.” They seek to look at the big picture— a more holistic evaluation.
  • It is probably best to see the call or gift for missions in terms of identifications by the church, rather than some personal experience. Even if one has a clear personal experience, if the heart, ability, and gifting cannot be recognized by the church, there is some problem. (Yes… the problem might be the church… but it is still a problem to address.)
  • Take a big picture view of one’s Christian path. Don’t just look at where you are right now, but where have you been and where do you see God leading. Calling is not a place or an occupation. It is a path… and that path goes back years in the past and continues years into the future.
  • Take a big view of missions. Some agencies only want people with “a heart of evangelism” or perhaps “focus on churchplanting.” That is fine— it is their right. But Christian ministry is diverse. Broaden your view of ministry to God’s, don’t narrow your view to that of a particular church, denomination, or agency. There seems little reason to separate talents, skills, and spiritual gifts. PERHAPS one might set apart spiritual gifts as a talent or skill that comes and goes as needed. But even that assumes that a spiritual gift suddenly comes on a person (something that certainly can happen although it is not sure it is normative) and can leave a person (something that seems reasonable but is not absolutely certain).

Ministerial SHAPE, FIND, and FIT

I was talking with my son around 1:30 in the morning (we do tend to be night owls at times).  We were talking about ministry. He mentioned that when we first came to the Philippines he wasn’t sure whether we were really helping here or not (a very fair and understandable assessment) but that he now sees his mom and I as having an important positive role here.


I said something like this:

“When we first got here, we were students… trainees. We weren’t really doing anything that others did not do or could not do. We did, however, at least act as catalysts. We helped form a couple of mission teams. One was DPDM (a medical mission group). We helped inspire people to get this in motion, but others had talked about it before we got here, and people in the group were doing medical missions before we arrived.

We also cofounded a pastoral care group, but a couple of groups had been set up before we set one up. The others may have faded away, but we did not do anything that new or amazing.

The thing is that over the 11 years that we were here, we did some good stuff… but in the first 7 or 8 years, if we weren’t here, there is a pretty good chance that someone else would have done it. In the last 3 or 4 years, however, it seems like we have found the place where we fit into ministry… God’s work. A place where if we weren’t doing it, perhaps it would not happen. Over time we eventually found our ‘fit’ in ministry.”

My son thought that was a bit profound.  A lot of people focus on Passion as far as ministry. But maybe one should look more for Fit… where one Fits into God’s work.

That got me thinking. Consider the idea of SHAPE. SHAPE is often used to find what God as created a person to do ministerially. It stands for:

  • Spiritual Gifts
  • Heart
  • Abilities
  • Personality
  • Experience

I like to add a sixth, “Sphere of Influence.” That makes SHAPES. But I will go along with the singular form. I think there is much to be said for the idea of SHAPE in getting some idea of what God has made you to be and do ministerially…. at least initially.

However, as time goes on, our SHAPE changes. As we minister our Heart, Abilities, Experiences, and Sphere of Influence changes. Our Personality also changes, although many think of personality as invariant. And, yes, I believe our Spiritual gifts change… (I believe the idea that spiritual gifts are given at salvation and never change is a modern Christian myth.)

As one matures in ministry, I believe our place is less about our SHAPE. Rather the changes mold us to FIT into God’s work.

Certain ministries we discover are Fulfilling.  We find satisfaction in our place in God’s work. It is not always about Heart or Passion. Rather, one feels that one is where one is meant to be. Does this always happen? I don’t know. But it can happen and does happen. It feels, in many ways that it has happened with us (or at least is in the process of happening).

Who we are an ministry becomes more Interactive. Ministry affects our SHAPE, and SHAPE affects our ministry. We grow into roles and grow out of roles.

These changes are tied to Need. Over time, one discovers where one is truly needed. We are often told not to focus on where we are needed but discover how our gifting (SHAPE) informs us as to our role. However over time, hopefully, our SHAPE and a clear Need begin to come together. The need clarifies and our SHAPES becomes attuned to that need. When I say need, I am not talking about a warm body to fill a billet. Rather it is an understanding that there is a need that we specifically are effective at filling.  Additionally, we start to see what we are effective at. People sometimes like to say, “Don’t pray that God bless what you are doing, but pray to do what God is blessing.” I think there is truth to that, but perhaps it could be said, “Pray that you do what God will bless when you do it.”

These changes are also Dialogic. That is, they are part of broader “conversation” between each of us and God, as well as with others inside of and outside of ministry.

The result is that Our Ministry is always in flux as is our SHAPE. The goal is to help them FIND each other so that we know where we FIT into God’s Work.

Static Calling and Dynamic Pilgrimage

I have been a bit down on the concept of Calling to Ministry and Gifting. It is not that these are wrong, but I think they have developed some problems based on poor scholarship, and a tendency to envision ministry in static, rather than dynamic, terms.

Starting with Calling. Some problems with the way it is commonly viewed I see as:

(1) It doesn’t seem to be completely Biblical. There are evidences of people being called to ministry in a very miraculous sort of way… such as Isaiah or Moses. In other cases, however, the calling is done through people, such as Elisha (through Elijah) and Paul and Barnabas (through the church of Antioch). Some seem to simply be responding to the need, rather than answering a specific divine call (such as Daniel or Esther). Some are born into ministry (such as the Aaronic priesthood and the Levites). Some are called to obey or follow but only gradually does it develop into more specific roles (such as the followers of Jesus who gradually became his Twelve, and then Apostle/churchplanters). Some like Apollos appear to seek to serve ministerially before being called (if he ever did experience something we might describe as a call).

(2) It seems to be used more to justify non-service than for justifying ministry. People don’t serve God and use the argument that they were not called or do not ‘feel called.” I have seen it go the other way as well. People say they must serve in a certain way because they were “called by God,” even though the church had not called them. I consider this to be (at least normally) a contradiction. Calling is normative through the church.

(3) Calling tends to be applied to “professional ministry.” This seems to be a belief founded in Clericism than Scripture. Ministers are called. Teachers, Engineers, Bus Drivers are not. Does that actually make sense?

(4) A lot of theology has been dumped into this idea of calling. For example, some teach that if one was called to a certain position, it is for life. What is the basis for this? It does seem as if those serving God, served God for life, but it is far less clear that they did it in the same way. The Disciples in the Gospels served God very differently than in Acts 2-15, and far different still from when they (apparently) scattered from Jerusalem. I personally believe that the confusion about the writer of Revelation comes from the mistaken thought that Apostle John maintained his role as an apostle (traveling churchplanter) all his life, rather than “retiring” to a church elder (John the Elder). Could be wrong… but certainly, time, people, and circumstances change so anyone’s concept of calling should accept such flexibility.

We have a similar problem with the concept of Spiritual Gifts. That is why I have had to downplay them as it pertains to ministry.

(1) The Bible doesn’t really emphasize them. Roles in the body of Christ are recognized as important, along with the need for a proper fit between members and roles, but spiritual giftings are mentioned in relatively few places. They cannot/shouldn’t be ignored, but they should not be placed above equally important things.

(2) A whole industry has developed in theologizing this concept of spiritual gifts… people making dogmatic statements about what,exactly, they are, when you get them, how long they last, how do you lose them (if you can lose them), how many are there, and more. It is fine to speculate… but major ministry decisions are often made based on the idle opinions of some.

(3) There is no way that spiritual gifts should be placed as separate or above other aspects of God’s working in a person’s life… preparing him or her to serve. The idea of spiritual gifts in this case seems to be given higher priority because it is felt to be miraculous. Nothing wrong with miraculous, but it is highly flawed to place the miraculous as being more from God than other things. In fact, a whole lot of factors should be considered: One view looks at SHAPE

  • S – Spiritual Gifts – What has God supernaturally gifted me to do?
  • H – Heart – What do I have passion for and love to do?
  • A – Abilities – What natural talents and skills do I have?
  • P – Personality – Where does my personality best suit me to serve?
  • E – Experiences – What spiritual experiences have I had? What painful experiences have I had? What educational experiences have I had? What ministry experiences have I had?

I would add Sphere of Influence (Role/Status/Relationships). That would make it SHAPES

If one puts all of this together, I believe that it would be best to see

A.  Calling seen more in terms of Pilgrimage. Service (professional or lay) is a journey of following God as he serves.

B.  Gifting seen more in terms of Preparedness. God prepares us for our pilgrimage through SHAPES as well as uses SHAPES to give us insight for the path of our pilgrimage. However, as we go on our journey, our SHAPES change. Our gifts change and develop, Our heart changes. Our abilities change. Our personality changes, Our experiences change, and so does our sphere of influence. Ministry, then, is a dynamic

Since pilgrimage is a changing thing, and so is one’s preparedness for these changes, Ministry should be seen in terms of Dynamic Pilgrimage. There are other useful metaphors as well… but the static view that has seemed to develop from a doubtful understanding of Calling and Gifts appears to me to be clearly inferior.

What do you have going for you?

I used to be big on Spiritual Gifts. I got training in them, read books on them, and led training on them. I have kind of dumped that to a large extent. Reasons?

Saint Francis of Assisi with Al-Kamil, 15th Ce...
Saint Francis of Assisi with Al-Kamil, 15th Century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1.  So much of doctrine of Spiritual Gifts is simply made up. How many spiritual gifts are there? When do you get them? Do they stay with you or come and go? Does God bring in new gifts and retire old gifts over history? How many spiritual gifts do each Christian get? Are they specifically necessary for a specific ministry role? How do gifts relate to offices? How are spiritual gifts different from talents?

If you have absolute confidence in the answers to any of these questions… you did not get them from the Bible. You got them from somewhere else. Yet so many are giving dogmatic answers to these things. This does not give me much confidence.

2.  It is such a small part of the picture of God’s work in preparing us for ministry. Why is it emphasized? I really don’t know. Maybe it is a correction for too little emphasis in the past. Yet many of the other items listed below have never really been emphasized either. Maybe spiritual gifts seem more miraculous. Not sure they are more miraculous and not sure that miraculous should be seen as more “God-given.”

What are some of these other areas that God has given us that are to be used to serve God (be it church, home, missions, work, etc.)?

  • Talents. Traditionally, talents (I am including what is sometimes called attributes) are considered to be given by God to all people in one form or another, while spiritual gifts are deemed to be given to Christians only. This may or may not be strictly correct, but it is a bit pointless. We are to use spiritual gifts to serve God, and we are to use talents to serve God. Therefore, any test that is meant to measure “spiritual gifts” while ignoring talents is extremely limited. It is okay to take a “spiritual gifts” survey (based on one of the proposed lists and definitions for these gifts), but a talents survey should immediately follow.
  • Passions. God gives us passions. For me this is interests tied to temperament. It is true that some passions may be unhelpful. I remember as a teen being told that our emotions lead us astray. Certainly they can. But God gave us emotions and gave us temperament and gave us desires. These need to be taken seriously. Certainly we should get away from the mindset that serving God means doing what you don’t want to do.
  • Skills. Skills are generally seen as things that we have picked up through training/education and practice. Consider this. I have relatives who are able to play the piano or guitar pretty much by ear… without formal lessons. I know others that have become proficient through hard work and practice. Suppose two individuals were equally good with the piano although they reached excellence by these two very different paths. Which one should serve God with his or her music? Which one should not? Its silly. BOTH should serve God with music. It is a flawed thinking to assume that skills (that come from circumstances) is less from God than the other.
  • Resources.  Resources here refers to special things that a person has that can be expended on ministry as a faithful steward. These can include monetary wealth, material goods, time, health, and so forth. Again, God gives all good things (is it safe to say bad things as well? I will leave that to you) so we must consider what resources God has given us.
  • Connections. We all live in a web of relationships. For each of us, this web is unique and each web exists in both time and space. Each of these unique webs give us unique service opportunities.
  • Circumstances. Just like connections, each of us have unique circumstances. Circumstances in this case apply not only to the snapshot of the present, but the whole photo album of our past. These circumstance not only give us opportunities, they in fact make us what we are. Even when our circumstances are full of mistakes and pain, they provide fuel and perspective for our role as a servant of God.

What have I missed? And what do YOU have going for you?

Not Gifted at

We just finished Vacation Bible School Week 1 at our church here in the Philippines. Celia, my wife, is the primary organizer, working with the WMU (Women’s

VBS in Baguio City, Philippines
VBS in Baguio City, Philippines

Missionary Union) and Youth in holding VBS. We did one in a community on the other side of the mountain, and next week we will do one at our church. Celia is supervising CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) so she is pretty busy during the VBS hours. I finished teaching a missions class a few days ago, and my next class is a couple of weeks away… so I am overseeing the VBS “in the field.”

SO WHAT????   I am not gifted at Children’s Ministry. I am not against children. I used to be a child (although I was never a teenager). But I clearly have no special gifting to do children’s ministry. I find it amazing how easily some people embrace the role of working, communicating, and ministering with children.

So maybe I should have simply said “I am sorry, I am not available to help with VBS. I am not gifted in that area.” It’s an option.

Plan A.  A church or ministry team is looking for volunteers. They look for the people with the most time on their hands. With a bit of arm twisting, some of the people agree to help. This is commonly a path to failure. Many people with time on their hands, have such time because they are not found to be reliable. Unreliable people often have time on their hand.

Plan B. A church or ministry team is looking for volunteers. They have heard the saying that if you have something that really needs to get done, ask a busy person. This is counterintuitive, but is built on the logic that busy people are reliable and are not quick to say NO. Generally, I haven’t found this method so hot either. For on thing, churches have used this method for years… and church hallways are littered with the figurative corpses of members and former members who have burned out due to overwork. For another thing, busy people still have a limited resource— time. No matter how much one plays with time management, eventually, limits are hit. I know many people who are so busy that they simply cannot juggle more responsibility. This is pretty common in the Philippines where the percentage of highly competent, self-driven, people is a bit low. So these people tend to wear a lot of (ministerial) hats.

Plan C. Another method is not to focus on availability or capability, but rather on susceptibility. Susceptibility to shame or guilt that is. While being shameless or sociopathic (resistant to guilt) is not a great quality trait for ministry, one cannot assume that a higher level of susceptibility to guilt or shame does not necessarily correlate to competence (but does often correlate to burnout).

Plan D.  More recent has been the focus on spiritual gifts. Thus, one should be asked to serve in those areas one is gifted. I think there is good in this… but some problems as well. First, there is some fairly poor theology behind spiritual gifts, I believe. Many churches separate strongly between spiritual gifts, talents, skills, and experiences. There seems to almost be the idea that spiritual gifts are from God and are to be used for ministry, while the others (talents, skills, and experiences) are not from God and don’t have much of a place in proper ministry. This makes no sense… and should be tossed out immediately. When evaluating a person for ministry, the whole person should be viewed as from God and the output of God’s working. Second, spiritual gifts are often limited to 13, or 22, or 27 or some other number… as if God limits his gifting (a ridiculous concept). One should see the inconsistency in the lists of gifts in the Bible as clear that the number and types of gifts are not well-defined. And that is good since there are a lot more tasks in ministry than there are gifts as listed in the Bible. Third, while a church may be a “body” of many members. No church this side of heaven is perfect… there will always be ways in which gifts and roles don’t line up perfectly. Fourth, the wisdom that for a new hire you “fake it until you make it” is true. You have to sometimes give people a chance to learn, grow, and prove who they are.

I would say that there is no set rule. I would say that for long-term ministry roles, it is good to focus on their gifting (recognizing talents, skills, experiences, and such as also part of God’s gifting) and passion. Doing long-term what is outside of one’s gifting or passion will bear little fruit and a lot of stress. But for short-term projects (or rotated roles) passion and willingness to serve should be strongly considered.

I spent a few months being a youth leader. Although the real work wasn’t that hard I suppose, it was hugely stressful for me because it is far outside my skill set and a bit outside my passion. But for short-term or occasional ministry, willing to do one’s best for the church and for God is important. Long-term? I am so glad that I no longer have that role.