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And what do you do?

By Chris Skilton.

Jane is well-known for her skill as a piano player and arranger of music, (which she does semi-professionally); Kevin played football to a high standard at amateur level; Jason is a primary school teacher whose work a recent Ofsted inspection at his school described as “outstanding”; Millie is a well-organised PA to the company secretary of a small business; Arthur is a senior social worker with a significant case-load of child abuse cases.

All five are members of their local church. In these different areas of expertise, do they possess gifts, or skill or abilities? And how should we distinguish between them? Are they God-given gifts or natural talents? All five happen to have come to the Christian faith in the past five years and were exercising these gifts or skills long before they wandered into a church. And should they be playing in the worship band, coaching the youth group football team, teaching in the 11-13s on Sundays, organising the reading and intercessions rota and serving as the church’s Child Protection Officer?

How we answer these questions will depend quite a lot on our theological understanding of the way in which God works in the world; how we understand the concept of the ‘image of God’ in (all?) humanity; how we understand what redemption means, and much much more! We are aware how much emphasis has been placed in the past forty years or so on the fact that the New Testament has several lists of gifts to be exercised in ministry in the church - I Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, Romans 12 and I Peter 4, to name but four. None of them are definitive and none of them seemingly exclusive. And what about I Corinthians 13:3 which talks about the gift of martyrdom, although it can only be exercised once!. Are these gifts that are the sole preserve of the Christian? What exactly distinguishes Christian compassion or generosity (Romans 12) from that exercised by a devout member of another faith or someone with no religious belief at all?

Our teaching in church can imply that once a person has become a Christian, God will give them new gifts specifically for Christian service, but what about the ones that you possessed before?  The apostle Paul is a good example of the conundrum!  It’s clear that after his conversion he received gifts of teaching and evangelism that were key to church planting and were used to transform the nature of the emerging Christian church. Before his conversion, however, he had even schooled in logic, rhetoric and law - skills and abilities that he put to excellent use in his letter-writing.

Definitions don’t necessarily get us far. Jane’s skill in playing the piano was achieved by great dedication and practice as a child and teenager and for her career she still has to work methodically and studiously to hone and develop those skills. But of course it’s no mere mechanical exercise of learning notes and techniques. She has a feel for the music, especially of twentieth century British and French composers, that transforms the pieces by her interpretation of them. She is reluctant to play in the worship band because, although more than technically competent, she doesn’t have a feel for that style of music in the same way and finds it hard to interpret it well (in her eyes). Stephen is less musically competent, but leads the musicians in the band with a sensitivity and understanding that is appreciated and valued by the congregation. Does this example begin to give some sort of clue to the nature of what it means to be gifted in the life of the church?

Millie is more than happy to organise the church rotas. She enjoys doing it and has a flair for it. She approaches people with warmth, good humour and tact and never fails to have lists in place at the right time. In what ways has this ‘gifting’ been enhanced? Millie herself would say that she does it because she enjoys doing it and it’s quite like her job at work - so why shouldn’t she do it in church as well?

Jason is regularly asked if he would help with the 11-13s because there is a desperate need for extra help, especially for a man. Jason has regularly turned down the invitation, although he feels wretchedly guilty for doing so. He says that he gives seventy hours a week to school, and that, when he comes to church, he needs to put his teaching to one side in order to be able to give of his best in school on Monday. He does, however, play the flute to a reasonable standard and is a little frustrated that there is no opening in the worship group for him to play (they have two flautists already!).

The way in which we (especially ministers) handle people in the local church is a complex process. And yes, Kevin does coach the youth group football and he’s found himself far more part of the church since he took this on. And no, Arthur, like Jason, needs to separate out work from church, although he’s happy to be consulted on points of information or general process about Child Protection if asked.

Taking people seriously and understanding their needs, aspirations and calling, is difficult for a minister in a busy church. But this too is not just a job for someone with HR training - it’s part of the minister’s calling and gifting (or should that be ability and skill?).

Chris Skilton

Archdeacon of Lambeth and Board Member of Ministry Today

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You are reading And what do you do? by Chris Skilton, part of Issue 38 of Ministry Today, published in November 2006.

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