Matching gifts and ministry

Spirit-gifted people may feel stifled and unfulfilled, like square pegs expected to fit into round holes.

Ron Gladden is the ministerial secretary in Oregon for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Always dreaded. Of ten feared. Pastors tolerate it. Lay leaders wish it would care for itself, but it never does. And now it comes again —nominating committee time! The annual recruitment saga!

Here's the scenario (not a pretty sight): Pastor Goodpastor has just received his annual stack of resignation notes. The personal ministries leader, Pathfinder leader, several Sabbath school teachers, elders, deaconesses, and as sorted other volunteers have called it quits. He's not surprised. It happened last year, and the year before that. Some people offer detailed explanations (almost confessions), perhaps attempting to quiet their nagging consciences while also placating the pastor. Others state simply, "I've done my time."

Pastor Goodpastor knows that the church can't function unless people are found to fill all those empty positions. And so rekindling his resolve and bold determination, he begins psyching up for this year's recruitment campaign.

The big night arrives. Armed with a fistful of church directories and photo copied lists of slots to be filled, Pastor G calls to order the first meeting of the nominating committee. Several wonder silently if four midnight vigils will be required again this year. And who was that exasperated soul who made last year's speech about "pulling hen's teeth"?

Following a brief devotional, pencils are poised and sleeves are rolled up. The drama of slot-filling begins again.

"Do you think Sister V will take 'clerk' again this year?"

"She probably would, but the past few years she's had trouble keeping the records straight. Maybe it's time for a change."

"I agree someone else could do a better job, but I wouldn't make a change now. She might not understand, and the last thing we need is to offend Sister V."

"Yeah, you're right. Put her down for clerk again."

"Hey! How about that lady who just moved here from Reno? She looks like she'd make a decent kindergarten teacher!"

"Give her a call!"

Ring (pause), ring (pause) . . .

"Cross your fingers, folks. If we can't get her, I'm afraid we'll never be able to replace Joan."

"Hello! Is this Karen? . . . This is Greg. I'm calling from the nominating committee at church. I'm glad we caught you! We're wondering if we can twist your arm and get you to be the kindergarten leader this year . . .

"You've been a Christian for only a few months? I guess we didn't realize that, but that's OK. You know what they say about a kindergarten class—some times the teacher learns more than the students. . ."

Click.

"Glad that's out of the way! Now, what about personal ministries secretary? That position's usually easy to fill."

"How about asking someone who's not doing anything? Like Shawn. He's 17 now. It's about time to start breaking him in, don't you agree?"

Ring (pause), ring (pause) . . .

"Hello, Shawn! Greg from church. We feel impressed to call and see if you'd like to be personal ministries secretary..."

Greg covers the phone and whispers, "He wants to know what it involves."

"Oh, it's nothing! Just some recordkeeping and placing an order or two once in a while. You can handle it. . ."

"Oh, thanks, Shawn! We'll put you down!"

Click.

"He said as long as it doesn't take much time and he doesn't have to be up front, he'd take it!"

This year the process goes pretty well. As Pastor G opens the third meeting with prayer, only six positions re main unfilled. The committee's mood reflects their optimism that "tonight we'll be home early."

But somehow, finding people who will allow their names to appear beside those last few jobs is easier said than done. An hour passes, then two. Frustrated committee members shuffle tattered membership lists. Someone suggests dialing the same phone numbers again.

"This sure is fun," Pastor G observes sarcastically. "Maybe we'll get to schedule a fourth meeting after all."

Silence reigns around the table as pencils are chewed, corners of the room are stared into, and necks are scratched. Eventually good sense prevails, and Greg makes the motion to adjourn and meet again.

Sooner or later the nominating committee will fill the last six positions. Unfortunately, when people serve be cause they feel forced or guilty, they do it for the wrong reasons. They want to ease their conscience. Or get the pastor off their back. Or maybe they just want to look good to other people.

They also end up serving in the wrong places. If the nominating committee's chief concern is filling slots, they won't care who ends up doing what, as long as someone agrees to try. Spirit-gifted people may feel stifled and unfulfilled, like square pegs expected to fit into round holes. "Joy in serving Jesus" be comes a cliche at best.

A better way

All that frustration can be solved by authentic service. First, it flows naturally out of appreciation for who God is and what He has done. Second, it takes into account the unique talents of the member.

People whose lives God has changed can't help responding with praise and gratitude. They are eager to go the extra mile for God, to show their thanks for His favor. Like the psalmist, they ask, "How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?" (Ps. 116:12, NIV). Paul said that if a person wants to say thank You to God, that individual needs to pour out his or her life as a living sacrifice (see Rom. 12:1). Offering one's entire being in worship to the Lord hap pens in various ways, not the least of which is through authentic service.

New Testament principles discourage running out and signing up for the first job that comes along. People shouldn't just fill a position for a year, then bail out. Nor should they let the nominating committee coerce them into service that seems more like a millstone than a response of love. Members must serve according to their God-endowed spiritual gifts.

Three primary biblical passages teach about spiritual gifts: Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4. "Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed" (1 Cor. 12:1, NRSV). Peter instructs, "Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received" (1 Peter 4:10, NRSV). Ellen White adds, "God has different ways of working, and He has different workmen to whom He entrusts varied gifts."*

When members know the fulfillment that inevitably accompanies authentic service, ministry is a joy. Instead of exhausting, it is energizing. Instead of bringing burnout, it leads to blessing. The member says, "I really love this. I want to do this for the rest of my life!"

In order to help the members achieve truly authentic service, the church needs two major breakthroughs. The first is a philosophical shift. The second is a structural adjustment in the local church.

The philosophical shift

When a church abandons the practice of slot-filling and moves instead toward developing people, it is poised for a major step forward. An organization's greatest asset is its people. Leadership at the local level should view every member as a potentially effective server within the specific parameters of his or her giftedness. Leaders must become obsessed with the ultimate objective of developing and bringing out the best in the people whom God has brought together to form the body of the church.

Adult Sabbath school teachers and youth ministry leaders should be chosen and affirmed the same way we decide who will be organist, by simply asking, "Whose talents are best suited to do this job with excellence?" But this is not merely a call for more attention to put ting the right people in the right positions. We must shift away from slot-filling altogether to the development of Spirit-gifted people and the maximizing of their unique and unlimited potential.

The structural adjustment

Let's assume that you have decided to move your church toward a gifts-based ministry. You may conduct a seminar that includes biblical foundations and a written test. Maybe you simply administer the test. Or perhaps you visit parishioners in their homes and ask, "What would you really like to do for the Lord?"

Each of these is certainly a move in the right direction. Yet when all is said and done, more is usually said than done because several problems remain:

1. Many members still view ministry as a one-year-at-a-time commitment.

2. Nominating committees still meet with the mission of choosing people who will accept predetermined positions for the coming 12 months.

3. Sometimes a new family moves in from out of town, eager to serve the Lord. If the nominating committee has just finished its work, talented, energetic people may have to wait for an other year before getting plugged into the system. 4. When a few dozen people get excited about authentic service in accordance with their spiritual gifts, each of them may end up functioning as a lone ranger. In the absence of consistent and organized support, accountability, and guidance, the vision eventually vanishes.

Here is a revolutionary plan to solve those problems: Restructure opportunities for service by creating ongoing ministry teams around qualified lay leaders. Each leader would accept the task of organizing and focusing the energies, passions, and gifts of the persons within that particular ministry. Each ministry would be unique not only by virtue of the blend of people who comprise it but also because of its specific, self-chosen mission and direction.

The pastor's job then shifts from trying to prop up the weakest link in the chain of slot-fillers to seeing that each leader is successful. When that happens, the success of the leader naturally translates into the success of each individual server within the ministry team. The usual tasks of a local church are thus accomplished with joy, while dreams of ministry for God come true.

Having introduced the concept of a restructuring plan, I need to answer questions you may have about it. I'm sharing from my own previous leadership experience in the Madison Community SDA Church of the Wisconsin Conference.

Questions answered

How should a church get started in the restructuring plan?

First, you must get the green light from the appropriate lay leaders. They must be willing to make the shift from filling slots to developing people.

How long does that take?

It takes as long as it takes! Maybe a few months, maybe two years, or even longer. Some church leaders are all ears as soon as they realize the potential. But if you're working with people who prefer traditional ministry methods and tend to view the status quo as sacred, it will take a lot of time and education.

How long did you educate your people?

About 18 months. The elders and I met nearly every month in what we called a planning council. The meetings consisted entirely of dreaming, planning, praying, and evaluating. I shared my vision a little at a time. As the trial balloons went up, the elders responded. Sometimes they were ready to go for it; other times they shot the balloons down. When the latter happened, I knew either that the ideas weren't workable or that the timing wasn't right. In either case I backed off. Once the people began to trust my leadership and understand the concepts, they became eager to get started.

What was your first step?

In keeping with our new philosophy of abandoning pre-chosen positions, we tried something a bit radical. We in vented a little game called "erase the slots." I tried to make it fun. I asked, "What jobs or positions are not absolutely essential in order to be a Seventh-day Adventist congregation?" We looked at the list, discussed each slot individually (sometimes with vigor!), then crossed most of them off. When the dust settled, we had retained four essentials: head elder, head deacon, treasurer, and clerk. (Head deaconess would normally be included, but our church uses the term deacon to refer to both men and women.)

No health and temperance leader? No personal ministries leader?

Not on our "essential" list. Most of the usual tasks end up getting done under the umbrella of a ministry that eventually emerges. But remember, we can't impose what we think ought to be. We must strive to release the gifts that God has brought together.

And then?

We started the search for ministry leaders, people around whom we could build ministry teams.

What did you look for? Who would be eligible to lead a ministry team?

We insisted on three qualifications in the following order of importance:

First, character. Before leadership skills, number of years in the church, or personal charisma comes character. Is this man or woman experiencing an authentic daily walk with Jesus Christ? Do the church members look up to and respect him or her as one who loves the Lord wholeheartedly?

Second, passion. Does this person possess a deep, unquenchable desire to accomplish something specific for God?

Give us an example of a specific passion.

We have a man who is highly driven to blanket the entire city of Madison with literature. Another person stays awake at night dreaming of ideas to make the worship service creative and meaningful. One of our elders feels compelled to release a team of people who can touch the lives of those facing relational, emotional, or spiritual challenges.

And the third quality of a leader?

Leadership potential. Is there reason to believe that God has gifted this person in the area of leadership? Does he or she work well with people? Is this person a team player? With training and support, could he or she maximize the gifts of others? Can he or she be taught to organize and focus the resources at hand?

How many leaders did you begin with?

Four. Later we expanded to seven, where we are today.

So you identified your leaders. Ex plain the mechanics of actually getting the ministries off the ground.

The church board agreed that these people met the qualifications. Each leader was then asked to prepare a writ ten proposal explaining the specific thrust, or direction, of his or her particular ministry. When the proposals were presented to the church board, the leaders were affirmed and commissioned to begin their ministry.

What about recruiting? How did you get members to join ministry teams? First, we gave each ministry leader a "fishing license." When the leaders are excited about their ministry, they are their own best salespersons. Next, we conducted a seminar to identify the members' spiritual gifts.

Tell us about that.

The spiritual gifts discovery seminar has become an annual event in our church. We take between four and four and a half hours on Sabbath, from 10:00 until noon and then from one in the afternoon until 3:00 or 3:30.

In the morning we include the elements of a worship service such as singing, prayer, special music, and offering. Added is an exciting report from each of the ministry leaders. They tell what their ministry has done so far. They also share their vision for the future and explain ho w a person can become involved. Then I review our church's strategy for spiritual and numerical growth, followed by a short message.

After lunch we have more music, maybe a "parable in action" that focuses on spiritual gifts or faith-sharing, and a group quiz. Then the people take the written spiritual gifts test.

As soon as four people are finished writing and they score themselves, they form an affirmation group. This is when each person finds out what gifts others perceive them to have. Almost always, the perceptions of friends and acquaintances match the test scores. This part of the seminar is a lot of fun. People like the interaction and they get excited about their gifts.

Sounds great, but what process takes them from just learning about their gifts to actually using them?

A month or so before the seminar, we choose several spiritual gifts consult ants. The last activity of the discovery seminar is having each person set an appointment to meet with a consultant. The appointment can be from between 2 and 14 days away.

When they meet, they discuss several things. First, the person's spiritual gifts, based on the results of the test and the affirmation group. Also, the person's specific passion for ministry. Finally, how much time he or she can commit to service.

The consultant then shares a written copy of each ministry's purpose statement and explains the various ministry options. Together they decide where he or she will most likely serve meaning fully. They then make arrangements to contact the appropriate ministry leader to volunteer for duty.

It seems that you use the spiritual gifts seminar as a sort of employment agency.

That's a good description of the seminar. And the spiritual gifts consultant serves as an employment counselor who helps members find their niche of meaningful service for God.

You keep using the word "meaningful."

Intentionally. Our goal goes beyond getting each church member to serve; we want members to serve authentically and meaningfully.

How long do the spiritual gifts consultants serve? All year. When someone is baptized or joins the church through transfer, or even after visiting three or four times, one of the consultants will invite that person to write the test and then move into ministry. That way, the talented individual or family who arrives just after a nominating committee would ordinarily have finished its work doesn't have to wait for a year before being useful in the local church. The new person is off and running whenever he or she is ready.

What test do you use?

We looked at five or six different ones and custom-wrote our own.

So you choose the leaders and launch the ministries before the spiritual gifts discovery seminar. Wouldn't it make sense to reverse the order?

Either way could work. Be aware, though, that once the discovery seminar is over, you need to have ministry options in place before too much time passes or the test and all the hoopla that surrounds it will be in vain. Remember too that the key to successful ministries is the right leaders, also that character and passion come before the spiritual gift of leadership as far as leadership qualifications are concerned. Those qualities are more likely to make them selves evident through long-term observation than through a spiritual gifts test.

How many ministries shoulda church try to organize?

Eventually a church should offer a ministry for every 10 or 12 active members. The genius of this whole philosophy is that each church can be "customized" according to the two factors of church size and potential leaders.

How long do ministry leaders serve? One year? Two years? As long as they are fulfilled and effective. If a person is an enthusiastic, gifted, and successful leader, the longer he or she serves, the better. It would be counterproductive to set time limits.

Are there times when you might want to start a ministry with a team of people or maybe co-leaders?

In my opinion, no. You can start it, but it won't prosper. When God needed a boat, He raised up Noah. When He wanted to lead the people out of Egypt, He called Moses. Committees rarely, if ever, lead people. People lead people. Someone has to feel the passion for the success of the ministry. Someone has to be willing to pay the price so that the ministry prospers in spite of inevitable obstacles.

What if something needs to be done in a church but no leader emerges for that ministry?

The temptation is pretty strong some times to go back to slot-filling, but when we really believe that God "gave gifts to men" (Eph. 4:8, NIV), we have to assume that what God wants done, He has brought people together to do.

In the Madison Community church, we have faced a leadership problem more than once. Three times we selected someone to fill the slot of youth leader.

Three times it flopped. Today we don't have a youth ministry per se. We have other ministries, however, that are thriving and include several youth.

Suppose you have invested a lot of time and effort in training ministry leaders, and their ministries are thriving, but then they move out of town or even resign. What do you do ?

You cry a lot! Actually, each minis try leader is urged to find and work closely with an assistant leader. The assistant then steps in and away you go. If no assistant is available to move into leadership, the pastor and planning council have to determine which option is better: (1) find an interim leader and keep the ministry limping along until a new leader emerges, or (2) disband the ministry and shift the team members into other areas.

So you really don't have a nominating committee?

No, we really don't. We think of the roles of service in the church in three categories: (1) spiritual guidance and vision-casting; (2) record-keeping and maintenance; (3) ministry teams.

The first category is the pastor and elders; second is the deacons, treasurer, and clerk; and third is everyone else, "custom-organized" according to avail able leaders and spiritual gifts.

What do you do about head elder, head deacon, clerk, and treasurer—the slots you said earlier that every church has to fill?

That can be handled several ways. Here's what we do: If our present head deacon is doing a good job and finds it fulfilling, we want that individual to serve forever. When additional deacons or changes are needed, the head deacon brings those suggestions to the planning council (which currently consists of all elders and ministry leaders). Whenever we need to make a change in head deacon, head elder, clerk, or treasurer, it is done by the planning council.

How do you keep all this on track? Don't you worry about too many loose ends?

We evaluate constantly on three levels. 1. Each ministry leader is expected to develop and utilize an evaluation instrument and report quarterly. 2. We take time to assess individual ministries and to monitor the entire process at the monthly planning council meetings. 3. Our major evaluation event is an all afternoon session once a year. All of our elders, ministry leaders, and assistants try to escape to a state park or some other comfortable place. I lead them in an evaluation of my preaching, my leader ship, the effectiveness of each ministry, and the structure and direction of the church as a whole.

What would you say is the greatest challenge in operating a lay ministry based on spiritual gifts?

The most important, far and away, is selecting the right leaders. Don't bestow the mantle of leadership too quickly. Pray. Be patient. Do your best to find leaders of character.

The most difficult challenge is equip ping them to succeed and helping them keep the vision. Experience has taught me that the average leader loses his or her vision every 30 days. The pastor's ongoing task is to cheer lead, encourage, and reignite their vision.

Do you recommend this new philosophy to every church?

Enthusiastically! If you are a pastor, find your potential leaders. Build teams of people around them according to spiritual gifts. Then pour gasoline on their fires. Become a leader of leaders and watch what God will do!

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Ron Gladden is the ministerial secretary in Oregon for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

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