Other letters, like this one to the early church in Corinth, are written to a single community facing particular concerns. It really gives a vibrant picture of what was going on in the community, which has been an insightful gift to other church communities throughout history.
What we are reading is Paul’s reply to a letter he received from the Corinthians, where they had identified several issues their community was contending with: marriage, food sacrificed to idols, and spiritual gifts. The latter is addressed in today’s passage.
There was tension within the community, as some members were placing a higher value on certain spiritual gifts, particularly the ability to speak in tongues. This was then exasperated by the fact that some members with the gift to speak in tongues, were looking down on those who did not. A shortsighted, arrogant, and foolish notion -- yet a very human one, nonetheless.
Paul’s response was to lift up the importance of a diversity of gifts, which unites us as one body of Christ. We are offered these gifts by the Holy Spirit for the common good. In other words, gifts, such as speaking in tongues, are not actually given to increase one’s social status in a community. When we start thinking our gift, skill, or ministry matters more than others, our egos have gotten in the way.
Paul then names some spiritual gifts:
Speaking in tongues
Interpretation of tongues
In Paul’s famous passage on love, he writes these gifts are nothing without love.* Love is the glue that holds the whole community united together as one.
I don’t think Paul’s list is exhaustive, and it’s worth lifting up more of those diverse gifts the Spirit offers:
Other gifts we may not think of as spiritual gifts, include knowledge of particular skills that benefit the common good, such as:
And so much more.
While the Spirit offers and activates those spiritual gifts within us, they are identified, cultivated, shaped, and shared in the context of community. It’s why discernment is never done alone in isolation.
Given the pace of life, and the overall aging and decline of most church communities, it is not uncommon for churches to shift away from discerning gifts and instead get stuck in a vicious cycle of simply trying to fill the gaps. Ensuring there are enough people in the various committees, ministries, and outreach efforts. We are so busy and tired that we get stuck with the ancient assumption that we should do things the way they’ve always been done, even if it kills us.
That same assumption also perpetuates a belief that is not grounded in love- and that is that we just need to do more and be more in order to get the job done. But as Walter Bruggemann so eloquently writes:
“Multitasking is the drive to be more than we are, to control more than we do, to extend our power and effectiveness.”
When we start over functioning and multitasking to fill gaps, we lose track of the art of community discernment. We also unintentionally disempower members of the community who have gifts that the Spirit is waiting for the community to identify, nurture, and shape. Just like those folks speaking in tongues in Corinth, our egos, however well intentioned, get in our way. We unintentionally dull creative thinking and encourage burnout, while also holding the church community back from what it could be.
So, what does it look like to discern gifts in community?
I grew up in an Episcopal church that held a lot of status in its heyday, and the generations of privilege the community benefited from left it ill prepared for their aging population and overall decline. I was one of a few teenagers, all vastly different in age. One of the real benefits of this was early on I learned how to be in conversation and serve alongside people of all ages.
However, to a few, I was a nuisance. The young person that was incapable of sitting still while serving on the altar. My youthful presence, with all it's goofy, awkwardness, disrupted the pristine version of worship a few privileged elders had grown accustomed to in the church’s heyday. I was spoken to, more than once, by a couple of elders, and not in a particularly kind, or caring way.
The reason their discouragement did not have me saying ‘see ya later’ to the church, was because of everyone else. There were numerous elders who encouraged me, coached me, lifted up my gifts, cultivated my skills, gave me opportunities to grow, and mirrored back to me what they saw as my calling, to be a church leader. And they kept encouraging me, whether I read the lesson perfectly or butchered the reading, they knew encouraging people to take part in the life of the church mattered more than the beauty and precision of the worship service. I grew up with dozens of elders who wanted to see me be the best version of myself for the common good, and their encouragement helped me find my way in a manner I never could have on my own.
The art of community discernment can look exactly like what I just described. Except we can apply this same model of listening, walking alongside, encouraging, offering opportunities, and coaching, to empower a robust lay ministry grounded in the practice of communal discernment. No matter our age, level of experience, length of stay in the community--we each have gifts that as a community we need to help one another identify, cultivate, shape, and share.
Another way I have seen community discernment embodied is with intentional discernment circles, whose objective is to help folks clarify their spiritual gifts and calling. Small groups gather with a facilitator to share their spiritual journeys, reflect on a variety of questions together, and help one another see the themes and gifts in our stories and lives.
Frederick Buecher once said,
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
We need one another to discern our gifts, and to clarify how our gifts help serve the common good. When we do the community work of discernment, we also find opportunities to mentor, support, and nurture one another to grow in faith. And at the root of it all, if we’ve done our work well, we will each be sharing the gift that brings us deep joy and gladness in a way that strengthens the whole community.
Recently, one of our ministry team leaders wrote to their team to convey some information, and at the bottom of their email they wrote something I think we all may want to consider saying to one another, regularly: They wrote,
“This ministry is voluntary and should never feel like a chore. If you ever reach the point where it is no longer fulfilling or enjoyable, please let me know! As with all ministries, I expect membership to be fluid and change as people experience different callings.”
I mentioned earlier that sometimes churches loose track of communal discernment, and find themselves attempting to fill an ever growing list of gaps. Which is a bit like trying to fix a dam with several leaks, and water rushing out in all directions. As soon as you fix one leak, another one appears. Approaching ministry as gap filling will quickly lead to feelings of defeat and weariness.
Jesus of Nazareth, the disciples, Paul, and the early church never meant for us to minister by filling the gaps. Instead, we start from a different direction.
Maybe something started out as a joy, but has become a chore. That’s okay.
As we grow, we change, and sometimes our gifts do too. That is part of the journey of faith.
It also means, there may be ministry teams, fellowship, or outreach efforts that we may realize are no longer where our community’s energies are. If we stick to sharing our gifts and single tasking, letting go of our internal wiring to be and do more than we are, we may find our community can’t do everything we once did. We may need to consolidate our efforts to live more sustainably. In order to do the work of discernment, it requires that we move a bit slower, with more care and mindfulness behind our words and actions.
We may be less productive by secular standards, but I think such a pivot can leave a community feeling healthier, more energized and joy-filled, while also providing a deeper sense of connection with one another.
As we look towards our community’s future, what would it look like to pivot from gap filling to more intentional communal discernment of gifts?
*1 Corinthians 13:1-3
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