Saturday, June 14, 2014

Gifts of the Spirit and Very Small Congregations

Gifts of the Spirit have been on my mind lately.  We find them mentioned in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in his letter to the Romans, and again in the letter to Ephesus.  I’m aware that some make a list of all the gifts mentioned in scripture as if they represent the entire catalogue.  Some favor the idea that they are gifts humans do not have but for the giving of them by the Spirit.  A few even sell tests to help one discover what his or her gifts are.  It’s all neatly packaged and priced.  

I’m of the opinion that every human being has some degree of the gifts mentioned in scripture, and many more besides, each according to the uniqueness of our individual humanity.  The Spirit comes into it not by conferring them, but by calling them into the light to be used for God’s purposes.  Many of us, for whatever reason, are reluctant to claim our particular areas of knowledge, skill, and ability in the service of the gospel.  It drives rectors and bishops nuts as they try to tease out the use of gifts so desperately needed for healthy congregational life.  It shouldn’t be surprising since many of us are equally reluctant to claim them in our secular lives as well.  No doubt it’s a question rich for mining by psychologists and sociologists, and I’ll let them get on with it.  If you’re interested, you might want to take a look at Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. 

What interests me right now is how spiritual gifts are called forth for employment in the congregational setting.  I imagine there is a critical mass of some number of active parishioners that assures one of a broad distribution of knowledge, skills and abilities so that most roles can be filled by qualified persons,  and no one person is expected to carry too heavy a burden or be saddled with unending responsibilities (not that it doesn’t happen).  From my own experience, I would put that critical mass at several hundred active parishioners.  Below that, things can get problematic.  Some desired gifts may be absent.  Some may find the demands on their gifts to be excessive.  It may be difficult to maintain a flow of persons in and out of needed roles.  

Very small congregations, such as the one I serve in retirement, are a special case.  With less than thirty, and often less than twenty, active parishioners, there is no possibility that all spiritual gifts will be present.  The knowledge and skills sets of those who are active may be limited.  Required roles may become permanent positions that end up driving the Spirit out of performance.  Moreover, some may experience a strong measure of guilt that they do not have the gifts needed for the congregation to flourish, and wonder if they are personally responsible for that failure.  It can create abrasive moments in the intimacy of life in very small congregations.  

The trick is to go with what you have as best you can, and not worry too much about what is left undone.  It really is a trick, especially when legal and denominational requirements assume an ability to do things one does not have, or when well meaning church consultants encourage greater development of gifts that are not present.   So what is the trick?   It begins with the recognition that while we can’t do or be everything, we can do and be something, and that something can be very good.  It is to do what one can to open the doors, that is; to engage the larger community as fully as possible while working against becoming a closed refuge for the few growing fewer.  It is to employ the gifts that are present by encouraging the greatest possible trust in the Spirit to guide, guard, and use whatever they are in unexpected ways, amplified by God’s power and presence, to accomplish what God purposes.   


Finally, because very small congregations are very small, it means that things will progress by fits and starts.  When someone gets tired, it’s time for them to rest, and there may not be anyone to take over.  When someone leaves or dies, their gifts depart with them.  When someone new arrives, their gifts may be unfamiliar and untested.  It also means finding ways to get along when something is not going well, and something is sure to be not going well.  All of that requires, perhaps, a little more trust in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit because without it our limitations and failures are more obvious to each other, and that can obscure the gifts and successes that we should be celebrating.

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