Throughout my adult life, discernment has been my primary gift. Always hovering close by are the gifts of teaching, wisdom, and knowledge. People often tell me that I am a good teacher, and one of the things they appreciate is my ability to see what others often miss and to point out where arguments or concepts break down. I cannot count the number of times someone has said to me, "I never would have thought of what you taught the way you do, but now that you say it, I see it perfectly. It's so obvious!" For me, this is the grace of our spiritual gifts — we are enabled to do something exceptionally well that, in turn, benefits others. All gifts are given to individuals, but as the writer of Ephesians reminds us, the gifts are given to equip the saints for the upbuilding of the body — for the common good.
I am often asked about how I became "interested" in the gifts of the Holy Spirit; and more particularly, about my desire to develop Christian leaders who are grounded in their spiritual gifts. The short answer is that I became interested in self-defense. In the 1970s, I was serving as an education coordinator at High Street United Methodist Church in Muncie, Indiana. One of my tasks was to recruit teachers for all age levels for the coming year. At a church council retreat, I asked the questions: "How do we determine whom to ask to teach? What are the criteria we use for teacher selection?" The questions were met with dumb silence. Finally, the associate pastor said, "We take whoever is willing."
As an idealistic twenty-year old, "taking whoever was willing" seemed inadequate somehow, so I proposed to develop a "tool" to help determine who possessed the necessary skills and abilities to teach in the church. Hearing no argument and ignoring the eye rolling and head shaking, I determined to develop a means for teacher identification. The problem was, I had no clue how to begin.
As luck would have it — or by the intervention of the Holy Spirit (I don't want to rule that out!) — I attended a seminar on education at Ball State University. The speaker, William Dorton, was introduced as a "gifted" teacher; and throughout the presentation, Mr. Dorton repeatedly referred to his "gift." At one point, he mentioned that growing up he never considered himself a teacher until "a group of Friends (Quakers) discerned this gift in me at a meeting and it changed my life." Curious, I approached Mr. Dorton following his seminar. I inquired about his use of the term "gift" in relation to his teaching, and he referred me to a "new" (this was 1976) book by another former Ball State graduate, Kenneth Cain Kinghorn, titled Gifts of the Spirit. Although I do not fully agree with everything in this slim volume (nor did I then), I can confidently say that no other book — short of the Bible itself — has done more to shape my ministry or create in me a personal vision for my life's work. Kinghorn's work set in motion a lifelong course of study and reflection. I have worked with the discovery, development, and deployment of spiritual gifts with thousands of men and women of fifteen denominations, a dozen secular professions, and four major Catholic orders over the past seventeen years. Of all the work of my calling, nothing is more satisfying or rewarding.
Relying on a few pages of Kinghorn's book, I developed a short series of questions to help people determine whether or not they were "gifted" to teach. That original list is long lost. And I am sure that were I to develop a list of questions today, it would be quite different; but it served well to identify a group of teachers — some who never considered teaching before in their lives. The result was a core group of highly effective, deeply spiritual educators who used every means available to bring all ages to a deeper relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Every new teacher that year stuck with education in some form for years, and most continue to this day.
As my awareness and study of gifts deepened, I began applying the thinking to other areas. As I expanded discussions in the church to gifts of leadership, evangelism, prophetic utterance, faith, and healing, Ken Kinghorn published an incredibly helpful tool called "Discovering Your Spiritual Gifts" — a two hundred statement inventory. I began using the Kinghorn tool — with limited success.
Over the years, my thinking around spiritual giftedness has evolved in one essential and significant way: Almost all the early spiritual gifts materials held the institutional church at the center. In other words, we are gifted to support the church. What I have come to realize is that we are not gifted because of the church; rather, the church exists because we are gifted. Instead of identifying spiritual gifts as a way to place men and women on committees or councils, we should form committees and councils that enable people to discover, develop, and live from their gifts twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. We do not serve the church; we are the church — gifted by God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and called to live from our gifts in the world.
My most recent learning concerning spiritual gifts is their synergy. Gifts are given to individuals for the common good, but they are most powerful when they are linked together. When a person possessing the gift of knowledge joins a gifted teacher, amazing things can happen. Gifted healers find a new level of ministry when linked with those possessing the gift of compassion or miracles. Leaders complement administrators; evangelists empower apostles; the wise benefit the prophets; discernment builds faith. Spiritual gifts provide us with an incredible kaleidoscope of mix-and-match possibilities. Living from our gifts allows us to form wondrous networks of spiritual power for the building of communities grounded in love, peace, mercy, acceptance, and grace.
My life has been transformed by my awareness of God's gifts. I join with my wife Barbara in the hope that your life and vocation might be transformed as well.
*Dan is director of connectional ministries for the Wisconsin Annual Conference. He is the coauthor of Equipped for Every Good Work.