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Unwrapping our God-given gifts


It’s time to let go of doubts and start shining

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

Chef Steven M. Bright (far right) came to Shadyside Presbyterian Church as its hospitality coordinator. It’s a place where his culinary gifts have shined brightly both in the church and the community. Courtesy of Shadyside Presbyterian Church

A lone candle in the middle of a darkened room greeted the small-group participants. They had gathered for an evening of identifying their gifts — not the spiritual kind of prophesying or speaking in tongues as Paul talks about in the letter to the Corinthians. Those sometimes perplexing and seemingly elusive gifts to the average Christian would require a more intense workshop. Rather, the gifts to be unwrapped were those disguising themselves as talents, passions, interests and even vocations, which could do much in building God’s kingdom.

After taking their seats in the circle of chairs, the facilitator began with a reading from Matthew 5:15: No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. Then, a moment of silent reflection was broken by a much harder question: How often do you hide your light, and what good has it done you or the world around you?

In her poem “Our Deepest Fear,” whose lines are often miscredited to Nelson Mandela, author Marianne Williamson writes about how we were all meant to shine in the world and that “we were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.”

“We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world,” she writes.

Yet playing small seems to be the default button many in the church hit for a variety of reasons, among them the ingrained Christian virtue of humility, says the Rev. Lynn M. Portz, associate pastor for parish life at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh.

“We can’t compare our gifts to others, thinking ours are not as helpful or good as someone else’s. Nor should we downplay what we have been given because of this sense of being humble. There are a lot of gifts out there that are needed in building God’s kingdom. We need to use them, and that can only start by people coming forward and using his or her gift. And that starts by being invitational,” she said.

The gift of feeding others

Five years ago, Shadyside Presbyterian extended an invitation to chef Steven M. Bright to join the church staff as its new hospitality coordinator. It was the perfect setting for Bright’s culinary gifts. Not only has he been overseeing the menus for fellowship and special gatherings, the chef, whose earliest kitchen memories are that of being 7 years old and helping his mother and grandmother cook, has been leading cooking classes for the community, showing others how to eat healthy and on a budget.

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed the church building last spring, it didn’t stop Bright from using his gifts. He began writing “The Quarantined Kitchen” for the church website, sharing tips on how to stay fit during this time of sheltering in place with nutritious food, along with his favorite recipes. He also whipped up 160 picnic lunches that were handed out in the summer to those who were missing the church’s annual strawberry festival. These picnic lunches weren’t bologna sandwiches either, but included barbecue chicken and corn salad, says Portz, adding that Bright “has been a blessing to the church and brings joy to everything he does.” The congregation will be getting a taste of that joy this holiday season as the church leadership plans a “great cookie caper.”

“Among the things the congregation misses are Steven’s cookies,” said Portz. So, the plan is to have the chef bake his most popular ones and have them sent to church members.

The congregation of Shadyside Presbyterian, though, might not have ever met Bright had he pushed aside cooking for a psychology degree. But as he studied the mysteries of the mind, it became clear in his that he was meant to be a chef. “I had this clarity and I never regretted it,” said Bright. Many gifts, though, do get pushed aside due to distractions in life, Bright adds. “We get caught up with what society says we ought to be doing rather than listening to what our hearts are telling us.”

Being true to one’s gift

Listening to where one’s gifts are leading and then acting on them is not always easy, especially in a world that too often views talents and passions as pastimes rather than vocations or even ministries. According to Craig Goodwin, though, “gifts cannot be summed up within the confines of clearly defined roles that we carry around in life.”

Two years ago, Craig Goodwin found the courage to leave Millwood Community Presbyterian Church in Spokane, Wash., where he was pastor for 14 years, to pursue his gift for photography. Courtesy of Craig Goodwin

The former pastor-turned-photographer, who spent 14 years serving  Millwood Community Presbyterian Church in Spokane, Washington, says there is an “untamed ebb and flow to our gifts that echoes the movement of the Spirit, like a wind that blows where it wishes. Throughout life we face choices of whether to resist or harness these currents of giftedness.”

Goodwin faced that choice in 2018 when he says he became aware that his gifts as a photographer were pulling him away from his calling as a pastor.

“There was nothing obvious that I could point to as justification for leaving [the church], other than an inner conviction that in order for something new to emerge, something more established had to give way,” he said. An earlier diagnosis with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2013, where he spent six months in and out of hospitals, also helped him see how his gift for photography was growing stronger. “In the middle of my treatment, I set a goal of doing a couple of art shows with my photography. That was the first time I sold my work, and I had a blast,” he said.

His photography, though, can still be seen as a ministry. “When I first stepped away from my role as pastor, I explained to one of the painters at the art co-op how exploring nature is an expression of my faith. She responded, ‘That’s as close as I ever get to church,’ ” said Goodwin.

While Goodwin found the courage to pursue photography professionally, he is aware of how the greatest obstacle to embracing one’s gift can be fear — “fear of failure, fear of change or fear of the unknown,” he says. Goodwin remembers how hesitant he was to embrace his call to ministry, wondering, “Who am I to think I’m gifted for such a calling?”

“It felt presumptuous and I was fearful that I may be mistaken in the direction I was going,” he said. He faced similar insecurities about becoming a photographer.

“Fears, though, will always be there when we bump up against the edges of our current competencies,” said Goodwin. “It takes faith and courage to step out and explore new directions in giftedness.” It also helps to have someone cheering you on from the sidelines. For Goodwin, that someone was his father.

“My dad was a real encouragement in my decision to step away from the church and embrace photography as a vocation. He was always eager to help me at art shows, and always trusted that I would figure things out,” he said. “I do hope people encounter holiness in my work, even if it is at an art show with the smell of kettle corn hanging in the air. Hopefully, my little corner of the world will be better off for my faithfulness along the way.”

Discovering gifts together

The Solana Beach Presbyterian Church congregation in California is discovering how to make its corner of the world better by being intentional in discovering — and unwrapping — their gifts to be used for the church and beyond. Because, as the Rev. Juan-Daniel Espitia, one of three pastors at the church, explained, “When we don’t unwrap our gifts, we are missing an opportunity to do great things.” And everyone has a gift to use. “After all,” he continued, “isn’t that the premise of the Reformed belief of the priesthood of all believers, where everyone has a role to play in ministry?”

One way that helps members of Solana Beach Presbyterian begin unwrapping their gifts is by inviting them to take an online gift assessment called SHAPE. SHAPE explores “spiritual” gifts as seen in the Bible; the “heart” gifts that are the passions in one’s life, the things done for enjoyment; one’s “abilities,” the natural talents a person is born with; “personality,” the traits that make each person unique; and, the “experiences” that shape one’s life. According to Espitia, learning more about one’s self helps a person discover where they can best serve God and community.

The SHAPE assessment is confidential. Members are encouraged to print out the answers to the SHAPE assessment and discern together with one of the church’s pastors where God might be leading them to get involved. This time of discernment is important, says Espitia, as gifts in others are often more recognizable than within ourselves. “We all need the support of one another,” he said.

Espitia also adds that knowing one’s gifts is not just beneficial outside the church. “When we respect the gifts we have and realize how different each person is, we are better able to handle conflicts that arise. We learn that no one is above anyone else. This is who I am. And if you start with that, we then begin understanding one another.”

You matter

The Rev. Chineta Goodjoin, pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Anaheim, California, is in the enviable position of being “that” pastor — that pastor, she says, who has the joy of seeing the gifts of those in her congregation being discovered and used in amazing ways.

The congregation of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Anaheim, Calif., embraces the motto “You Matter” — welcoming people from every walk of life and nurturing the gifts that they bring. Courtesy of New Hope Presbyterian Church

There’s no begging for helpers to come forward and newsletter pleas for volunteers to help with a mission project or church dinner. There’s just an outpouring of spirit and talent. And maybe that’s because, she says, New Hope Presbyterian has created a culture where everyone knows that they matter — no matter where they are in life or what they are struggling with, when a person is seen and understood and accepted, the gifts just come forward. “When people feel they matter, you build a bridge to then help them discern their calling in life,” said Goodjoin.

New Hope Presbyterian is a multicultural community that began as a new worshiping community a decade ago. As the community began growing, the need for a full-time shepherd arose. Goodjoin was installed as New Hope’s pastor in 2017, where she has spent the past three years fostering a church ethos where authentic relationships are nurtured. It is in this authenticity, she says, that gifts can be identified and put to use. She adds, “Where there is a sharing of gifts, there is always a foundation of grace.”

Goodjoin can’t stress enough the power that acceptance has in setting one’s gift free. She herself was once in a place where she didn’t feel a sense of belonging. It dragged her spirit down. “I felt as if I didn’t matter,” she recalled. After many prayers of lament, she found herself vowing to God that she would always seek to treat others like they matter.

“When you talk about gifts, sometimes the gift you have is to help others find their gift. I believe that is part of my calling, in addition to preaching and witnessing. I am to meet people where they are and make sure they know they are important,” said Goodjoin. But it’s not just the pastor who holds this philosophy. The church has embraced a simple motto: “You Matter.”

Goodjoin says “You Matter” didn’t come out of a brainstorming session with a committee tasked with developing some catchy church phrase. Rather, it was a “natural outflow” of what was happening at the church.

“We started to have people from all walks of life coming to New Hope. The desire to touch lives by being who we are and using the gifts and talents God has given us is to me an act of discipleship,” said Goodjoin.

That discipleship has spilled over into the church’s blossoming virtual ministry, as even without meeting in a traditional building, new members are being received. Goodjoin credits this to the gifts of the media team. Like many congregations, New Hope Presbyterian had no intention of doing virtual worship, until COVID-19 happened. Now, she says, her four-member media team is “on fire for serving the Lord.”

“They have this desire to give God glory. So much so that they are pushing me, their pastor, to try new things and dream big. I am not trying to stop them at all,” said Goodjoin. Among the ideas is a segment at the end of the church worship video featuring outtakes from filming.

“Sort of a church blooper segment,” Goodjoin said. While funny, the segment underscores the importance of authenticity among the congregation, which helps to create a nonjudgmental environment where the children of God can laugh at themselves and be who they are. For Goodjoin, unwrapping the gifts that can be used to glorify God doesn’t need a formal spiritual gift inventory, although that can be helpful, she says. It also doesn’t mean that anyone seeking to use a gift needs to present a three-page proposal stamped for approval by a committee or session, which is so Presbyterian. Rather, gifts should allow us to be set free, letting the Spirit take hold and lead a congregation. “That’s when revival happens,” said Goodjoin.

Gifts are to be nurtured and encouraged. Gifts need to be valued.

Goodjoin recalls a Martin Luther King Jr. saying she heard years ago that stuck with her. King wrote: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’ ”

“Every gift brought forth begins with two words — you matter,” said Goodjoin. “You matter. That is what church leaders need to talk about first when they are talking about our gifts — it’s how we train leaders at New Hope.”

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.

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