Attitude of Gratitude
By Demi Prentiss, part of the Vestry Papers issue on Sharing Our Gifts (September 2014)
This article is also available in Spanish here. / Este artículo es disponible en español aquí.
As we grow beyond the narrow understanding of stewardship as an annual fundraising exercise - or as the late Terry Parsons used to call it, the “annual beg-a-thon” – God begins to reshape our concept of what “gift” and “giving” actually mean.
Back in the days when spiritual gift assessments were becoming popular around the church, some leaders subscribed to the idea that all we needed to do was determine what gifts people had, match them up with the appropriate ministries, and all the church’s volunteer staffing problems would be solved. In some churches, people would anxiously await learning what gifts the survey revealed that God had given them – and then were often left to puzzle over what use might be made of those gifts. One friend consistently received the news that she had the gift of chastity. “And now what do I do with that? How do I use that in ministry?” she would ask. I never heard a very satisfactory answer.
A more ‘organic’ way
While gifts assessments can be revealing and affirming, I think God has a more organic – and often chaotic – way of developing us as effective ministers. We often act as though people are equipped for ministry by a clear-cut process of discernment followed by formation/training followed by ministry. More often, I think, God uses those three elements as a never-ending cycle that both shapes and engages ministers in their work. Spiritual gifts are not to be understood as beautifully-wrapped presents that God hands over to us, and that we hold on to or display for others to admire. Instead, I believe, knowing our spiritual gifts gives us a name for the lens we use to perceive the needs of the world around us, and the framework we engage to address those needs. Our gifts – including our time, talent, and resources – are important tools.
Stewardship of our gifts, then, isn’t so much a matter of looking in our toolkit to discover that, behold, we’ve got a screwdriver, and then wandering about the world looking for a screw to drive. (“Need a Phillips?” “No, flat.” “So sorry, I can’t help you.”)
Asking the right questions
For me, stewardship begins with asking the question, “What do I see?” Or perhaps more properly, “What do I see through Christ’s eyes?” In the context of that question, I can examine not only the contents of my toolkit, but also how the Holy Spirit might be calling me to use those tools. What engages me? What tugs at my heart? Who do I admire, and what is it about them that I aspire to do or be?
The questions continue: Who or what is annoying me? What’s the bur under my saddle? What need in this world has God brought to my notice? How, with what God has given me, can I begin to address that need?
I believe absolutely in God’s economy: “In all things, God works for good.” Even in the bad things. Even in our pain. Even in our fear. That’s why the practice of an “attitude of gratitude,” as the 12-Step communities call it, is so critical – it sharpens our focus on what, exactly, God has given us. And that focus can help assure that we never waste a crisis. When we see a wounded healer taking action, we have evidence that God’s economy works.
Seeing through Christ’s eyes
In the fleeting moments when we see with Christ’s eyes, we more clearly recognize that in addition to the bounty of skills and resources, God’s sends us gifts in the form of the desert places and the hard passages of life. Nothing is lost. It’s all gift, and in our partnering with God we are enabled to discover that.
When I began work at the Episcopal Church Center as the Presiding Bishop’s program officer for lay leadership, I was thrilled to see my church affirming and celebrating the gifts of the 99.2 percent of the church that is not ordained. Less than a year later, due to the severe budget cuts adopted at General Convention in 2009, many staff positions were eliminated, including the entire ministry development office – my position as well as two others. There was great pain for many people, I believe, in those very necessary budget cuts. At the same time, the relationships I was able to build during that year, and the broad overview of the church that I was granted, became enormous resources for the re-organization of the Diocese of Fort Worth when I joined that staff the following year. To paraphrase Joseph, perhaps someone meant evil against me, but God meant it for good. (Gen 50:20)
In a similar vein, when I was diagnosed with very early stage breast cancer, not only did God open my eyes to the pastoral gifts of the minimum-wage garage attendant at my radiation center. God also allowed me to speak with the voice of a pastor (not my usual voice!) to a number of women walking the bumpy road through radiation therapy.
Stewardship in the broad sense is how we respond to what God is trying to show us and tell us and teach us. Our response can open the door to God’s multiplying our gifts, allowing them to bear life-giving fruit in the lives of others, in ways we may never have the privilege of seeing. In the words of the old saying, “Stewardship is everything we do after we say ‘I believe.’”
The next time you find yourself annoyed by someone or something, try taking a “time out” to ponder what – in this very person or thing standing in your way – might God be offering you as gift? A new perspective or idea? An opportunity to “let it go”? A call to fierce advocacy or liberating playfulness? A challenge to seek healing – your own and/or the other’s? Try capturing that experience in a “gift journal,” where you record each day at least one thanksgiving.
Demi Prentiss is a congregational coach and a ministry developer certified by the Ministry Developers’ Collaborative. She has spent more than 25 years in congregational, diocesan, and national church ministries. As a part of her focus on equipping individuals to claim their every-day baptismal missions, she and Fletcher Lowe are writing Radical Sending: Go to Love and Serve, which is to be released by Morehouse in late 2015.Resources
- Murray Bowen and Family Systems Theory
- TENS (The Episcopal Network for Stewardship) – www.tens.org
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