When you are operating outside of your gifts, your work will tell on you. You should be embarrassed. You would be embarrassed, but your ego is like a defense mechanism preventing you from even realizing how far out of your element you are. And that’s how you know you’re in trouble: when you’re doing something obviously mediocre and meddling in things you do not understand and you’re not even embarrassed about it. Life will inevitably become more rewarding when you stop going your way and instead move in-stream with the Holy Spirit, working through those gifts and talents God has ordained uniquely within you.
“Brother, you need to learn how to play
that thing,” Mr. Bowen would tell me on occasion, shooing me off the piano
and sending me on the long journey across the choir stand to the
dreaded Hammond B3. I say “dreaded” because I never learned how
to play the Hammond. I never had much interest in the arcane
wooden cabinet with those mysterious drawbars and presets and
switches for the leslies and, worst of all, the pedal board
below my feet. You can always tell a Hammond rookie because he’s
always looking at his feet, and looking at my feet was
practically all I did the very few times I played Hammond at the
church. The Hammond, simply, is not my gift. Hearing a keyboard
player on a Hammond is a lot like listening to a guitar player
on bass. Sure, the instruments are similar, but the bass guitar
is more than the sum of its strings. It’s about attitude, and it
requires a certain gifting to know where the basement is and how
best to hammer people with it. A guy like me, faking it and
struggling up there, is not an organist. I’ve heard some
fantastic pianists who can’t play the Hammond. The Hammond
separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. Do
not approach unless you’re properly gifted in that area: you’ll
This is, essentially, what happens when we try and operate outside of our gifting. Which isn't to say you can never learn the Hammond—I’m sure most anyone can. But the anointing of God is not something to be mocked or discounted or taken for granted. The very best student can still be a half-baked organist without the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I mean, drowning in it. There are so many things going on in the mind of an organist, so many decisions he is making throughout the performance, that listing them all would be daunting. When we operate outside of our gifts, we tend to make fools of ourselves. Sometimes, our foolishness is obvious: me on the Hammond. But, more often than not, the more power an individual has, the less obvious his foolishness when he or she begins operating outside of their gifting. Or, perhaps, more accurately, the less like people are to call them on it because we, all of us, tend to be more polite to people we love or fear. A 15-year old kid making a mess of devotion is something people scream about. A pastor’s wife embarrassing herself singing a solo is less likely to garner public criticism. This is the essential lesson of the Hans Christian Anderson fable The Emperor's New Clothes.
I remember playing piano for one sister who was singing “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” This was one of those sisters who really wasn’t a great singer, which is me putting things charitably. I thought she was awful, and I’m certain others did too and wondered why this woman usually had a solo at almost every choir engagement. And, yes, I’m certain there’s someone like this in your church, too. She had a serviceable voice but lacked subtlety, warmth and emotion. It was all emotion on the sleeve, fake emotion, soap opera emotion. I never got the sense, from her singing, that she had a genuine relationship with God. I always got the sense she simply liked, or more accurately needed, to be seen. Her demeanor was all faux humility as she’d vacillate between tolerably flat generic singing to Edith Bunker-style screeches. For reasons I can’t explain, this woman was popular at the church, who always gave her rousing applause even as I stifled laughter at her comedic and awful high-pitched screeching climaxes. Singing was simply not this woman’s gift. But people liked her, for whatever reason, and therefore were reluctant to tell her that.
So the day came when, for whatever reason, I was playing, “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” and as this sister steadied herself for the opening notes—Why… do I feel discouraged…? –just as we’d practiced days before, she came in on the wrong note. I mean, the way wrong note. I mean, I was in New York and she was in Texas wrong note. And I had two choices: change keys and chase her to wherever the heck she was—and likely lose the choir who’d be thrown off by the key change—or stay put and hammer on her vocal note hoping she’d catch on and come back to earth.
She never did. I mean, she sang the song—the entire song—in the wrong key. Even after the choir came in, she stubbornly stayed in the wrong key. Everybody else was with me in E-flat, but sister was in C or C-sharp. It was awful. It was mind-numbing. And, when it was all said and done, she resented and blamed me for playing the song in the wrong key. Guess what, lady—I only know “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” in one key. Despite a lengthy intro wherein the key was readily apparent, despite my giving her her note just before she began singing, she still blamed me, and many of her pals went along with that. I was ostracized for being an idiot who went out of his way to embarrass this beloved sister, and, for months, I had these church ladies looking down their noses at me as if to say, What an idiot.
This is how utterly stupid this business is. I wasn’t the greatest pianist in the world, but this woman was an awful singer. And folks were so invested in this person that, even though forty other women in the choir sang in the right key, these friends of hers would rather castigate me than even admit she’d made a mistake.
Only, when you are operating outside of your gifts, your work will tell on you. Why do so many black churches pas out these crude, childish bulletins and flyers that look like some kid designed them? Why is signage and websites and point of contact material usually this home-spun do-it-yourself bargain-basement half-baked stuff while the white churches--even the poor white churches--tend to put a professional face on their ministry? It's because you have people who know nothing about web design making decisions about your website. Because you have Sister SoAndSo in place who enjoys designing bulletins and flyers but she's operating outside of her gifts and doesn't realize it: she thinks these crude Spanky And The Little Rascals signs and banners look great. And you folk either don't know better or want to encourage Sister SoAndSo (the way we encourage eight-year olds) and so you don't tell sister it's not 1965 anymore and we use color now. You enable her to continue embarrassing herself because, whether you tell her or not, everyone can see the crude products of someone operating outside of their gifting. You are not helping sister grow.
I thought then what I believe to be true now: Church Folk are very much like children, something I find utterly puzzling. Church Folk, even Church Folk with advanced college degrees, behave almost exactly like children. They are, for the most part, quick-tempered, impatient, brassy, territorial, jealous, competitive, and quick to take charge of things they don't know anything about. An 8-year old child would have absolutely no problem charging into a plane's cockpit and taking control. She would have no problem giving orders to the tower or flipping switches and what have you. She's a child. She lacks both reason and accountability. And, in many ways, this is Church Folk. Charging in and taking command--Church Folk always want to be in charge of something, most especially things they don't understand. So they oppress and demoralize willing workers, most especially workers seen to them as a threat or workers they feel they need to put in their place. And the church remains mired in mediocrity because these shot-callers are in place, raining on every parade. Children respond to fear more than any other emotion or rationale. The monster in the closet. The boogeyman under the bed. Children tend to do even negative things out of fear: peer pressure and fear of exclusion. Children tend to become territorial over their toys and over their friends and interests. Church Folk, even Church Folk with advanced academic degrees, tend to behave in strangely immature and petty ways.
Likewise, operating outside of your gifts is simple arrogance. It is usually more about ego and insecurity than about wisdom. You should be embarrassed. You would be embarrassed, but your ego is like a defense mechanism preventing you from even realizing how far out of your element you are. And that’s how you know you’re in trouble: when you’re doing something obviously mediocre and meddling in things you do not understand and you’re not even embarrassed about it.
Praying that God would send forth an anointed minister of music, and then micromanaging him and tying him up in knots, is childish and ridiculous. Leaders need to be trusted to lead. You should plan for and expect them to make mistakes—Aaron and the golden calf--but that’s how we learn; you must allow them to take ownership of their ministry. A church administrator or “choir president” with no musical experience, who has no gifting in music ministry, should not be a constant stumbling block to your minister of music. Given certain parameters and budgets, your minister needs to have unfettered command of his area of ministry. Not stuck with these divas who’ve been in place for x-years or these musicians who are favorite darlings of the congregation but who nevertheless cannot keep up with the new guy. Even worse: youth workers who still have rotary phones and who don’t know who Kanye West is.
These are not your gifts. You are operating outside of who God designed you to be. We are each exclusively and dynamically tuned to perform works pleasing to God [Ephesians 4:11]. When we force ourselves, out of necessity, out of ego or ambition, into areas we know we have little or no facility with, we’re just kidding ourselves. Worse, we’re allowing our insecurity, ego or ambition to compromise the work of the Lord.
Moses’ complaint, when charged by God to lead His people, was that public speaking wasn’t one of his gifts. Now, God could have zapped Moses into T.D. Jakes, but instead chose to allow Moses to struggle with his limitations, which teaches humility. No matter how anointed you think you are or how many degrees you have, there are limits to your areas of gifting. Not recognizing or accepting those limits is arrogance. Humility is about having a certain peace about things you stink at. Some of us can’t whistle. Some people can’t roller skate (I can’t imagine not roller skating). Some of us are tone deaf. Some of us aren’t good administrators or maybe we aren’t terribly social. The story of Moses and Aaron is about embracing our own flawed humanity. I’m nearsighted. I have bad hand-to-eye coordination so I can’t hit a baseball. There are many things I am very good at, but there are lots of tings I suck at. Don’t even bother calling me to help fix your car.
Part of our flawed humanity, however, is our competitive streak. There’s nothing innately wrong with ambition, but irrational ambition is usually fueled by insecurity. People with huge egos are almost always the most insecure among us. And that insecurity, that fear, will force them to put up this front where they present themselves as some ersatz Master or Mistress Of The Universe: where they’d like us to believe they are good at everything and their judgment is flawless. Nobody’s judgment is flawless and nobody is good at everything. But, at everybody’s job there is, inevitably, some blowhard in some position of power that we cannot avoid. And that person ends up making uniformed decisions out of emotion or ego that makes our hill that much steeper and the rock we’re pushing up that hill that much heavier.
Even sadder is when people like that land at church. Or, more likely, when the workers those bosses oppress land at church. Finally, within the church environment, these folks find identity. And, rather than be the antithesis of the abuse they experience at work, many of these people emulate those bad bosses, bringing the corporate rules of engagement into the church house where they absolutely to not belong. That’s where you find people chairing committees they shouldn’t be on, leading ministries they have no gifting in, and making lives miserable just being in the way because they want to be seen.
These folks are the Anti-Moses. Rather than tell God, “Hey, this isn’t my gift,” they fake it. They impose themselves and their opinion on things they know nothing about. They micromanage and meddle for no other reason than that they have Thus And Such Title. These people are the inevitable delay, the inevitable stumbling block, to forward progress because they wear their insecurity on their sleeve. They are petty and mean-spirited, plotting revenge and politically maneuvering through what is supposed to be God’s House. Even sadder, far too many of our pastors knowingly tolerate these people and their foolishness, leaving them in place either out of fear and/or powerlessness, or because the pastor himself is operating outside of his gifting—an energetic and dynamic preacher who is nonetheless a lousy pastor. A lousy pastor leaves these pain in the butt people in place, oppressing the flock.
There was once this awful Sunday school teacher who was absolutely ruinous to the middle school class she’d been assigned to. Young teens just beginning to make up their minds about life, about drugs and sex and gangs and who they wanted to be, were handed over to this sweet but nonetheless clueless and unqualified woman whom they would mock and harass as she stumbled through boring lesson after boring lesson. The class withered away as students began sneaking into the high school class or helping out in the kitchen or anything to get away from this boring woman. I spoke to the superintendent, pointing out how critical that class was and how important it was to have someone qualified and, above all, anointed to speak into the lives of children on the cusp of adolescence, and the superintendent told me, “Well, I know she doesn’t belong in there. But I just don’t want to hurt her feelings.”
She was a laughing stock. Worse, she was negatively impacting the very souls of children entrusted into the care of the church, of the pastor. The pastor’s disconnect from his own Sunday school (pastors should be routinely auditing these classes) and his superintendent’s lack of conviction—placing this woman’s “feelings” above the welfare of the children—are things they both will someday be called to account for. This is the lunacy of our Christian culture: that we allow people to make utter jackasses of themselves. The entire church could see this sister can’t sing and this other sister can’t teach and yet this nonsense went on for years. These people were in place, and that was that. Meanwhile, how many anointed and qualified people passed through those doors and, seeing this Little Rascals-level of quality in ministry, just kept going?
The saddest part, for me, was how good a cook this woman was. I mean, this woman could bring you to your knees with a pot of Jambalaya. She was amazingly gifted in the culinary arts yet, far as I can remember, never served in that area. And I'm certain she had many, many other gifts as well. But teaching pubescent kids at the dawn of their moral, ethical and sexual awakening was not one of them. And yet, this is what we do: send some kindly matron in there, when pastor, you need to keep rookies out of the room. That's a job for specially trained and demonstrably anointed individuals.
I tell clients, when I go to New York on business, I usually let the pilot fly the plane. I don’t go up to the cockpit and start flipping switches and giving orders. Back when I used to drive busses in New York, people I’d never met would routinely get on my bus, hand me a ticket, and go to sleep. That, beloved, is the very definition of faith. I was a man they’d never seen before in their lives. I’d showed them no credentials. No transcript of my driving record. I’d completed no eye exam in front of them. Taken no questions from the other passengers. But this is what we do: we, the same Church Folk, get on planes and buses and trains and pull out their magazine and that’s that. We assume, and it’s a huge assumption, that if the pilot is in the cockpit, that he is ready and qualified to fly.
So, why aren’t I as ready or as qualified? Why do the Church Folk micromanage and argue and poke at me constantly? Why don’t they trust that, if God sent me to them, that I am ready and qualified not only to design your project but to lead that effort? Why all the second guessing, nit-picking, penny pinching?
When people operate outside of their gifts, they are usually embarrassing themselves. And we let God down when we allow this people to continue, week after week, year after year, to embarrass and humiliate themselves, to be laughing stocks, as they continue along in areas where they are not growing and, worse, where they are stunting the growth of the church and causing people to stumble. We, all of us, will be held to account for our lack of conviction; the blood now on our hands for leaving pastors in place who we all know are not pastors. Giving solos and applause to people who are not singers. Placing our children's very future into the hands of people unqualified. You'd never applaud an alcoholic for driving a school bus, yet you leave Sister SoAndSo in virtually the same position because you don't want to hurt her feelings.
Even worse, people operating outside of their gifting are missing real opportunities and real blessings of being in tune with God, in step and in sync with God. Many of these people have amazing talents and gifts which go neglected because they’re trying to hard to be Yolanda Adams or T.D. Jakes. Yolanda Adams and T.D. Jakes are extraordinarily gifted individuals. But God has given each of us unique talents and skills we can effectively use for His ministry [Ephesians 4]. But there are too many pastors pastoring who are not pastors at all. Too many singers singing who are not singers at all. And far too many shot callers calling the shots over areas of ministry they know nothing about. With no prayer. With no fasting. With no wisdom. With no anointing. These foolish people, rushing into the cockpit to grab the wheel from the pilot. Who start flipping switches. These people are idiots.
Whatever we do for God, let’s do it with wisdom. Let’s do it with humility, prayerfully and reverently. Let’s do it with excellence and not this penny-pinching obsession with saving a nickel by letting Cousin Buzz do it. Most of all, let’s have some respect if not thankful reverence for those gifted and talented individuals God has sent to us, and stop killing their spirit by meddling and micromanaging. Forget the turf war, it’s all God’s turf. All God’s territory. Stop taking bows for everything you do in God’s house. Stop putting your name on everything. And humble yourself enough, just enough, to ask the question: am I really being effective? Is this area where my gifts lie?
The answers may be tough to accept, but they will inevitably be rewarding when you stop going your way and instead move in-stream with the Holy Spirit, working through those gifts and talents God has endowed uniquely in you.
Christopher J. Priest
4 October 2009
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