The working title of my presentation is “For God’s Glory & Your Salvation: Using Your Spiritual Gifts to Build the Church.” Among other points, I’ll be making the argument that most parish ministries fail because we try and impose our vision on God’s will for the community. So the question we need to ask ourselves is first how do we discern God’s will for the parish and the parish’s various ministries? My answer is that God’s will for His parish, and His Church, is found in the diversity of spiritual gifts (charismata) that He has given to each of us in baptism.
Shamelessly, I have borrowed from the work that the Catherine of Siena Institute does in lay discipleship (I would recommend their “Called & Gifted” workshop which I brought to, and helped lead, in a parish I served in Ohio). As in the Catholic Church, I fear the vast majority of Orthodox Christians are simply not disciples of Jesus Christ. One Orthodox priest put the matter quite well when he said at his parish they talk a great deal about the parish; somewhat less about Orthodoxy; occasionally about the Gospel; about Jesus Christ, hardly at all. Sadly, this situation is as typical in Orthodox parishes as it is unacceptable.
Central to my presentation will be the difference between “talents” and “spiritual gifts.” Presupposed here is a distinction between natural and supernatural that comes more naturally to Roman Catholics than Orthodox Christians but which I think is pastorally and analytically useful for both.
(As a quick aside, I am increasingly frustrated with the rather minimal intellectual and academic standards for Orthodox pastoral ministry. Pastoral care is more than simply being kind to people and demands of the minister more than being a good person who keeps the fasts and a rule or prayer. But my frustration with Orthodox intellectual laziness on this issue has caused me to digress polemically.)
Reflecting on the distinction between talent and charismata, the first thing I would emphasizes is that while both strictly speaking come to us from God, they are difference, especially in how practically we each are lived out. Let me explain.
Morally, I can develop a talent to a high degree of excellence without becoming a morally good person. Much less does my excellence in a talent require that I become a saint. Finally, not only are my talents not necessarily a source of virtue for me, they are not necessarily a source of virtue for others. The easiest example of what I mean here is athletic ability.
A man can be an excellent athlete without necessarily being a good person. Media accounts of Tiger Woods’ marital infidelities come quickly to mind but examples of the moral failing of athletes hardly begin or end with him. Nor need we limit ourselves to athletes in our search for those who excel in the development of their talents even while they live morally corrupt lives. To athletes, we can add actors and politicians, businessmen and professionals in all areas. And yes, we can–and even should–include those members of the clergy who have acquired a certain level of success in the Church while themselves living lives that do not reflect the Gospel.
Competence, to say nothing of excellence, in a talent does not necessarily require from me the development of any analogous moral or spiritual perfection. Nor is my finely hone talent necessarily a source of virtue or sanctity for others. In fact it seems that unless I am careful in how I develop my talents, they can can be the cause of condemnation for me and even for others.
Rhetoric provides us with the best example of the ambiguous nature of our talents. Looked at purely in terms of their respective abilities to move their listeners to action, the best we can say is that St John Chrysostom and Adolf Hitler are evenly skilled. Both men developed their rhetorical skills to a high degree and, if anything, at least in the short term Hitler seemed better able to influence the behavior of others then did Chrysostom.
This is not to suggest a moral equality between the two men. Clearly there isn’t.
But what it does illustrate is what, a moment ago, I called the moral ambiguity of our talents. I will leave to theologians and philosophers the explanation of why this is–for our purposes here it is enough to say that it is.
Yes, excellence in the use of our talents can, and should, be closely tied to virtue and holiness but it needn’t be. And this highlights one of the greatest pastoral dangers that we face as Christians. We are all too willing to embrace leaders–clerical or lay–who are talented but not gifted. And so, in my next post, I will look with you briefly at what I mean by “spiritual gifts” or our “charismata.”
Until then, and as always, your questions, comments and criticisms are not only welcome they are actively sought.