Talents and Spiritual Gifts: What Do We Mean By “Talents”?

In late June I’m traveling to Cleveland OH to speak at a pastoral life conference sponsored by the Orthodox Church in America.  You can find out more about the conference by clicking the logo on the left.

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.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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  • Fr. David Hudson

    I shouldn't respond to what you have not said yet, Father Gregory; but what you said about talents leads me to expect you to say that spiritual gifts are intrinsically linked to morality… and yet St. Paul warns against abuse of spiritual gifts as well. And the abuse of spirituality, and spiritual gifts, seems much more pernicious to me than mis-use of talents by the morally deficient. I deserve a slap on the hands for speaking before hearing, though.

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  • http://palamas.info/ Fr Gregory Jensen

    Fr David,

    You have in fact guessed the direction of my thought. Yes, the spiritual gifts, unlike talents, are intrinsically linked to morality and for this reason their abuse or misuse is (as you point out) “much more pernicious to me than mis-use of talents by the morally deficient.”

    As for slapping your hand, I am disinclined to do so myself. Truth be told, it is gratifying to have someone read my work and follow it closely enough to see where I'm going. Add to this that you took the time to actually leave a comment and, well, how could I complain?

    Thanks for the comment Otche.

    FrG

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  • timothyrgates

    I look forward to your follow up, Father, glad to see that your piece wasn't just another 'let's find your talent, or gift – usually used as a synonym' deal.
    In my experience, personally as well as personal observation (both obviously subjective), virtue and vice are no different if found in any given expression, or as found in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and just as well the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The coin is easily given over into 'the dark side' if we give into the virtue, gift or fruit as ends within themselves. The next thing you know 'I' judge myself a saint, or just as easily a devil. I've joked about, for myself, 'every virtue I've come to know has come by the way of vice used up,' yet the truth is that virtue itself is just a capable of becoming a vice. Similarly, as one I heard warn years ago, 'there is the demon of religion too.' (St Paul cautions to 'not allow your good to be spoken evil of.' Perhaps this could be applied across the board.)
    As to potential cleric worship, the same is the case for 'brilliant' non-clerics, when the first hints at a love for applause in such arenas come, if they are not quickly addressed they will in time go from the illusion of great virtue to the delusion of self importance. As in your previous article, confession, as well as an actual spiritual father or mother, can help. (I've even seen those confessors who were skilled give into their skill, just as some have shared how their confessions became well written pieces of prose.) What has come to be an encouragement to me, in the Church I've found that we are brought to what God says of us all: 'Very Good.' then, that God sees our being worth preserving as well as raising higher than we could raise or lower by our assumptions in his Son becoming one with us. From here, it seems, there is always hope.
    thank you

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  • Chrys

    A very helpful article. How many modern saints possessed relatively indifferent talents, yet outstanding gifts? Conversely, how many of those our culture celebrates are rich with talent yet bankrupt in terms of gifts? Which would we rather know . . . or experience . . . or have? This makes all the difference in the life we choose. (Of course, the Church Fathers-both ancient and modern-are those rare saints who have both in abundance.)

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  • Chrys

    A very helpful article. How many modern saints possessed relatively indifferent talents, yet outstanding gifts? Conversely, how many of those our culture celebrates are rich with talent yet bankrupt in terms of gifts? Which would we rather know . . . or experience . . . or have? This makes all the difference in the life we choose. (Of course, the Church Fathers-both ancient and modern-are those rare saints who have both in abundance.)

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