Rev. Danielle K Bartz August 27, 2023
I have an undergraduate degree in Psychology, which qualifies me to do absolutely nothing. I like to tell people, in reference to that degree, I know just enough to be dangerous. So, with that caveat in place, I want to talk about a few things I learned from a class that focused a lot of the curriculum on the creation, testing, use, and faults of personality tests. Personality tests are ubiquitous. The Myers-Briggs and the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) are two that are relatively well-known. I have taken both of those personality tests a few times. I remember one class session in which we were examining the MMPI and our professor starting to point out all the ways a person could ‘cheat’ on the test. Of all the things I learned in college, I remember that lecture the best. And each time I have had to take a personality test, I find myself looking for the gaps – not to cheat, mind you, but just to remember how faulty those tests can be.
And for each of the professionally tested, peer-reviewed personality tests out there, there are a hundred less scientific ones. For a while all the rage in my circles was a test that assigned you one of the four elements – earth, wind, water, and fire. I can’t really remember how it worked, but somehow knowing your element, and the elements of the people around you, you could figure out how to work together. Something that is incredibly popular right now is the enneagram test – which assigns you a number. I got so sick of being asked what my number was that I finally broke down and took the free test online – though I had to buy the booklet telling me my results. According to that test, my number indicates I am a competitive perfectionist – which I take great exception with. As we all know, I am not competitive, I am goal oriented.
And in the church world, there are spiritual gifts inventories. These are like personality tests but in the end you are told what your spiritual gifts are and, usually, given suggestions for how to use them to serve the church. I have taken spiritual gift inventories that are as extensive as a hundred-plus question personality test. And I have taken spiritual gift inventories that were just a few questions that seemed to indicate I was proficient in all the possible spiritual gifts.
I remember, years ago, when I was a member of a church in the Twin Cities, the clergy there (whom I considered, and still do, to be wonderful leaders and colleagues) really put all their eggs in the spiritual gift basket. They were so sure of the test’s ability to help the congregation find meaning and purpose, that there was a Sunday morning worship service that was dedicated to filling out the inventories. So, rather that hearing a sermon, we were each handed a booklet, and while the musician played back-ground music, we had to fill them out – complete with our names and email addresses. A few weeks after that I received an email from the church telling me that, according to my test, I had spiritual gifts that made me an ideal candidate to join a certain committee. So, would I? the email asked. And, by the way, it was a committee that did work I had zero interest in. Maybe I would have been good at it, who knows. But would I have found any joy in it? I doubt it. And I certainty would not have brought any passion or purpose to it. I was disillusioned by the whole process that when the next year came around, and we were one again to fill out our spiritual gift inventories, I skipped that Sunday and I joined a committee that was I was interested in and excited about – not worrying about whether or not I actually had the ‘right’ spiritual gifts for it.
If it is not obvious by now, I am not a fan of spiritual gifts inventories. Like personality tests, they tend to put people into a box – slapping labels on people and telling them what they are good at, whether or not it is something they care about. And while scientific personality tests have been created by actual scientists using research and testing and peer review – spiritual gift inventories are usually created by people or organizations or even denominations based on opinions, ideas, or as a means to an end – to get people signed up to join committees. But, they are incredibly popular in the church world. And for this, I blame Paul.
That blame is not quite fair to Paul, and I fully admit that when it comes to Paul I am rarely fair. But, he is the one that got a lot of people thinking about spiritual gifts. In both 1Corinthians and in today’s scripture from Romans, Paul makes it clear that we each have our gifts that can be used to serve God and serve the church. These spiritual gifts are a part of who we are, and should be used as a living sacrifice in service. Further, Paul makes it clear that none of us are equipped with the skills to do everything, so we need to figure out what gifts we do have and focus on those. And I have no argument with any of that.
Paul most certainly was not trying to create a system to assign people to serve on church committees. And I don’t believe he was trying to label people, placing them within a system where some gifts were valued over others. No, in fact Paul was trying to do the opposite. Paul was in fact trying to help that early Roman church step out of those human created systems. We all have gifts, he says, and it is when each of those gifts are honored, and when each person’s gifts are held as sacred gifts from God, then the community that is formed is much stronger. A community that is in service to humanity and to God in which the diversity of gifts are brought together to form a tapestry that is as beautiful as it is strong – then anything is possible.
And Paul seems to be suggesting that this idea of community is one that cannot be found in the secular world. This section of scripture begins with one of my favorite verses in all of the canon: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” Discerning the will God, a tremendous task in itself, can only be accomplished not through conforming to the world, but rather by being transformed. Do not conform to the systems of the hierarchy that keep humanity down, but rather be transformed by the power that God has placed within each of us. Do not be conformed to the world’s insistence on labels and boxes, but be transformed by the gift of possibility to become all that God dreams for you. Do not be conformed by the world, be transformed.
I give Paul the benefit of believing he would not be a fan of the way too many churches use spiritual gift inventories in order to guilt someone into joining a committee or taking on task. Instead, I believe he would rail against such an action and instead insist upon a person being allowed to embrace their passions, and allowing the community to use those collective passions to meet the needs of the world around them, all in the service of God who created each of us to have limitless possibilities.
I cannot imagine a scenario in which I would insist that this community fill out spiritual gift inventories. But that does not mean I will not insist that we create room for the passions of one another to flourish, and to use those collective passions in service to God, one another, and our community. In fact, I insist that each and every day. Because the church is a community of people who come together across their differences and weave together their gifts – each of them just as valuable and honored as the next. And when a church does that with open and generous hearts, focused on finding ways to match their gifts with the world’s needs – then extraordinary things happen. They may be unexpected. And there will likely be several failures along the way. But each step along the way will be one of joy. Amen.
Transformative and transforming God – you have created each of us with a myriad of gifts that reflect all you hope and dream for each of us. These unique gifts are in fact a gift from you, and for that we are so grateful. It is in that spirit of gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, we humbly ask you to help us embrace each of our gifts so that we can be transformed in your service. Help us to resist any temptations to conform to the way the world expects us to behave or believe, and instead use your wisdom and grace to instead transform the world around us.
One of the ways we can transform the world is through the simple, and yet profound act of prayer. Now in these moments of silence we lift up to you the prayers we are carrying for ourselves, our neighbors, and the world – trusting that you indeed hear and respond.
Good and loving God – in all of our diversity we are each perfect reflections of you. We pray that we will shine with your presence with all we encounter. We pray all of this and so much more in the name of Jesus Christ, our teacher and guide in what it means to transform this world. And not we pray in the way he taught…Our Father…