Spiritual Gifts and a Pastoral Legacy
Feb 28, 2009 by Don Payne | 0 Comments
Last evening Sharon and I attended a celebration for Dr. Jerry Nelson who is stepping aside from the senior pastor role at Southern Gables Church after thirty years. Jerry was my mentor while in seminary during the 80s and during the 90s I had the privilege of serving on his pastoral staff for seven years. He was duly honored by a packed house and responded with characteristic grace, dignity, and humor.
Dr. Jim Means, his predecessor in that role, spoke poignantly of Jerry's faithfulness in ministry and particularly of his remarkable ability in and commitment to preaching. Jim drew attention to a fact known by many long time attenders of Southern Gables, but probably not by the masses. While Jerry is well-known in the Denver area for the depth and power of his expository preaching, it is less well-known that preaching has been an incredible struggle for him for many years. Simply put, he does not like to preach. I was serving on his staff when in the early 90s he admitted to hitting the wall, not knowing whether he could continue in that ministry role because preaching was so intensely stressful for him. He took a sabbatical from preaching, rested, even sought out assessment feedback that (as I recall) said that preaching was not the area where he should focus his efforts. Yet, he returned to the pulpit and persevered despite repeated and chronic battles of the same sort, all because he was called to that ministry and preaching was part of that calling. Time after time, people now testify to how profoundly God shaped their lives through Jerry's preaching.
To some, that may sound like an old school, "suck it up" mentality that we have long since moved past (or should have) since our theology of spiritual gifts has been "enlightened" by the world of vocational assessment and the (almost sacred) value placed on vocational fulfillment. However, this resurfaces a question that has puzzled me off and on for a long time. Are "spiritual gifts" necessarily those activities that energize and fulfill us? There is a strong corpus of literature, seminars, and curricula that argue so. Yet, I find no biblical warrant for that claim. I'm still drawn to Frederick Buechner's notion that our calling resides at the intersection of the world's greatest need and our deepest gladness, though that notion of "deepest gladness" is quite nuanced and may encompass acts of service that are intensely costly and painful. Such was the lifegiving preaching ministry of Jerry Nelson.
Don't get me wrong. This is no argument for a grim-faced return to the days when a person's abilities and passions were overlooked and considered irrelevant when making ministry decisions. It is, however, a call for suspicion about the notion that our ministry commitments should hinge on our inner sense of fulfillment and whether our ministry activities inherently energize us. Now there are indeed some important questions to be addressed when we consider the vital subject of sustainability in ministry. I would like to take up some of those questions in future blog entries. For now, I invite a reexamination of our obsession with fulfillment as the lynchpin criterion for making ministry decisions. Most Christians in most parts of the world for most of human history have not enjoyed anything close to the range of options that occasion our ability to even have the conversation about spiritual gifts, and ministry fulfillment in the way we do.
More on spiritual gifts later. I think I'm just getting cranked up!