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When Spiritual Gifts Assessments Actually Get in the Way

Does reliance on spiritual gifting assessments for volunteers hinder or help God’s call? Two experts weigh in.

Spiritual gifting assessments have long been the go-to tool when it comes to effectively placing volunteers in ministry. It’s easy: People take a survey about their interests and experience and get a report of roles they’re suited for.

But is the ease and practicality of the spiritual assessment undermining a greater purpose? Do spiritual assessments let leaders take the easy way out by placing volunteers in roles that won’t challenge them? Do we limit volunteers’ growth potential when we put them in the “obvious” positions? Most importantly, are we inadvertently placing gifting above calling?

Children’s Ministry Magazine decided to investigate the positive and negative impacts of spiritual assessments. We spoke with two experts on volunteer placement: Richard Heyduck, a Fuller Seminary Ph.D., pastor in Pittsburg, Texas, and 20-year veteran in ministry; and Karen Kogler, director of volunteer equipping at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois, volunteer expert with 35 years in ministry, and founder of, a volunteer leader online resource. Read on for their insights.

Turning a Deaf Ear

Many see spiritual assessments as a huge blessing to ministries around the world. They figure what better way to determine ministry areas where potential volunteers might fit, excel, and feel at home? But is it possible that relying on spiritual assessments lets people — volunteers and leaders alike — tune out God’s call? What leader hasn’t heard a volunteer say, “That sounds interesting, but it’s just not my area of gifting”?

This is an age-old problem. Remember Moses? He repeatedly argued and wheedled with God about what God wanted him to do. He said things you probably recognize: “Who am I to do this?”…”I’m just not a good public speaker”…”Seriously, God, please, please pick someone else.” But it’s true! Moses is biblical proof of this — that being pushed outside our areas of gifting can be a good thing, even a God thing.

“Relying on spiritual assessments may have kept things too conservative in style (let’s do what we’ve always done) and kept the focus of teaching on content rather than the growth in Christian maturity that comes from relying on God in the context of responding to call,” asserts Heyduck.

A Tool With Limits

Spiritual assessments offer many insights, and as a tool they help facilitate an inflow of volunteers, especially in larger churches. They also bring to light obvious mismatches. You’re not going to place someone in a preschool classroom if her assessment says she can’t stand kids under 5.

Despite the many benefits of spiritual assessments, the reality is that they’re by nature limited. People tend to try “answer to the test” because they perceive that leaders are looking for specific qualities.

Additionally, assessments are static; we file them and pull them out every year or so or when someone needs to be repositioned. But people change and mature. Someone who’s comfortable in a position may respond to an assessment entirely differently than when he first entered the role.

So the question remains: Is discerning people’s gifts and placing them in positions that utilize those gifts the best way? Experts say it depends.

Negative First Effect of Spiritual Gifts

Kogler offers this insight: “In children’s ministries, as in other ministry areas, the spiritual gift emphasis can, at first, have a negative effect. Those who were serving out of guilt or from pressure drop out because they’re not gifted in the area. And they should.

“Individually,” she continues, “we’re always working with God’s Spirit at strengthening our weaknesses of character (becoming more loving, more thoughtful, more generous) and of behavior (becoming more quick to help others, more giving of our time, less selfish). But the image of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 is one in which God designed each part for its specific purpose. We’re different on purpose. As the body of Christ, we have work to do-caring for babies, organizing events, extending hospitality, repairing buildings. To do our work well, we work in our areas of giftedness. To do otherwise is to ask the duck to run a race and the cheetah to swim in a race.”

A Part of the Total Picture

That said, both experts agree that assessments are only a part of the total picture when it comes to determining a person’s overall suitability, strengths, and weaknesses-and they shouldn’t be the sole determiner in placing volunteers.

Kogler points out that it’s often our use and interpretation of gift assessments rather than the assessments themselves that’s problematic. “I do believe [gift inventories] are the best way — when gifts are seen broadly. I once had a volunteer tell me, ‘I’d love to teach Sunday school, but teaching didn’t show up as one of my gifts on the inventory.’ I assured her that other gifts are also useful in this ministry, and that a strong desire to serve in a particular place could in itself indicate God’s desire for her to serve here. The lists of gifts in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 are illustrative — not exhaustive. We should look at all the gifts God gives his people for use in his service, including their interests, education, and experience.”

Heyduck argues that assessments are a valuable guide for positioning volunteers — but they have limitations.

“The strength of most spiritual gift teaching I’ve seen and used is that through a reliance on survey questions, leaders discover what people have done and enjoyed in the past,” says Heyduck. “If you have a pool of experienced church people, this can help you identify people with experience in a needed area. But, if you’re working primarily with new people, they lack the relevant experience for an inventory to be very accurate.”

Flawed Focus

Heyduck and Kogler agree that an over-reliance on assessments is flawed strategy and potentially detrimental to a ministry and its children. That’s because sole focus on a person’s gifting often transforms into a focus on what makes that person happy or fulfilled — rather than what it takes to meet the needs of those we’re serving.

“An over-reliance on gift inventories can — ironically — cause us to miss a person’s gifts,” says Kogler. “Inventories are based on experience, and a person might not yet have experience in an area of giftedness. But the greatest danger is due to our own sinful natures. Looking at our own spiritual gifts, it’s easy to focus on ourselves — what I want to do, what brings me satisfaction. Scripture emphasizes that our gifts are given for the benefit of others (1 Peter 4:10; 1 Corinthians 12:4-7). Spiritual gifts aren’t about self-fulfillment, but about self-sacrificing service. Joy and satisfaction are often benefits from our service, but when they become our goals, we’re missing the point.”

Another limiting factor of assessments is that they offer only a fragmented picture of a person rather than a comprehensive view of where God might be leading him or her.

“The biggest flaw is the tendency to focus on the past, on what we’ve done and enjoyed in the past,” says Heyduck. “While this can be an indicator of future placement and fruitfulness, it leaves out of the equation God’s tendency to call us to do new things, things we’ve never done before. God habitually calls people to do things they cannot do on their own or with their own resources.”

Extracting Strength From Weakness

It’s critical for leaders to lean toward depending on God rather than depending on a person’s gift to determine where to position a volunteer, according to Kogler and Heyduck.

“Maximum fruit and sense of fulfillment come from obeying God, relying on God’s provision, and seeing God work through our weaknesses,” says Heyduck. “Working from a position of weakness — doing something I recognize myself to not be skilled at or trained for — and yet seeing God bring fruit, can bring great fulfillment.”

Says Heyduck, “A key part of the discernment process — and the hardest to do consistently — is getting to know people one-on-one and discerning good placement out of personal knowledge and conversation.”

“I don’t think there’s any one perfect system,” adds Kogler. “The best [leaders] focus on helping people serve rather than simply filling slots, and they also make sure people don’t fall through the cracks. The most effective element of any system is the people and the relationships they build. Getting to know people is fundamental to matching volunteers to ministries.”

Coupled with the building of relationships, leaders can undergird volunteers who are asking, “Who am I to do this?” You may be surprised at how your volunteers stretch — and succeed — in positions that feel alien to them when you’re offering support.

“The key,” says Heyduck, “is to place people who are just beginning to operate out of some kind of weakness in partnership with others who have more experience, both in the particular ministry and in trusting God in general.”

By listening to God’s call, building relationships, and considering the gifts God’s given us, you’ll more accurately place the volunteers he sends to your ministry. And along the way, you’ll help your volunteers discover new interests and shore up weaknesses they may never have tackled on their own.

The Wish List

We asked experts Richard Heyduck and Karen Kogler to name elements of an ideal placement system for volunteers. Here’s their wish list.

Make it relational.

  • “[Base] more placement on leaders getting to know their people as they pursue Jesus together in small groups and short-term ministry opportunities.”-Heyduck
  • “[Pursue] continued and growing emphasis on relationships in volunteer placement and support: relationships between ‘placer’ and ‘placee,’ between people working side by side in the church and, above all, between each of us and God as we serve him by serving his children.”-Kogler

Recruit creatively.

  • “Try nonparents. Whether it’s retired folks, empty nesters, singles, or couples without children, all these people can work for God with children. The biggest untapped resource in children’s ministry is men. Too often they think working with children is only for the women. Men need to learn to trust God and share Jesus with kids. This is true even for men who don’t have children. Children (some of whom are guys) need to see men loving and obeying Jesus.”-Heyduck

Invest yourself.

  • “Get to know your volunteers as people even before you place them, including parents. Remind them they do have other interests besides their children.”-Kogler

Raise the standard.

  • “Work with other leaders in your church to support healthy volunteerism practices across the board.”-Kogler

Jennifer Hooks is managing editor of Children’s Ministry Magazine.

Want more articles for children’s ministry leaders? Check these out.

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