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Understanding your Unfolding Gifts and Calling as a Leader: Three Phases:  Imitation, Clarification, and Personification

It was at the end of a busy conference in Taiwan when I hitched a ride to the airport with Floyd McClung to get some time with him. I had been watching him lead over the previous few years and had eagerly received all the wisdom and insights he had to give. As a ministry, we were headed towards a time of leadership transition, while at the same time, I was on a journey to more fully identify my own gifting and sense of calling. 

Imitation – Phase I

“I realise I don’t want to become you anymore,” I said to Floyd, and he responded with his characteristic laugh which softened into a smile.  I continued on,  “I am so grateful for who God has made you to be, but I realise this is not my calling.”  Despite the embarrassingly youthful presumption that I could become the next Floyd McClung, I had come to the end of the first phase of discerning my gifting: imitation. 

Paul encourages the Corinthian church to follow his example as he follows Christ and so we see that imitation is not a bad thing. But imitation can be comparable to David trying on Saul’s armour, you try it on only to discover it doesn’t fit. When we follow those who follow Jesus, we will come through their example to Jesus Himself, but Jesus is ultimately the only one through whom we can discern our true gifting. It is when we hear the voice of Jesus remind us of our unsurpassable worth in His sight that we are free to discover what He has placed within us for the service of others.

Clarification – Phase II

From imitation, we move to clarification. This phase requires experimentation, reflection, and a deep groundedness of our worth in Christ. 

Whereas the imitation phase has offered us the tried and true path of a fruitful leader, the clarification phase finds us exploring unbeaten paths that require a more expansive map. This phase is often filled with insecurity as we try to find our own voice, and it is common (almost expected) that we would make missteps in our exploration of how we are gifted. However, the redeeming reality at the core of this is that we will learn more through our mistakes than through our successes. Instead of relying on imitating the methods of another leader, we begin to deepen our own reliance on Christ and his work in our lives for the sake of others.

Three Simultaneous Callings

The Puritans developed an account of three simultaneous callings that can help every Christian at this point.

The first (and highest) calling is to love and be loved by God. Without this, growth in our gifting and leadership is limited and ultimately unsustainable. 

The second is a common calling. These are the things we are all called to in the scriptures, things we don’t need to pray about: do not kill, steal or lie; love others as we love ourselves; make disciples, and so on.

The third calling is the specific calling which is the place and work that you are specifically called to: the calling to be a husband to your wife, or the calling to be a part of your specific community. Effectively, it is the calling to play the part that only you can play.

“Self-Expressive Individualism”

Our modern world has an historically “novel” way of conceiving what it means to be a human. Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, has called this, “self-expressive individualism.” Simply put, it is the belief, novel throughout human history, that your value in the world comes from your unique contribution. 

If we unreflectively follow the modern belief of “self-expressive individualism” as we seek to discern our giftings, it is highly likely we will incessantly search for our particular gifts as a way to gain our sense of worth in the world, and we will end up building an identity rather than receiving one.

I have spoken to many wise, older leaders who report that in their own development, they relentlessly pursued their gifts and specific calling as a way to secure their sense of worth, only to become so busy that they neglected their highest and common calling, to love and be loved by God. Towards the end of their lives, I observed that they had become less enamoured with their own specific gifts, and more focused on pursuing their highest and common callings: to love God and those around them with deep integrity and authenticity. 

Paying Attention to the Giver of the Gifts

I say all this to remind us that if we pursue clarification of our gifts from within the modern story of self-fulfilment, we will be incapable of becoming leaders who can lead in the way of Jesus. The clarification phase of discerning our gifting must pay deepest attention to the One who gives the gift and to the people around us to whom those gifts will be given away. In many ways, our gifts discover us when we stop fixating on finding them. 

However, it is in the clarification phase that we can receive insights from all types of assessments: Myer’s Briggs, Strengthsfinder, DISC, Enneagram and others. Self-reflection in the presence of the Holy Spirit, using these assessments, have given me some truly helpful self-understanding. But when we engage in these systems with a kind of “grasping for identity,” to define ourselves as unique for its own sake, a host of problems will arise.

If the modern script of “self-expressive individualism” misleads us to think that our worth is defined by our unique contributions, it also misleads us by seeing ourselves as individuals. The calling of Christians is to understand ourselves as “a people.” Our modern day individualism misleads us by ignoring the fact that we are inextricably bound up in a network of relationships. 

In John 14:6, Jesus refers to himself as “the truth.” Those of us who have been shaped by Western education are prone to think of truth as an idea. But Jesus refers to himself as the truth, so truth is a person, not a set of impersonal ideas. Reality is inherently relational. Too often we think about our gifts as being the truth of who we are, as a set of impersonal attributes; organised, confident, gentle, detailed etc. But our gifts are not held in a vacuum. All of our gifts are identified and expressed through specific relationships in specific places. If we are to understand our gifts, we will need to receive feedback from those around us and to serve others through our gifts rather than simply serving and fulfilling ourselves.

Personification – Phase III

As we progress through clarifying our gifts, we will often find leadership assignments that stretch us well beyond what our gifts are or what we feel we are good at. And as we serve and seek to follow Jesus, we discover in Him one who didn’t only give gifts, but gave Himself

If the first phase of understanding our gifts comes through imitation, and the second through clarification, the third phase could be called personification. Simply put, we no longer worry about offering our gifts, and we begin offering our very selves. 

In this phase, there is less anxiety about whether our gifts will be seen, acknowledged or respected, and we become motivated relationally by God for the sake of others. We gain a glimpse of this in Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians when he says, “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our lives as well.”

In the phase of personification, we become free to be who God has made us to be. We no longer strive for recognition or worry about fulfilling our potential.  We simply become the type of people who can give our lives away to others in love and service through our gifts. 

Ironically, it is at this phase where we are the least attached to our gifts for the sake of gaining worth that most people will see the gift of God in us most clearly. The gifts that God gives follow the pattern of the one who gives them, who reminds us in His words and life that “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Once the dream of self-fulfilment through our gifts is laid to rest, we are prepared to receive them back again for the sake and service of others. 

Of course, this model I have offered in 3 phases, is an extraordinary oversimplification of the multifaceted dynamics of relating to your gifting over a the course of a lifetime. But at the same time, models like this can offer us helpful navigational points that help us respond to the invitations and assignments we receive from God to be formed by Him into the likeness of His Son, who lived, died, rose again on our behalf. As you identify your own journey within these phases, the purpose is to participate with what God is doing in you now, not to ‘achieve’ the next phase. Take heart that what Paul wrote to the Philippians is just as true for you today: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

Liam and His wife Rachel did their DTS in Kona in 2009 and have worked in the township of Masiphumelele, South Africa for the past 13 years. They have worked as a part of All Nations with Floyd and Sally McClung overseeing local ministries and more recently helped serve the Centre for Christian Formation’s M.A. programme. Liam writes a fortnightly newsletter on topics related to discipleship at lectioletter.com

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