Discerning Gifts

I’m interested in a fairly new blogging effort, Intentional Disciples, that has gained some attention among the 800-pound gorillae of the blogosphere this week. This post today, while not able to completely dodge the liturgy tussles, does have an interesting take on discernment in the parish setting.

Just like it’s not easy for a traditional-leaning Catholic to write three blog posts without lapsing into liturgy-bashing, parish leaders can all too easily fall into the trap of treating parishioners as warm bodies to slot into blanks to keep programs and parishes running with a hum.

My colleague David, hired from the demise of our diocese’s CPLM, ruminates often on an interesting approach to parish volunteers and ministers. We should be sitting down with our parishioners, talking with them, listening to them, teasing out gifts, and looking to the Holy Spirit for guidance: not only in the placement of talented people, but in seeking the direction for our parish. He’s rubbing off on me in one regard.

Several months ago, a young woman, a grad student at a city university, joined the parish and asked about getting involved. She suggested being a lector, and I thought, “Let’s find out about this person before slotting her into a schedule at a Mass.”

This was a no-brainer, as they say. Her graduate studies are in music and voice. She is not only a talented singer able to navigate a number of styles, including opera, but she is a deeply prayerful young person who has just the right presence at Mass: leading people in song without dominating the electronics with her voice.

Like Peter Nixon at dotCommonweal, the discussion on ID being too conservative doesn’t make much of an impression on me. I can even overlook the quirks of their contributors’ liturgical views–if they’re getting results. I suppose that’s a rather Americanistic, pragmatic, warm-body-slot-filling approach, but there you have it. This paragraph struck me as being rich in discernment sensibility:

Therefore, we are each responsible for one another and are called to be Stewards of the vocation of each member of our community. True discernment, then, can never happen outside of the context of the Body of Christ. Bringing that down to a more practical level, we as parishes (the Church inserted into the local neighborhood) need to become schools of vocational discernment, communities where the giftedness of each member is discovered and fostered, and where opportunities for utilizing those gifts in the world are presented. We must become comfortable with naming the giftedness of others, as well as providing gentle and loving feedback when others are engaged in areas of service for which they have not been gifted or called.

Comments from the Body?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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13 Responses to Discerning Gifts

  1. Todd:

    I’m glad that you are intrigued by what we are doing. Discernment of giftedness not only can be done, it is being done in parishes all over. The paragraph you quote from Keith’s post is standard Called & Gifted stuff.

    In the Called & Gifted I’m teaching in Colorado Springs this weekend, the newest member of the RCIA team is there because she was strongly encouraged by all the other members to come because they had all done discernment and the team is trying to work collaboratively out of their gifts. Also present are several candidates for reception from Protestant backgrounds (this is the “evangelical Vatican” after all!)

    We’ve seen many people 1) enter full-time ministry because of their discernment and 2) leave full-time ministry and go back into the marketplace because of their discernment. A pharmicist turned missionary who is now enabling African countries to receive AIDS medication; a woman move in just a couple years from tenative volunteering at her local St. Vincent de Paul to opening the first day shelter for the homeless in her state, a successful early retiree offer his services for two years, full time and unpaid, as parish administrator to his pastor, high tech entrepeneurs move into public school teaching or ministry, a woman who dreamed of writing a couple years ago has now published her first book and been invited to speak at the LA Religious Ed Congress as a result, etc.

    Three of the five Called & Gifted workshops going on this weekend are being put on by local parish teaching teams who have been trained by our office and are committed to offering discernment in their parish on a regular basis (with their pastors support) In the other two workshops, my Co-Director and I are also training new local teachers. We’ve worked with whole dioceses where every leader – from the Bishop down to the rural catechists and youth ministers, have been exposed to the discernment process. It’s just been quietly spreading by word of mouth.

    I’ll let Keith speak to what he meant by the singing reference (I don’t know, we’ve never talked about liturgical matters)- but honestly, no one on our blog is a frustrated liturgical maven. Everyone was invited because they really are first and foremost interested in Church’s mission to the world and the mission, theology, formation, and support of the laity.

    And I’m *really* not. If I never have to read another “liturgy bashing” post – from either the right or the left – in my life, I’ll be thrilled. There are only 24 hours in the day and I am completely happy to leave the liturgy in the hands of people who actually know what they are doing. My call is elsewhere and it’s a 24-7 vocation.

    We have been quite startled by all the attention because the two things that make us stand out:

    1) confounding conservative-liberal categories; 2) insisting on talking about about things that Catholics on both the right and left don’t talk about – like discipleship and gifts and vocational discernment for all the baptized

    have been the hallmarks of the Institute for the past 10 years.

    St. Blog’s has just noticed.

  2. Keith Strohm says:

    Todd,

    Hey! Thanks again for showing an interest in Intentional Disciples. Sherry did a great job (as usual) putting practical results to the “theoretical” approach.

    And here’s what I meant by mentioning singing: First off, I have no problem whatsoever with guitars, drums, bongos, synthesizers, or any intstrument at mass. Truth be told, I often prefer Matt Maher music to Gregorian Chant or hymnody at liturgy.

    I don’t have a dog in the liturgical wars fight except this one: I have a problem with poorly executed liturgy.

    So, since I’m active in music ministry and see what the results can be when you have a rigorous discernment process for music ministry members coupled with solid technical and spiritual formation (the results being a powerful music ministry group whose charisms really do move people to deeper participation in the liturgy and open them to an encounter with God), I have a strong belief in what the normative approach should be.

    Guitars or gregorian chant–there is just no way that a music ministry group should accept “all comers” on some notion that they are volunteers and we shouldn’t turn anyone away who wants to offer something to the community.

    The ministerial priesthood doesn’t work that way–and, in fact, no ministry should normatively work that way. Living out the theology of Stewardship means that we give to God from our first fruits–the best of what we have, not the leftovers. The same principle should apply to ministries (including liturgical ones).

    Discernment processes should, for example, help guide someone with a musical charism to some work that utilizes that charism–within or outside the community.

    I wasn’t liturgy bashing–I was bashing on the culture of poorly discerned musical charisms.

  3. Todd says:

    Thank you both for adding to this thread on discernment. I suspect your effort is something for which many parish leaders wish they had the tools and possibly the stomach.

    Music isn’t the only subculture with misdiagnosed charisms, but there’s not doubt that when it’s bad, it’s one of the more noticeable ones.

  4. Keith Strohm says:

    Todd,

    Thinking about this further, I wanted to say this:

    I actually believe that the Church’s insistence that the organ is an instrument that is inherently more disposed toward use in the liturgy and it’s insistence on Gregorian Chant having pride of place is an example of European cultural “pride” being dressed up as theology.

    I haven’t really thought or prayed that one through–and I haven’t examined the magisterial authority of the Church’s stance on this, but that is certainly what my gut tells me.

    I don’t object to their use–I sometimes enjoy that style of music in liturgy, but I certainly have a problem with the notion that it is somehow better than other styles.

    I can sometimes imaging a Traditionalist Catholic stepping through a time portal to the very early Church and complaining about a lack of pipe organs and European-appropriated chant.

    There…I’ve laid my cards out on the table. :)

    Mostly, however, I’m like Sherry and Mark Shea–I’ll follow what the Church allows.

  5. Pingback: Discernment in Parish Music Ministry « Catholic Sensibility

  6. Mike says:

    I actually believe that the Church’s insistence that the organ is an instrument that is inherently more disposed toward use in the liturgy and it’s insistence on Gregorian Chant having pride of place is an example of European cultural “pride” being dressed up as theology.

    Thank you for articulating what I have long thought.

  7. Tony says:

    : So, since I’m active in music ministry and see what the results can be
    : when you have a rigorous discernment process for music ministry
    : members coupled with solid technical and spiritual formation (the results
    : being a powerful music ministry group whose charisms really do move
    : people to deeper participation in the liturgy and open them to an
    : encounter with God), I have a strong belief in what the normative
    : approach should be.

    Interesting. We get to turn our masses into Broadway productions with only the finest “performers”.

    What makes you qualified to comment on another’s discernment to ministry… any ministry.

    Heck, I’m probably misrepresenting your position, and you’re welcome to educate me if this is the case.

    Guitars or gregorian chant–there is just no way that a music ministry group should accept “all comers” on some notion that they are volunteers and we shouldn’t turn anyone away who wants to offer something to the community.

    How long do you take to determine discerment? An audition? A month? I have been in choir for almost 18 years, and I have seen people who have taken upwards of 5 years to blossom. They discover their God given talents in God’s time. Not yours.

  8. Todd says:

    Musical performance ability is not the only criterion for suitability in music ministry. But it is a major one.

    I would see parish music ministry as a “schola” in the original Latin sense: a school, in other words. People are formed to be music ministers.

    I could see a singer taking five years to become good enough to record an album, or be a psalmist at the Easter Vigil or a major cathedral liturgy. Anybody who showed any inclination to the spiritual life and to musical improvement would be a solid member of a parish music minsitry long before that.

  9. Tony:

    The pastor and leader of the community are supposed to do some discernment. You won’t appoint someone who has never played a keyboard in their life or has completely tin ear to be a music minister. You won’t have someone teaching RCIA who isn’t Catholic and hasn’t a clue about Catholic teaching and the RCIA process. The people on the receiving end of the ministry count too.

    Fr. Mike, my Co-Director told me about an old struggle he had with a choir director. The choir was simply awful and many members of the community complained but the director was adament: anyone who wanted to could be part.

    Fr. Mike says that it has dawned upon him since that that director almost certainly was not exercising a charism of music but of a gift hospitality in a musical setting. She was not focused on music ministry but on giving people, especially those who were new or without family or friends, a place in the community *through the choir*.

    Unfortunately, the result was very destructive to the liturgy and since she wouldn’t give in, he had to replace her. Now, he says, he’d approach the whole thing differently, acknowledging the charism at work and finding another place in the community where it could be used with great effectiveness. The director might still have fought him but there understanding the charisms at work would have given it a better change of positive outcome.

    True story: a group came up to Fr. Michael Sweeney during a Called & Gifted workshop and asked:

    “How do we convince Tom that he doesn’t have a charism of music? He’s killing us!” Tom apparently was having a good time but he wasn’t paying attention to the other indicators of a charism: what happens when you do it, and the feedback you get from others. Our personal subjective experience of something is not the only criteria by which these discernments can be made.

  10. Tony says:

    You won’t appoint someone who has never played a keyboard in their life or has completely tin ear to be a music minister.

    Nor should you appoint someone who has no clue about proper Catholic liturgy or a prayerful attitude. Music is prayer. Once that is explained to prayerful people it makes it easier to discern.

    I have been in my church’s choir for the past 18 years. The first 15 was with a choir director with technical excellence, varied and diverse music ministries and her own idea about how liturgy ought to be with a free hand from the pastor.

    It was a spiritual nightmare. It was a great performance. But Mass is not a performance.

    We got a new pastor who had his own ideas on how liturgy ought to be done (by the book). He and the choir / liturgy director could not come to terms, and she left. We now have a new choir director who is God-focused. We don’t sit for the consecration any more. We say a prayer before and after each Mass. Our numbers have dwindled from 38 or so to about 8. The new core group is tight, we’re musically competent and we know our place and what role we are expected to serve.

    Would you say the 30 who left us had the proper discernment to music ministry?

    Would you accept someone with less technical excellence, but who has the spirit over an opera singer who is out there to perform for the audience?

    How much weight do you give the congregation in their criticism of the music (after all you have to consider those you are ministering to).

    Do you let your CCD class pick the teacher? (Ok, I’m being silly :))

    I’ve spoken at length with Todd about this, and he knows my history. So I come to this discussion with a bit of “baggage”, shall we say.

    My point is basically that you don’t “audition” for a choir position. Music director is usually a paid position so they really need to do what the pastor wants. If the pastor can’t find someone better than “Tom” then they’re stuck with the best they can get.

  11. Tony:

    “Would you accept someone with less technical excellence, but who has the spirit over an opera singer who is out there to perform for the audience?”

    Well, if you have people in the choir with charisms of music, you don’t have to choose. They are not always the most gifted musicians but the spiritual impact of the music they play/sing goes far beyond any natural or technical skills they have. Not everyone in the choir need have a charism in the area by any means but you can’t have someone in it who is destroying the atmosphere of prayer through spectacular incompetence either.

    It’s not an either-or thing.

  12. Tony says:

    Not everyone in the choir need have a charism in the area by any means but you can’t have someone in it who is destroying the atmosphere of prayer through spectacular incompetence either.

    Then I really guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. I am trying to imagine in heaven some of the angels being told by God that they really need to find something else to do but sing hosannahs because they just aren’t cut out for it.

    When approached from a position of perfect prayer, our prayers are perfect for God, using the faculties He gave us. I find it supremely arrogant that mere humans want to interfere with that.

    Considering some of the unmitigated crap foisted on us with total technical competence, it’s the only position I can hold. Qui cantat, bis orat.

  13. Lynn says:

    This is a fascinating thread. I have been working with college freshmen to help them determine their strengths, talents and gifts. The journey is a marvelous one. I think I have something to add.

    The ministries of music, lector, and (to some extent) art/environment need some performance talent to be effective. Someone who feels called in these areas should expect not only a chance to use the talents God gives us, but to make them grow and evolve. When I was coordinating the altar servers, I always used the example of the little boy who brought the loaves and fishes that Jesus used to feed the multitude. He just brought his lunch; Jesus transformed that lunch into a miracle.

    It’s the same idea with our gifts. We should do something to make them better. For me, it includes taking voice lessons (to be a better cantor and ensemble member), getting involved in theatre again to work on my expressiveness in proclaiming God’s Word, reading about how to improve in these areas, and hanging around others in my ministries to learn, pray and develop relationships.

    Joining a ministry for the social contact is not a bad reason. In fact, I think it’s a great way for a newcomer to be better assilimilated into the parish and the community at large. But at some point, it needs to evolve beyond socializing, and become a means to find people to share the faith journey. If that means that you must become a better choir member, so be it. I know that my ministry groups have become my support group, when I need it (and I’ve needed their prayers a lot in the last 14 months).
    We’ve also gotten better as we practice and learn to blend.

    I guess I’m also saying that each ministry needs to have a vision, and the members need to be behind that vision 100%. Sometimes that means you lose people who can’t buy into the vision. It’s too bad. Maybe they are being called to some other task. After all, the whole mission of spreading the Gospel, building God’s Kingdom, and helping those in need in the spirit of the love of Jesus, is a huge burden that needs many different people with many different gifts. We should not compartmentalize ourselves into only one ministry. Changing ministries is not a sign of weakness or contentiousness. It’s part of the changing demands and opportunities of life.

    Always, always, always, when we do some activity for our church, we need to keep our eyes focused on Jesus, and connect with the Holy Spirit, who will guide us. When you lose that connection, trouble will follow.

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