Should Christians be competent?

trumpetThere is the moment that every Christian leader dreads. Someone in the congregation comes and tells you that God has called them to a particular ministry in the church. You don’t want to be discouraging, so you find a place for this to be exercised. The person concerned is passionate about it, feels strongly God has called them, and tries really hard—but they are just not very good. The damage can be limited when the ministry is away from the spotlight, but is harder to handle when it is something ‘main stage’ such as leading sung worship. What do we say?

Depending on your church tradition or network, there are different criteria for validating ministry. For some, you need to be called. For others, you need to be ‘passionate’. But I have yet to come across a Christian group where ‘competent’ features as a key virtue—the idea that you should actually be good at something as an indicator of God’s blessing. The notion of ‘gift’ comes close, but gifts need to be nurtured, honed and trained; being competent isn’t the same as having a ‘gift’.

Asked simply ‘Should Christians be competent?’, whether in church ministry or the ministry of everyday life in the workplace, then the answer is clearly ‘Yes’. But there are two powerful forces which make us hesitate, one from surrounding culture, and one from the life of faith. On the one hand, we seem to live in a culture which is increasingly intolerant of failure, and prizes the power of achievement. Competition is the primary paradigm in so many areas of life; it differentiates people into winners and losers, and for the losers this can be deeply damaging and disempowering.

By contrast, we believe in a gospel of grace; God accepts people as they are, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, not because of how good or competent they are. God offers forgiveness for our failure and loves us despite our incompetence. There is a sense in which the impetus to spread the gospel at all came from this sense of failure. Whilst the women remained at the cross, it was the men amongst the disciples who deserted Jesus at the end. And yet it was the failed and forgiven men more than the women who became the primary proclaimers of his resurrection. There are cultural factors at work here—but it cannot be a coincidence that the ones who failed most obviously were the ones who proclaimed God’s grace most clearly. Paul’s presenting himself as the ‘worst of sinners’ continues this tradition.

But this gives us a problem. All too often in the local church—let’s be honest, things are done badly. Many of us struggle to find a theology which proclaims (in Bill Hybels’ words) that ‘excellence honours God’. And so we meet in shoddy buildings where the heating is intermittent, the music mediocre and the coffee is ghastly. Letting people do things because they are faithful rather than because they are good at it makes us and them feel better, and avoids what would be an awkward and unpleasant confrontation. But in reality it puts others off. I don’t think that people visit their local church in order to witness a smooth, professional production. But neither do they want to hear a keyboard player whose left hand doesn’t know what his right hand is doing. If the gospel matters to us, we should look as though we care about the way we do things. And if this is important in the local church, it is crucial in the workplace. There is nothing more exasperating—or damaging to gospel witness—to have a Christian colleague who does their job badly ‘but that’s alright, because God forgives me.’

There is one significant Old Testament text which does focus on competence—indeed, it reads like a hymn of praise to excellence: Proverbs 31. Although it is often sidelined as a (male-centred?) celebration of the competent wife, I think it is more important than that. First, it is worth noticing that it is one of the few parts of Scripture that is clearly composed by a woman, King Lemuel’s mother (Prov 31.1). Secondly, its position is highly significant. Proverbs starts out as the quest of a young man, searching for insight into how to live wisely. It ends with this picture of a mature woman who does indeed live the good life. Thirdly, this link is emphasised by the common phrase, ‘the fear of the Lord’. The young man needs to learn that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Prov 1.7, 9.10); the mature woman has learnt this and allowed it to shape her life (Prov 31.30). As a result, she flourishes in every area of living—not just in raising children and providing for them (something we usually associate with the father as the ‘head’ of the household), but she is an entrepreneurial business woman, whose wise decisions bear fruit and gain her the respect of the community. (It is tempting to ask what her husband is doing, other than sitting around chatting at the city gate…but that is for another time.)

We might try to dismiss this as Old Testament ‘salvation by works’. But neither the text nor the rest of the Bible will allow us to do this. The text itself is clear that ‘fear of the Lord’ is a summary of her attitude, and leads to competence, not the other way around. And, more awkwardly for Christian readers, this wisdom tradition is picked up both in the letter of James and in the teaching of Jesus. James is absolutely clear that intention is not enough; action must match it (James 2.17). And it is striking that, in the parable of the ‘talents’ or treasures, the master commends his servants for not just being ‘faithful’ but also being ‘good’. They had done their job well, and Jesus expects us to do the same.

Competence not a qualification for acceptance, but it is a sign of maturity. It is not a way to earn Gods favour—but it is a sign of God’s grace at work in our lives. That is why Paul is able to make the extraordinary claim that ‘it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Phil 2.13)—not just shaping our intentions, but perfecting our actions too. Perhaps excellence, understood in this way as the fruit of grace, does honour God after all.

Thist article first appeared in Christian Today on 28th October 2015

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15 thoughts on “Should Christians be competent?”

  1. Yes, but….. What about the beatitudes? “Favoured are the spiritually incompetent for they are citizens of God’s realm.

    Pushed too far your argument fails the inclusivity test of Jesus.

  2. I think it is significant that many of the people that God used to achieve his purposes in both the OT and NT didn’t want the job e.g. Moses, Gideon, -even Paul was completely anti at first.

    Whenever I hear someone come up to me and say ‘God called me’ I inwardly cringe. Firstly such an assertion is a spiritual half-Nelson- the implication being if you disagree with them you are disagreeing with God. What is important (as well as competence) is the attitude and spirit of the person which unfortunately in my experience, is all too often shrouded in false humility and spiritual pride.

  3. Thanks for a stimulating read, Ian.

    I remember being taught at college that gifting was less important than servant-heartedness. I think one of the true tests of someone who is gifted is whether they would be prepared *not* to use their gift – I’ve known people who have left churches because they feel like they are not being used properly.

    It’s interesting that you go to Proverbs 31. When I was studying the wisdom literature, one of the things which struck me about Proverbs was that wisdom is generally characterised as a woman (‘lady wisdom’). And it seems significant to me that the very last chapter in a book of wisdom describes a sort of ‘perfect life’ – the life which is lived fully in accordance with the wisdom of God and in the fear of the Lord. So I guess I see Prov. 31 as describing a wisdom-filled life, not as something we are supposed to attain (there are certain women in the church who dread hearing a sermon on being like the ‘Proverbs 31 woman’) but as something to commend the wisdom laid out in the rest of the book.

    Either way, I don’t think I would connect Proverbs 31 with doing things well in a church service. There are a lot of things in our church I get frustrated about from time to time (e.g. – why is it so difficult to get lyric projection right?!) but sometimes you have to work with what God gives you. We are not professionals, as John Piper once said. So I think I’d go back to what I’d say about servant-heartedness – I’d rather have (for example) a less competent musician who really wanted to serve the Lord than a really competent musician who just wanted to show off. Even if that means the music is less good than it might be!

  4. Ian,

    The via media here involves mentoring and nurture.

    Let’s say someone claims that they’ve experienced a calling to ordained ministry, but appears to lack certain capabilities which you consider essential to such a role.

    Instead of writing them off, why not ask them to get involved in researching and formulating written input for your next sermon series.

    That’s a far better approach than Chris Bishop’s assumption that diffidence is a sure sign of spiritual humility.

    He might well reflect differently in realising that Isaiah immediate response of ‘Here I am. Send me.’ to God’s open call to the prophetic ministry (albeit after a sorrowful declaration of his shortcomings) was markedly different from Moses’ response.

    David was equally immediate in rallying to His Lord’s honour by fighting Goliath. It was his brothers who treated his readiness with jealous suspicion.

    There’s also false humility in pretending to have constant misgivings over one’s readiness for a particular public role and in feigning indecision over whether it would be preferable to spend one’s life in quiet obscurity, only to surprise everyone by discovering an unquenchable thirst for operating the public limelight.

  5. Someone who is led by the spirit of God will grow the fruit of the the spirit so this might help us to decide if the call really is from God. The “servant heart” thought is perhaps another way of expressing this?
    As to encouraging people and developing their gifts (Irrespective of their apparent progress in the sanctification department.) This is best done in small groups rather than large and, referring to your opening dilemma, it’s all much easier as well as more like early church practice if leadership is shared.

  6. Great question Ian. As you know I led a particular ministry for many years which whilst not up-front had the ability to either support the worship service or potentially ruin it! It is fair to say the team members over the years have had mixed abilities with very few who excel. As an organisation, the church is awful about having the sorts of conversations that would happen in the commercial world about moving on. I have often wondered if we should bring more structure to to these roles with the leaders of a given team being asked to sit down (say) one a year and discuss with each team member how it is going. This would give each party the chance to suggest training needs or indeed the need to look at a different ministry. We tend to get many folk stuck in a role for too long….we don’t think in terms of ‘seasons’ enough!

  7. So glad you’ve addressed this. Too often the church allows itself to slip into off-putting mediocrity out of laziness, stinginess or conflict avoidance, dressed up as inclusivity and grace.

  8. Will,

    There both mediocrity in permitting incompetence and leadership mediocrity in their reluctance towards devising carefully structured programmes that nurture growth.

    The latter demonstrates intolerant dismissiveness dressed up as the priestly prerogative of discernment for ministry.

    It’s staggering that accusations of mediocrity are levelled by those currently in leadership who have collectively presided over an era of unprecedented CofE decline. But we now have a new focus: eliminate incompetence from our lay leadership. And that’s by readily spotting the propensity for incompetence among overzealous laity who causes ‘eye rolling’ dread among clergy by ‘pridefully’ expressing a sense of their calling without waiting for an invitation from the vicar to do so.

    Their supposedly misplaced zeal is so useless to the Christian faith, isn’t it? So, I’m glad that most of those suffering enthusiasm will eventually leave and find a spiritual home within other denominations where they can contribute to both numerical and spiritual growth. Al of this is while CofE congregations dwindle.

    At least, the newer churches have learned how to harness and mentor zeal, instead of suppressing and dismissing it censoriously.

  9. I have real problems with the whole idea of “feeling called”. I don’t really see it in the Bible. Even Paul waited until the spirit told church leaders to set him and Barnabas aside. It bothers me that a clear sense of call seems to be one of the criteria looked at for someone putting themselves forward for ordination….surely much more important is the sense of your calling discerned by people who know you (and I don’t necessarily include Bishops Advisory Panels … can they know someone that well). Maybe we need teaching that doesn’t imply that “sense of calling” equals “calling”……lots of teaching I suspect.

    • Anne,

      In terms of mission and calling, there needs to be a balance between what is prompted internally (sense of calling) and the discernment of the church leadership and community.

      In the case of St. Paul, he began his ministry immediately after conversion. Having been a persecutor of the Christian faith, proclaiming and expounding about Jesus being the promised Messiah was a form of restitution:
      ‘Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit…’

      ‘Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.’ (Acts 9:17 – 22)

      The church’s discernment of a calling is equally valid, but occurs subsequent to a person exhibiting both the passion and nascent abilities that might make them suitable. Paul had already cemented his reputation as a capable preacher and teacher of the Christian Way by the time that the Holy Spirit commanded that he and Barnabus should be set apart for the mission out of Antioch.

      David had shown leadership initiative in fighting Goliath long before he was anointed as the king in waiting by Samuel.

      I am not suggesting that ‘sense of calling’ equals ‘calling’. After all, the self-same St. Paul warned the Bishop of Ephesus, Timothy to ‘lay hands on no man suddenly’ and provided clear standards of behaviour, reputation and gifting, to which we should adhere in discerning a genuine call to public ministry.

      Part of that discernment process that you’ve described should involve opportunities to be mentored by more experienced church leaders through a programme which would exhibit whether a person’s calling is authentic. Structured low-profile leadership opportunities are crucial to the early discernment process.

      In the absence of a structured programme of mentored low-profile leadership opportunities (including the small group sharing of prepared and reviewed spiritual reflections), there is precious little evidence (apart from public stature and being generally likeable) on which to accept or dismiss a person’s sense of calling to ordained ministry.

      It was a ‘sense of calling’ that prompted David to fight Goliath, despite his brothers’ misgivings about his motives.

      The story of David’s eventual anointing, after Samuel’s mistaken emphasis on the stature of his eldest brother, should remind us to be careful in underestimating the importance of a person’s ‘sense of calling’.

      • The church’s discernment of a calling is equally valid, but occurs subsequent to a person exhibiting both the passion and nascent abilities that might make them suitable.

        I really agree with you about this. The issue I have is with the importance given to a “sense of call”. People in the Bible seem to have been called to do particular things (Samuel’s prophecy to Eli, Paul preaching as often as he could straight after his conversion, etc), but I don’t think that is quite the same as feeling called to a “position”. It is this that seems to cause all the problems. Paul and Barnabas were set aside for a particular work because the whole group sensed that that was what God was saying, not because they came along and said “we feel called”. I think that Paul himself was much more realistic in his advice than the current church advice. He simply wrote to Timothy “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.” and then went on to talk about the qualifications for this post. I know that an inescapable sense of God’s calling is part of the process for some people, but where I have problems is when the people trying to discern who gets through the system give this individual sense of calling too great an importance. I have two main reasons for this:
        Firstly because it’s too easy for an earnest individual to be mistaken but persuasive.
        Secondly because of the message it sends out that a personal feeling of being called is the main qualification for doing a job…hence the problem discussed in the article.

        I’m no theologian so do please correct me. Sorry for the delay in replying….I’ve been mulling it over and have also been rather busy with other things.

  10. When faced with the question of people wanting to train for ministry (United Reformed Church in UK), I found myself thinking in terms of:-

    Call – is this an authentic ‘call’ from the Lord? That’s part of the shared discernment process, according to the denomination’s setup. Of course, we may get it wrong, but the fundamental concept is crucial. If God is calling, then we should be co-operating by helping the person obey the call.

    Charism – is there an anointing from the Lord for fulfilling this call? This sits snugly alongside call, since God empowers people to fulfill the calling that He has placed on them, and evidence of anointing can help with correctly discerning a call. But it also remains an ongoing need: I cannot accomplish my calling in my own strength alone.

    Character – is there evidence of the Spirit growing Christ-likeness in this person? This is not making perfection a prerequisite(!), but it does recognise the need for a Gospel-commending, respect-commanding integrity. The Pastoral epistles emphasise the need for this quality among leaders. This is an area where growth can take place. I cannot cause someone to be called or anointed, but I *can* nurture maturity in discipleship. If character flaws make it unwise for someone to pursue a genuine call at one stage, then part of my own leadership responsibility is to help character develop so that it is no-longer an impediment.

    Competence – as the article suggests, a person needs to be competent enough to perform the role (which is why I do not lead singing in worship, for instance!). In many respects competence can be taught, and the training process for clergy is part of developing this competence. in other spheres of service within the church it is our responsibility to help find ways of developing the person’s competence (if necessary) so that they can pursue the call. Some of that development can take place on-the-job, depending on the actual role (eg: there’s not much joy in someone *learning* to play piano by playing for worship, though certainly a pianist could continue developing their skills beyond a basic level of competence!)

    It seems that what is deemed to be an acceptable level of competence will vary between roles, local needs and circumstances. Sometimes “it’s the best we have available, and it’s better than nothing” has to be a working rubric.

    We have a Trinity School of Music piano teacher – the most highly qualified among our pianists. but actually the least suited to playing for worship. Another has grade 6 piano skills, and is able to play sensitively and helpfully for the congregation to worship. The third has no qualifications that I am aware of, but does have sufficient skills to play very well, and is certainly the most obviously anointed for leading worship with an alertness to the congregation and to what the Spirit may be doing among us. All are competent – but the kind of competence required is not always simply a matter of the best “qualified”.


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