20 Lessons/20 Years: Lesson #19: Character Trumps Gifting, Every Time

Would you rather work with someone super-gifted or someone truly trustworthy?

If you had to choose between a leader with skills or a leader with integrity, how long would you have to think about it?

We all know the answer because strength of character trumps skills and gifting, every time. That’s Lesson #19 of my 20 ministry lessons.

Vintage One Man Band More than 20 years ago, as I was finishing up an internship, a mentor spoke this truth into my life: “Tom, you’ve got lots of gifts, and as a young minister, many people will see your skills and gifts and assume depth of character. Don’t be fooled by that–place the growth of your character over the honing of your gifts, because in the end, it’ll be your character that truly matters.”

That’s the truth, folks. And those words stuck with me.

Because it is easy to see gifts and assume maturity. We do it all the time. When you serve others according to your gifts, especially if those involve worship leading, Bible teaching, and pastoral care, it is SO easy for people to think you are spiritually deeper than you really are. Either we, like the Corinthian Christians, assume spiritual gifts are related to spiritual maturity (they aren’t), or we just never drive deeper than what’s being presented publicly.

SupermanWhat my mentor helped me see is this: it’s deceptively easy to equate the kind things people say regarding my public ministry with the depth of my personal, spiritual growth. Not only would that assumption hurt me, it would eventually hurt my ministry, too. Rather, I must make the development of my character a priority focus. No one else would do that for me; they may even inadvertently help me overlook its importance.

Prioritizing character doesn’t downplay the importance of honing our skills or developing our gifts. Many of you know the frustration of working with someone who refuses to develop more skills or acknowledge weaknesses. The responsibility to grow in gifts is a given–we need to be getting better as leaders or givers or preachers or helpers if we are to truly help the body of Christ mature (see Romans 12:3-8). But make no mistake: We don’t do that at the expense of our relationship with God or the strengthening of our character. In the end, it’ll be depth of our character that holds us true, not the heightened power of our gifts.

So how do we make sure we aren’t blinded by ministry skills? Here are 6 ways to ensure our character growth outpaces our gift development.

  1. Find good mentors, be they dead or alive. Let them challenge you.
  2. Spend more energy on personal growth than skill development. Get practical about this–make a concrete plan, complete with dates.
  3. Deal with heart issues as soon as they are revealed. Don’t dodge them because no one else sees what you see (yet).
  4. Get trusted truth-tellers to help you identify your blind spots. The more you grow in gifting, the more difficult these truth-tellers are to find.
  5. Rigorously grow in self-awareness. Does it sound like I’m repeating myself? The more I lead, the more I’m convinced that self-awareness holds the key to a vibrant relationship with God in the context of sustainable ministry.
  6. Develop spiritual habits that create space for God to speak. Examples include solitude, silence, fasting, journaling and retreats, but there are many more. Find what works best for you. Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook are two very helpful resources.

Let me ask you two questions for reflection. Feel free to comment below.

  • When you consider the leaders who’ve fizzled out or harmed the church, has their failure been a character issue or a gifting issue?
  • What is your plan for expending more energy on the hidden things that matter most?

Spiritual Gifts Don't Ensure Spiritual Maturity

Only one more lesson to go. Here’s the first 18 ministry lessons I’ve posted through the month of May, reflecting on my first 20 years of vocational ministry.


5 thoughts on “20 Lessons/20 Years: Lesson #19: Character Trumps Gifting, Every Time”

  1. To have a ‘gift’ is to be empowered,enabled and led by the Holy Spirit in serving the church. Wouldn’t your strength of character, maturity, and ability all grow together as you grow in our faith?

    1. Great question: I hope they would grow together, but what I’ve seen is that a person who has natural gifting is often put into greater ministry roles and asked to assume more spiritual leadership than they may be ready for, without anyone walking alongside them to help them attend to the hidden and unseen areas of their spiritual lives. As we see in the Corinthian church, a church can be very active in the use of spiritual gifts and yet very divided and unloving toward each other. Paul doesn’t deny the importance or use of the spiritual gifts, but goes after their lack of maturity and their lack of love for each other. It seem like it’s possible to have gifts and ignore spiritual and personal growth. What do you think? Have you seen that?

      1. Definitely. It has seemed like the disconnect caused the gift to become distorted and legalistic. Not a good place to go. Lots of food for thought. : )

        1. That’s for sure! And especially as we consider how we mentor young people. I know that advice, received when I was younger, was very formative and helpful for me.

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