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The Allure of Structure

The Dangers of Ministering in Gift Isolation or the Gift Liability Mode

By Dr. Steve Hoke 

Consider this disturbing scenario:  Lynn, a 50-year old single woman, working in her third language, hits the wall in the final stages of her doctoral dissertation and appears unable to complete the synthesis of her research and write it up by her completion deadline. Without the degree it is doubtful she will be granted a visa to return to her field of ministry.  Nine years down the tubes. The problem is that no one in her mission organization realizes she has stalemated and no one has stepped up to help her.   

The original team in which Paul and Sue arrived to minister in theological education disintegrates around them.  The team leader return to the States.  The couple finds themselves alone, isolated in a small city of a huge nation in turmoil, with a child with significant learning disabilities.  They are young and inexperienced, and what they came to do is no longer an option.  Their organization does little to assist them in reforming a team, or to help them find a suitable locale to which to relocate. Six years later they keep busy experimenting with new venues of ministry, none of them in their spiritual sweet spot.  

Dan and Laura, a veteran couple with over 25 years in Asia are allowed to relocate Stateside to work in the home office, but never helped to sculpt a meaningful role aligned to their rich experience, maturation, wisdom and discernment. They soon find meaningful ministry doing itinerant teaching globally with another organization, while still members of their original agency, and assisting in stateside mission networks wherever they can.  

Craig and Barb, a veteran couple with significant residual family-of-origin and field conflict issues who ministered 25 years in Latin America, return to the States, and receive little proactive assistance or intervention of any kind from their organization.  They are allowed to resettle across the country from the home office, and permitted to launch a new ministry back in Latin America partially funded by the organization.  One of the spouses pleads with the organization for assistance, but the regional leader fails to take action for over two years.   

The two common threads in each of these real-life scenarios (names and locales have been changed to protect confidentiality) is that first, the missionary was ministering in their gifts but in isolation from a healthy Body Life teamand second, the team members or team leaders, wherever they were, ministered out of their “gift liabilities” rather than their gifted strength.  The result? God’s sheep are wounded, harvest ministry was thwarted, and ministry momentum halted.   

We’ve all witnessed similar personnel mishaps.  The focus in this article is not the apparent neglect or abuse by the mission organization.  But rather, to suggest some interpretive keys for Grip-Birkman coaches and trainers for understanding situations where the presenting problems may be a result of a person ministering in “gift isolation” or on the ragged fringes in their “gift liabilities.”  

Let’s define our terms:

Ministering in “gift isolation” refers to a situation when a person (a Christian anywhere in the world, not just a missionary) is ministering in their gifts, but in isolation from a healthy Body Life community or team. There is no apparent opportunity for someone with complementary gifts to come alongside and provide the needed gift ministry, insight or input. Gift isolation also occurs when someone ministering through their gift, but still in isolation from a team perspective, is so focused on the positive thrust of their gifting, that they fail to realize the rough edges of their perspective and approach to ministry.  They continue to offer what becomes potentially harmful assistance or advice because of the narrowness of their gift perception.   

Gift isolation occurs, for example, when a very positive and encouraging pastoral field supervisor fails to realize his need to draw on others in evaluating personnel situations, repeatedly misses glaring needs in the lives of his coachees, and is unable to make discerning decisions (i.e. “hard decisions” which draw boundaries, set limits, or say “NO”) in repeated supervisory and MemberCare cases 

The second term is related but distinct.  Ministering in one’s “gift liabilities” refers to the situation where a Christian begins to minister “in the flesh” (Rom 8:9,12; I Cor 13) in the area of their gifting (for a variety of reasons), without realizing the negative or harmful implications of how their ministry is being received by co-workers or the recipients of their ministry.  This is more than an evangelist being pushy in thinking everyone should be out witnessing, or the teacher who thinks that just a little more telling and preaching will solve everyone’s problems.   

Gift liabilities are played out when undiscerning team leaders make critical personnel and strategy decisions without consulting or involving gifted discerners or wise counselors. They inevitably make bad decisions—especially in complex cases of cross-cultural relationships and teamwork. When a missionary or team leaders is tired, hurt, wounded and stressed, yet attempts to minister to others, the impact can be described by the “gift liabilities” listed in the chart below.  Ministry not in the fullness of the Spirit is limited, partial, can be counterfeited by the enemy, and is too often mistaken and hurtful.   

These two dynamics are related when Christians in ministry operate in a virtual vacuum and with no supporting Body Life team around them.  The mistakes made in the two examples above are not a result of outright carnality or meanness.  But because grace trumped wisdom and discernment in the first, and because a critical spirit of judgment replaced the gentleness of a discerning spirit in the second.  The chart below, drawn from our Spiritual Gifts Characteristics and Liabilities chart, highlights the most frequently observed deficits in the arena of church and mission relationships.  

So how do we coach and train in situations where “gift isolation” or “gift liabilities” may be in play?  Let me suggest several diagnostic keys in working with a person one-on-one, or in moving in to work with a team.   

Diagnosing “Gift Isolation:”   

  1. What is the situation and setting in which this person is ministering? You are attempting to get an honest and objective description of the coachees actual setting and whether they really are isolated from a full range of gifted co-workers and advisors. 
  2. What is the nature of the supervision and coaching they are receiving from their organization leader?  Is the supervision and care adequate, meaningful, sensitive, responsive to needs, and energized by the Spirit? You are seeking to clarify the actual dynamics in the ministry situation that are affecting your coachee adversely.
  3. In the presenting situation, is more than one person available for counsel and coaching the coachee (MemCare staff, other organizational leaders)or is there seem a perspective missing in the supervision being received?  You are attempting not to affix blame, but to accurately discern and diagnose to what extent being isolated from a fully-orbed and gifted team is affecting your coachee negatively.  That is, are they receiving balanced gifted help, or are they genuinely feeling the limitations of being helped by a person who does not have all the tools and gifts needed in this situation? 
  4. In what ways do they sense the advice, counsel or leadership they are receiving is off-center or not helpful?  You are going deeper into the problem definition phase of your assistance, trying to objectively clarify the specifics of what it is your coachee “senses” is wrong, missing, or mistaken. 
  5. Is the supervisor aware of their limitations and seeking the counsel and input of other leaders in times of vital decision making?  Probe with your coachee as to what questions the supervisor has asked that reveal an awareness of an unmet need. What other leaders in the organization might the coachee consult with to get another pair of eyes on their situation?  

As their coach, maintain your Body Life team perspective.  Just because their organization does not have a team in their locale, does not mean there may not be a Body Life team with which they affiliate to meet some of their needs. Jesus’ Body Life team is global, and not limited to organizational limitations of size and geography. There are always Body Life resources available, even if outside of their particular church or organization. Look around.  Be willing to ask for help from capable and gifted people wherever you can find them.   

Diagnosing “Gift Liabilities:”   

  1. What listed “gift liabilities” can be identified?  List them (or check them off on the “Gifts Liability” column of the chart), with specific examples to ground them in reality.  
  2. Is power, fruit and joy evident in the coachee as a result of the ministry received from the other person?  This is an alternate approach to identifying the fact that “something is missing.”  In this case, our Body Life criterion of gifted ministry.  Your coachee is not sensing Spirit-empowered ministry, but human interaction and intervention.   
  3. How can you pray that the person ministering in liability can move back into Spirit-empowered ministry?  
  4. Is there an underlying Need not being met that you may be able to help meet—at least partially—that may help the person move back into Spirit-empowered ministry?  
  5. How can you suggest that offer honest and sensitive feedback to their co-worker thet are not experiencing Holy Spirit-power, fruit and joy, but something else? Your role is to equip and release your coachee in taking some proactive steps themselves to address the “problem” that they uniquely see and are feeling.


  6. Who can you enlist to go with you to the person in liability, to give honest feedback about how their ministry is being perceived?  

Some Suggested Steps Forward: 

All is not lost!  

As a coach or trainer, we are typically not in a role to solve the problem quickly, but there may be several proactive steps we can offer to our coachee.  

First, take them to the story of Jesus with his disciples, who were whining about the size of the harvest and their limited resources (Matthew 9:37-38).  Read them this verse: “Pray the Lord of the harvest to thrust forth laborers into the harvest.”  Inadequate staffing is a shared problem.  When organizations do not have the right people in the right roles to steward their people appropriately, one problem is inadequate trust in and requesting of the Lord of the Universe to send the people they need. A lack of the right people is first and foremost a prayer problem! You are not trying to guilt the missionary, but to empower them to become part of the solution to pray for the people needed.  A second problem is under-staffing which the organization must own and address.  

Second, encourage your coachee to humbly but clearly let their underlying Needs (from the Birkman) be known, and ask for more focused assistance from their team, country or regional leaders.  Breaking “chain of command” is not the concern here.  Their emotional and spiritual health is the prior concern which they must be willing to articulate for themselves. Empower them to voice their heart-felt concerns.   

Third, encourage and empower your coachee to proactively seek the alternate advice, counsel and leadership input they need—from someone other than their current supervisor. In CRM we empower each staff to construct their own “Mentoring Cluster” of two or more peer or older and wiser mentors who can speak into their lives on a range of topics—from Spiritual Direction, life coaching, financial support, field strategy, or marriage and family issues.  Don’t expect one appointed team leader to provide all that they need.  Help them proactively identify what they need and who they might ask to serve in that capacity in their lives.   

Finally, equip them to bolster their Intercession Team so they can share the specific requests about life and ministry they have with a covenant cluster of people who know and love them and would be willing to enter into consistent, intentional prayer on their behalf.   

Our coachees in church and cross-cultural ministry settings are in danger when they receive ministry characterized by “gift isolation” or flow out of “gift liability” than Spirit power and grace.  Hopefully, these suggested diagnostic keys and steps forward may better equip you to spot what’s missing and respond with Spirit-empowered empathy, discernment and wisdom.  

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