When I was a senior in high school, my church’s youth group was asked to lead an evening service for the annual Youth Sunday celebration. The adult in charge of our group recruited volunteers to be ushers, song leaders, and Scripture readers. But when he came to the role of preacher, everyone looked to me, even though we belonged to a small church that didn’t allow women pastors. I’d been mentored as a leader in the group and had been growing in my knowledge of the Word. Not one to shrink back from a challenge, I accepted the role and began preparing my lesson.
The evening went as well as we had hoped. But before I could make it into the fellowship hall for punch and cookies, one of the elders—not by title but simply by age and experience—approached me. I’ll never forget seeing Alva Cash walk my way. I’d been warned that some members of the church might not be happy with me teaching, and I fully expected Mr. Cash to tell me that girls weren’t supposed to be in the pulpit. Instead, he shook my hand and said, “Young lady, you did a fine job.”
I fully expected Mr. Cash to tell me that girls weren’t supposed to be in the pulpit. Instead, he said, “Young lady, you did a fine job.”
Maybe I do have the gift of teaching, I thought, remembering how a Sunday school teacher had spoken that encouragement over me years earlier. Shortly after committing my life to Christ and being baptized at 13, I’d begun attending a congregation with my mom and brother and found myself in the high school class taught by Harry Durbin, a deacon in the church and the father of kids I went to school with. I don’t remember exactly how Harry led the discussions or what curriculum we used, but a few months after I started attending, he pulled me aside after class one Sunday.
“You know, I think you might have the gift of teaching,” he told me.
As a new Christian, I was confused. When did I receive the gift? How did he know I had it when I myself didn’t know? And how could I be a teacher if I was just a kid? True, I’d always wanted to be a teacher when I grew up, but I’d also wanted to be a meteorologist and an archaeologist and—more recently—a journalist. Did I have those gifts, too? Harry explained that spiritual gifts were particular skills and talents given by the Spirit for the church. He told me that after observing me in class, he saw evidence of this gift God had given me. I didn’t fully understand, but I did hold on to the encouragement. Like Paul’s investment in Timothy, Harry helped me “fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Timothy 1:6 NIV).
After I graduated high school and enrolled in a Christian college, I learned more about the gifts of the Spirit, how they are sometimes referred to as grace gifts (Rom. 12:6) and how they have equal value though some are more visible (1 Cor. 12:14-26). I found that most people don’t have a Harry in their life to help them figure out what their gifts are. Instead, they believe they have none, or they take spiritual gifts inventories and personality tests to try to determine the Spirit’s gifting. I wondered myself whether teaching was really a spiritual gift or just something I enjoyed, maybe a natural-born talent. Over and over, I’d take the quizzes just to be sure I wasn’t missing something. But while the tools I was using often did confirm my gift, I became convinced when, time after time, someone from a church I was attending—often a pastor or Bible study leader—would confirm it, too.
Over the years, I’ve changed churches a few times as I’ve moved to different cities for work or family reasons. And in each case, the question would arise: So how will I let them know what I can do? Some spiritual gifts are easier to “transfer” in such situations. Those who feel gifted to work with children are usually quickly plugged into a new role, as are those who feel gifted in what is sometimes called “helps” or behind-the-scenes work. They can easily find opportunities for setting up chairs or bringing food to those who are sick. So I’d get involved in all the ways I could: stuffing envelopes, changing diapers, and making meals.
While I valued those jobs and knew they needed to be done, I felt I was operating outside of my spiritual giftedness. The problem is that though churches need godly teachers as much as they need people to help in the nursery, they’re not often quick to appoint someone new, or at least unknown to the leaders, for roles like these. And it makes sense. Teaching comes with more responsibility (James 3:1) and authority (1 Timothy 2:12). The Bible sets the qualifications high for teachers, taking into account not only gifting but also spiritual maturity and impeccable character. I couldn’t just volunteer to be in a role that held such weight. It would be like volunteering to be the manager of a company on my first day at work.
Once, I took a job in a new city and began attending a new church. I really liked the pastor and all the people I’d met, and I was ready to dive in after attending for four or five weeks. I had such fond memories of being in youth group myself and had loved working with middle school students when I was in college, so I arranged to meet with the youth pastor and offered to help with the church’s teenagers. He told me they didn’t really have any openings and suggested I get involved in the women’s ministry or singles group. I thought it was odd that they didn’t need more volunteers, but I took him at his word.
Later, after I’d been at the church for a while, the youth pastor approached me. “You know, we could really use your help in the youth ministry,” he said. I was thrilled to be asked, and before long, I was even team teaching a Sunday school series for the teen girls as he taught the boys. When I asked him what had changed, he said the church took teaching very seriously, and until they’d had a chance to get to know me and discern whether or not I had the gift of teaching, they weren’t going to just dump me into the role. It was a perspective I came to value.
Over the past couple of years, my husband and I began attending a church about 35 minutes from our home. This time, I knew better than to try to jump into a position in a place where I was mostly unknown. Instead, I just started participating in Bible studies, serving where I could, and getting to know people. Once again, a leader pulled me aside.
“Have you ever thought about teaching?”
“Funny you should ask.”
Not only have church leaders identified my gifts and encouraged me to use them, but they’ve also helped me develop and grow. One pastor led an “incubator” group for men who felt called to the ministry. It was called “Faithful Men,” yet because that same pastor also identified and wanted to help me develop my gift of teaching, he let me be the only female member. It wasn’t because he thought I’d go on to be a pastor; he just saw that there weren’t other opportunities for me at that time.
I wonder whether I would have understood or used my spiritual gifts as much over the years if I hadn’t had the continued encouragement of the church—if godly men and women hadn’t encouraged me to “fan into flame the gift of God.” What if Harry Durbin or Alva Cash hadn’t taken notice of this new believer all those years ago? What if that youth pastor had kept his “no” a “no” and not bothered to discern whether the Spirit really had gifted me? What if the leader of “Faithful Men” hadn’t taken the risk to invite a woman into the group? And what if that Bible study leader hadn’t pulled me aside just last year to tell me she saw God at work in me? Maybe more importantly, what gifts in others are going unused and maybe even unidentified because I’m not doing the same for them?
I’m thankful for the older believers and church leaders who’ve mentored me, taught me how to study the Bible and memorize Scripture, prayed for me, allowed me to write Bible study curriculum, or invited me to speak in front of the congregation. Though I’ve read and studied on my own to improve my skills as a teacher, my gift—given for the common good of the church—has been developed by the church. As it should be.
Illustrations by Michael Kirkham