Are You Just Filling Slots?

The shift to activating people's gifts

July 25, 2018

Are You Just Filling Slots?

My guess is that every leader knows what that somewhat cryptic question means when it comes to mobilizing people.

Are you taking the time to identify, develop and activate the gifts of the people in your church where they can pursue their passions and God-given calling (even if it’s outside church walls)? Or are you basically filling a need in your church with a warm body that has stepped up to volunteer?

A Shift in Blessing

That’s the difference that leads to gift activating—the fourth essential practice in hero making.

It’s what happens when we shift from asking God to bless the use of our own gifts and learn to ask God to bless the gifts of the leaders we’re mobilizing.  So instead of simply filling slots, we pray for and help others develop their gifts—and then we commission them to be 24/7 missionaries where they work, live and play.

Essentially, we look for opportunities to activate people’s unique sweet spot of personal calling and move from mobilizing people with an “I can do it, you can help” motive to a “you can do it, how can I help” open-handed posture. Bottom line: we rethink and change our definition of success from people being recruited to fill our volunteer slots to people being mobilized on their unique gifting and calling for God’s purposes and impact.

Instead of celebrating the number of people who cooperate with your call for their service, you begin to see and celebrate the number of people who discover and engage God’s unique calling for their lives—wherever that takes them.

And if you think about it in terms of heroes and hero makers, there are a couple critical distinctions:

  1. Heroes attract and accumulate to support their pursuit and mission of building larger organizations. Hero makers release and deploy people to support taking Kingdom impact into more corners of society.
  2. Heroes see people as volunteer assets with a supporting role to play. Hero makers see people as missionaries with a unique mission field to engage.

Two Parts of Gift Activating

Throughout the gospels, specifically in Matthew 28, we learn about the call Jesus gave all of us who follow Him—to be disciples, who make disciples, to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28). In my research about calling, I discovered that historians call this our “general calling.” It applies to all Christians, everywhere, throughout all time.

We also have a unique personal calling, which gives each of us a unique role and purpose in God’s general disciple-making calling.  The cool thing is that Jesus and the Holy Spirt apportion our unique gifts to us. Our role, then, is to discover and embrace the gifts they’ve already instilled in us as part of our unique DNA.

As we discover and steward our unique gifts and calling, Scripture tells us that the family of believers we call our local church are then called to affirm and activate those gifts.

Our best example may be the early church at Antioch. In Acts 13:1-3, we read:

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So, after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. 

We get a glimpse into gift activating in these three short verses. We see an inward discernment of calling that happens between God and these individuals (“the work to which I have called them”); and an outward affirmation of calling that’s affirmed by the Holy Spirit and happens corporately.

The Inward Discernment of Calling

In my book, More: Find Your Personal Calling and Live Life to the Fullest Measure, I highlight three elements of all sweet spots that are found in nature. We also have a sweet spot of personal calling. These elements include a design, a purpose, and a position: Who am I created to BE?  What am I made to DO? Where am I to GO?

The discernment of our unique personal calling is about discovering our unique integration of these BE-DO-GO questions. Some specific examples:

  • Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus (BE), who plants the gospel message (and churches) (DO), among the Gentiles (GO).
  • Billy Graham, an evangelist of Christ Jesus (BE), calling people to repentance (DO), in large stadiums in strategic cities (GO).
  • Mother Theresa, a shepherd of Christ Jesus (BE), caring for downcast and needy people (DO), in poverty-stricken areas (GO).
  • Martin Luther King, a prophet of Christ Jesus (BE), calling for racial equality and reconciliation (DO), in the United States (GO).

Our human nature is to want clarity on all three elements before acting. For two full years, I wrestled with God, begging for clarity about my vocation and profession. I had pretty good clarity on my BE but kept getting stuck on the DO. In hindsight, I realize that God wanted my full surrender and willingness to GO as a prerequisite to eventually giving me clarity on the DO.

What if your top stewardship role is to activate the gifts of people to GO so that they can more fully discover and engage their unique sweet spot of calling?  What if the biggest barrier to mobilizing an army of everyday missionaries to unique mission fields in every crack and corner of society is us?

It’s a difficult question. But it’s one we need to honestly and urgently ask.

As church leaders, when we seek to define the GO for other people in an attempt to fill slots and advance our priorities, we potentially become a barrier standing in the way of them living the life God meant for them.

The outcome of these missteps makes ripples throughout eternity. To hear the words “Well done good and faithful steward,” we must see the unique gifts of the people we lead as precious resources ordained by God.

The Outward Affirmation of Calling

Going back to Acts 13, we see great wisdom from the example of Paul and Barnabas being set apart and sent from the church in Antioch. There are no prescriptive criteria, but in these three verses, we do see five noteworthy characteristics at work:

  1. “In the church”– The spiritual authority for setting apart, activating, and sending leaders was found within the local church. The local body in Antioch did not need to get permission from Jerusalem, or some external governing body. The local leaders, in the local church, had the authority to affirm and send.
  2. Guidance of the Holy Spirit – The local body took seriously the importance of “setting apart” leaders and activating their gifts. Those in spiritual authority sought the guidance, wisdom, and leading of the Holy Spirit.
  3. Affirmation of calling– Paul and Barnabas had discerned their calling from the Lord. The local church in Antioch then affirmed that calling by publicly setting them apart.
  4. Prayer and fasting– We know the importance of prayer and fasting, but how often do we just give it lip service. My close friend Bobby Harrington and co-founder of is a student of disciple-making movements. In nearly every planning meeting we have for future initiatives, Bobby reminds us of the vital and critical practice of prayer and fasting as a foundation for gift activation.
  5. Laying on of hands– While this is often a sign of imparting the Holy Spirit, this context in Antioch is like a visible, public sign of commissioning and sending. A celebration of sorts.

Five Important Reasons for Gift Activating and Public Commissioning

Let’s role play for a minute.

Imagine being in the church in Antioch, but you don’t have the benefit of knowing the outcome of Paul’s and Barnabas’ missionary journey.

You are part of the team praying and fasting for Paul and Barnabas. You see the process of the local leaders seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and then you see their prayers answered. You attend the public commissioning where the entire assembly lays on hands, gives them words of encouragement, cries with them (they knew they would likely not see them again this side of Heaven), and sends them off with hugs of affirmation.

You know that you’re part of something bigger than yourself. You anticipate hearing amazing stories upon their return (hopefully) or in Paradise. Down deep you know they are doing something really significant, and you feel blessed to play a small role in their story. You even find yourself wondering if there is a similar adventure for you!

Now, put yourself in the shoes of Paul and Barnabas. You ARE NOT heading out on a cushy, all-expenses paid vacation to a sunny Caribbean getaway. You know the journey has no certainty of return and may likely be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done.

You’re not sure where you’re going, when (or whether) you will return, what will happen to you, and how you will fund your journey. Persecution is likely.

But, you have a clear calling and a spiritual affirmation of your local church family. How important is the affirmation of your sending church? How critical are their prayers and public words of encouragement?

The experience was one Paul and Barnabas would cherish throughout their journey. It would be life-sustaining.

Using what I have come to see as an extremely moving and powerful story in Scripture, we can identify at least five key benefits of a public commissioning or “setting apart” for gift activating. They are benefits we can experience in our local churches.

  1. Affirmation of calling– Imagine growing up and never hearing your parents affirm what you’re good at (I realize this may be reality for many). A single sentence of affirmation can change the trajectory of a person’s life. The church has the ability to play a special role that no one else can play in activating the gifts of its members.
  2. Blessing and permission to GO– My mentor Bob Buford often said, “Everyone needs permission and encouragement to be who God made them to be.” In our zeal to put people into slots to grow our local thing, we can unintentionally stifle the GO. People need to receive our blessing and permission to GO.
  3. Encouragement for the journey– Living out our calling, especially when it’s in the unfriendly cracks and crannies of society beyond the safe walls of the church, requires encouragement. When we celebrate major milestones in life, we are thanking God for what He has done in the past while simultaneously drawing encouragement for the road ahead.
  4. Unifying a home base of support– When we see our mission field as the cracks and crannies beyond the safe walls of the church, a home base of support is vital (just like it was for Paul and Barnabas). We need the prayers and ongoing encouragement of others. We need to know we are not alone on our journey.
  5. Inspire and challenge others to GO – Gift activating is contagious. When people see others taking great steps of faith and surrender for God, they are also drawn into the story. They begin to see their own story as part of the narrative of God’s bigger story. Our public commissioning efforts are uniquely positioned to inspire and draw others into the journey.

Making It Personal

Ask yourself and then your team these critical questions as you think about what it means to be a gift activator and purpose to do it in your context.

  • How does our approach to “setting apart” and activating gifts differ from the church at Antioch? How is it similar?
  • What are the potential benefits of more intentionally and publicly commissioning people for ministry in our unique context and culture?
  • What obstacles and barriers would we run into (or are running into)?
  • What steps or decisions could I/we make today that would elevate the importance of gift activating within our church?

Gift Activating is essential to becoming a Hero Maker—our Exponential 2018 theme. We still have 6 more Hero Maker live events in Washington D.C., Southern California, Northern California, Houston, Chicago, and New York City. We’ve designed these events to make it easy and affordable to bring your team. We have special rates for groups of 5 or 10 to make it easy for you to experience these Exponential events as a team. Click here to learn more.

Todd Wilson

Todd Wilson

Todd is a Kingdom entrepreneur. He spends the majority of his time starting and working with organizations committed to Kingdom impact and multiplication. Todd is a founding member of Exponential, which organizes and hosts the annual Exponential conference in Orlando and live events throughout the United States and world. Todd serves as President and CEO of Exponential, providing vision and strategic direction to the organization. Todd lives in Durham, NC, with his wife, Anna. They have two sons and two daughters-in-law: Ben & Therese and Chris & Mariah, and an amazing grandson Evan.
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