By T.R. Robertson
Spiritual gifts aren’t always predictable. They don’t necessarily show up on a survey of interests and tendencies. Sometimes they’re best seen in the weaknesses or temptations that often accompany them.
I met Jane in prison, where she is serving a life sentence. Her lifestyle of self-absorption had led her on a downward spiral of unspeakable cruelty and violence. In prison, she was led to Christ. Soon she developed the Spirit-driven gift of encouraging other people, much to the surprise of people who knew her before.
What surprised her, though, was the unexpected flip side that came with the unexpected spiritual gift. She kept sinking into codependent behaviors that pulled her deeply into the messy lives of others.
What Jane experienced is not uncommon. Along with every spiritual gift/talent comes a corresponding flip side—a susceptibility to specific temptations related to that gift. Psychologists and business theorists call it a “derailer” or a “dark side” to positive traits and skills.
For church leaders who hope to identify and develop the spiritual gifts of church members, an awareness of the potential derailers of those gifts is essential for productive recruiting and training.
Derailed Gifts in Scripture
The Scriptures never speak directly about derailers, but the biblical narrative provides several examples.
Peter’s boldness helped him lead the disciples and then the church, but that boldness sometimes became bravado, an impetuous streak that pushed him to speak too quickly.
Paul appears to have a God-given ability for taking “captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5, 6). His ability to integrate the Old Testament with the teachings of Jesus was integral to establishing and defending sound doctrine for Christianity.
His rigorous approach to taking every thought captive carried with it a tendency toward being exacting in his expectations of fellow believers. It gave him the confidence to challenge Peter for his hypocrisy among the Judaizers (Galatians 2).
But confidence always carries with it the possibility of arrogance. The disagreement between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15 may have been complicated by the gap between John Mark’s hesitations and Paul’s certainty. Barnabas, gifted as an encourager, may have struggled with the associated derailer of codependency. If he was overinvested in John Mark, despite his weakness, that could have set up a conflict with an overly critical response by Paul.
The New Testament lists of spiritual gifts include attributes that are elsewhere paired with put-off/put-on characteristics that provide clues to potential derailers.
The gifts of leadership and administration can be derailed by a tendency of “lording it over . . . the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). By the same token, some who are blessed with the gift of serving can be derailed when they become overly possessive of their small area of service.
Gifted teachers often experience great joy through their devotion to the art and craft of teaching. That same “teacher’s high” can lead to emphasizing craft over content, watering down the truth.
The gift of mercy has a tendency to draw attention and admiration from people who hesitate to get their own hands messy. Such praise can promote pride, threatening to turn a merciful ministry into a condescending and attention-
Derailed Talent in the Workplace
Psychologists studying the personalities of failed leaders discovered the common appearance of a “dark side” to their dominant personality traits. Researchers have developed detailed models of commonly occurring derailers.
Many corporations now conduct personality assessments during the hiring and promoting process. The goal is not only to screen out high-risk candidates, but also equip current employees to be aware of their own potential derailers as they progress along a leadership track.
The consequences of failing to identify and manage potential derailers can be catastrophic.
A widely publicized case of derailed talent took place last year at the University of Missouri.
The curators of the university, hoping to move the institution toward a more modern business model, publicly stated their intent to seek candidates with experience in cutting-edge technology industries. Their hope was to find leaders with the sort of talents required to lead the university from a stodgy academic culture toward a fiscally sleek and dynamically innovative model.
Tim Wolfe, a man whose career history was devoid of academic experience, was hired as president. On the surface, his tenure seemed to work out well. His coolheaded prudence and vigilant eye for the bottom line seemed to be achieving the curators’ goals.
That cool, all-business demeanor, though, often came across as aloofness, one of the common derailers for a man of his talent set. His inability to build consensus among the administrators, faculty, and staff—all steeped in the academic atmosphere—gradually eroded his ability to lead. Finally, in the fall of 2015, his lack of attention to the real-world turmoil simmering among students on campus led to his downfall.
A group of students were leading a protest against what they described as institutional racism at the university. During the annual homecoming parade in October, student protesters occupied the street, blocking the parade’s progress, directly in front of the car carrying the university president.
Wolfe chose to respond to that moment by studiously ignoring it. He refused to engage with the protesters at all. He sat raised up on the back of a convertible and waited for someone to clear the way.
His lack of response lit a fire under the protest, setting the protesters and Wolfe on a collision course that would lead to his forced resignation a few weeks later. A statement he made a few days prior to his resignation displays just how much his talent derailers had undermined him.
“My apology is long overdue. My behavior seemed like I did not care. That was not my intention. I was caught off guard in that moment.”
Wolfe’s gifts and talents prepared him for dealing with businesspeople, men and women who abided by the unwritten rules for effecting change in a business climate. Those same talents undermined his ability to effectively interact with the unpredictability of college students, the constituency at the core of the university. Because of his derailers, he was “caught off guard” by the students’ more direct approach to effective change, a situation that should have been second nature to him after three and a half years on the job.
Derailed Gifts in the Church
A similar dynamic has been playing out in the lives of some well-known church planters.
Current church growth theory suggests a different set of gifts is required for church planters, as opposed to church developers and sustainers. Church planters are described as entrepreneurial—men who are able to command enthusiasm and loyalty from their team, with an emphasis on the ability to raise money.
Developers and sustainers are portrayed as collegial—men who excel at nurturing relationships within the body and challenging the members to be active and missional.
Those are oversimplifications, of course, but they are not far from the generally accepted understanding of the gifts required for those tasks.
The problem arises when the “alpha male” church planter becomes derailed by the dark side of his spiritual gifts. The natural derailer for confidence is arrogance, for charisma it’s melodrama, and the gift of being energetic can spiral toward volatility. None of those will be beneficial for the health of a church in the long run.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that a number of megachurch planters have had to be reined back, even removed from their positions, because they’ve drifted into an overbearing and egomaniacal approach to their ministry.
Even in the smallest of churches or ministries, the dark side of the spiritual gifts among both paid and volunteer workers can be a destructive force. It’s likely every person who has been in the ministry for long has experienced the difficulty of dealing with derailed gifts.
Several workforce management businesses, including the Center for Creative Leadership and the Hogan Assessment Systems, have resources available for assessing and educating candidates and staff. The cost and complexity of such intensive programs may be overkill for some churches and ministries.
For many congregations, the last thing they need is yet another spiritual gift assessment quiz based more on psychology and business than on the Scriptures.
The websites of those companies, however, provide detail and resources for understanding the dynamic of derailers, including lists of talent areas and their associated derailers. Those free resources may be sufficient to educate many church leaders about the need, with enough detail to help them develop their own approach.
A biblical approach to addressing potential derailers might begin with the recognition that developing the fruit of the Spirit is essential to keeping the gifts of the Spirit on track.
People with spiritual gifts of leadership, guided by the spiritual fruit of love, will be much more likely to follow Jesus’ example rather than straying toward domineering attitudes. The spiritual fruit of joy can keep the gift of giving from turning into a mere financial transaction.
Spiritually gifted confidence can turn into arrogance unless it’s guided by the spiritual fruit of meekness. Peter’s boldness and energy required the fruit of self-control to avoid exploding with volatility. Paul’s gift expressed itself in exacting standards for the church, but the fruit of kindness and longsuffering patience balanced him out on most occasions.
I know of many people whose spiritual gifts of mercy and compassion put them into close contact with people whose lifestyles and philosophies are far from traditional biblical values. They rely on the spiritual fruit of faithfulness and goodness to keep from being seduced by ungodliness.
Understanding the dynamic of derailers can also help church leaders guide their people to discover and develop their spiritual gifts.
The traditional approach is to quiz the congregation about their passions, aptitudes, and interests. An alternative approach would be to survey them about their greatest weaknesses. What are the “dark side” attitudes and behaviors that most easily cause them to stumble? Flipping the derailer dynamic on its head and discovering the “light side” of those troublesome areas can lead to discovery of spiritual gifts waiting to be nurtured.
It’s fascinating to read the Gospel accounts and follow Jesus’ interactions with Peter as a three-year process of turning his obvious derailers into a gift for leadership. Imitating Jesus’ approach just might be the key to unlocking the door to what the Spirit wants to do through the people of the 21st century church.
T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer and a supply chain analyst at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
Help for Managing the Derailers
Center for Creative Leadership, www.ccl.org/Leadership/index.aspx
Hogan Assessment Systems, www.hoganassessments.com