What Makes YOUR Church’s Heart Sing?

by Rev. Shana Johnson
Conference Minister of the Illinois South Conference of the United Church of Christ

Growing up, I was envious of the gifts and talents of my siblings.  My older brother, Todd, was the typical first-born child.  Not only was he a math and science whiz, he was driven; ambitious and with a keen business sense. One family story, which typified my brother’s early entrepreneur and business spirit, was how in grade school he was able to make quite a bit of pocket money by selling his milk at lunchtime.  Being allergic to dairy, he had no use for the milk which was a part of the hot lunch, so he decided to sell his milk every day to the highest bidder.

My older sister, Stacey, was incredibly gifted in another way.  She tested at a genius level in all subjects, but her talents were most notable as a gifted writer, artist, and creative spirit.  Since she was only two and half years older than me, whereas my brother is four and half years older than me, the teachers in school remembered having her in their classrooms.  At the beginning of a new school year when a teacher made the connection that I was Stacey’s sister, they often expressed their excitement and anticipation of having me in class.  Specifically, they told me they were looking forward to reading my creative writing.  This expectation made my heart sink as I did not feel I was as gifted of a writer as her and, at the time, I really did not enjoy writing at all.

If I am being honest (as this is my sincere intention in sharing this story with you), I spent too many years being envious of the gifts and talents that my sister had.  I compared myself to her, always coming up short because I was not able to clearly see my own God-given giftedness.  Yet, one specific fight with my sister and the conversation that ensued afterwards changed all of that.  We were in high school.  I was freshman and she was a senior.  Although we did not have any classes together, we were in band together.  I don’t remember the details of our fight, but I vaguely remember it had something to do with band.

What I do remember, as clearly as if it just happened this morning, was the conversation we had as she tried to make sense of where my frustration and hurt was stemming.  I sheepishly told her how difficult it was to be in the shadow of my “talented” older sister. I expressed the fear and shame I often felt when I believed I could not measure up to her or others’ expectations of me.  I then admitted the awful secret I had been harboring for so long.  I was so jealous of her.

I was not prepared for her response.  I am not sure what I was expecting her to say.  I just know I was not expecting her to say this, “Shana, are you kidding?  But I am so jealous of you!!  You are the truly gifted one, not me.” She went on to share with me how she was envious of how social interactions came so easily to me.  She explained that I could read social situations and people in a way that she was afraid she never would.  She told me how she marveled at how easily I made friends and intuitively cared for everyone around me.  She confessed how she had carried the secret shame of being jealous of me, especially because people often thought I was the older sister because of the way I handled details and how I carried myself.

My sister and I ended up talking for hours reflecting upon the gifts, talents, and uniqueness of the other.  We made a pact never to be jealous of each other, but to seek always to encourage each other, build each other up and remind each other of God-created uniqueness.

I can honestly say that conversation was a turning point for me.  From that moment on, whenever I would become envious of someone else, I would stop, give thanks for their gifts, and then remind myself of my own.  I am now a firm believer in playing to one’s strengths instead of focusing on one’s weaknesses because I am confident that we are given certain gifts, talents, and abilities for a reason—to serve God in a way someone else might not be able to do.  In my household, it was not uncommon for my own girls to hear me talk about the importance of not comparing one’s self to others.  In fact, my girls have a phrase that they still repeat to this day (because I said it so much when they were growing up), “Don’t compare and despair. Instead, look for and remember who God has created you to be.”

“Don’t compare and despair.”  It’s a mantra that I wish local churches would repeat as well.  Too often I hear and experience churches bemoaning the ways they are not like other churches.  They spend far too much time and energy focusing on the gifts they do not have instead of focusing on what they do have.  I believe comparing and despairing zaps the creativity, passion, and Spirit-driven passion right out of our churches.  Without creativity, passion, and Spirit-driven passion, churches struggle to grow spiritually.

The marketing of church growth techniques that are often suggested to churches do no favors in getting them beyond “compare and despair” mentality. These marketing suggestions list all the “steps” to be a “successful” church statistically.  However, statistics are the last thing most people are looking for in a church.

What people want above all things is an authentic relationship with other believers who are also striving to faithfully live out their faith while struggling with real life problems. They also want a place where they are invited to seek an authentic relationship with God regardless of their questions and doubts.  When a church can help people make real, meaningful connections that deepen their relationships with God and with others, there is aliveness and, dare we say, a new song of beauty and joy that rises.

This year’s theme, “What makes your church’s heart sing?”, came from a sincere hope to empower our churches to name and claim their own uniqueness as individual faith communities.  We hope to encourage our local church leaders and members to consider how you can use the gifts God HAS blessed you with to do ultimately what we have been called to do as the Church of Jesus Christ—to carry on the work and ministry of Jesus Christ.

During our time together at Annual Meeting, you will hear the stories of three churches that have discovered and declared their own giftedness.  Because they chose to focus on THEIR gifts, talents and opportunities they do possess, they are singing a new song.  It is a song of transformation, purpose, and passion. These are just a few of the incredible stories of the Illinois South Conference.  In fact, we hope you will be inspired to share your own stories as you consider “What makes your church’s heart sing?”.