Encouragement -- one of the most important but least appreciated acts of servanthood -- is the heart of the StrengthsFinder program recently initiated at Greenville College. Our article about Greenville College (see page FMC00) explains the StrengthsFinder program, but leaves one wondering: is there any application for it in the local church?
The initial motivation for colleges to explore strengths-based programs such as StrengthsFinder was to improve the retention of college students through all four years. Lots of attention is placed on attracting freshmen and helping them make it through their first year. But colleges are less successful in helping students successfully complete an entire four-year program.
In the past, retention efforts focused on providing remedial help for students in their areas of failure (what they can't do). But recently, educators have discovered something that more effectively encourages adn motivates -- helping students discover their strengths (what they can do). "Students are more likely to be motivated to achieve when their strengths are affirmed," argue E. Anderson adn W. McGuire (1997) in a book on student retention and success.
The point may seem so obvious that we laypeople might respond, "Well, duh!" But as obvious as the point may seem, often the local church has similar problems with focusing on failure and deficiency.
The StrengthsFinder program could easily walk across the street from the campus to the local church and provide a much needed, or much improved ministry of encouragement and discipleship for out people.
To be sure, many churches already are concerned with encouraging their people, and they employ "gift analysis" methods to help people discover their God-given abilities. But a strengths-based program may offer several benefits that surpass the commonly used "spiritual gift inventories."
Gift-analysis methods often result in identification of one or two gifts or abilities that a person "has." The goal is to help people "find their gifts." This can tend to lock people into a narrow self-perception that limits the scope of their answer, "What am I capable of doing?" It tends to produce the assumption, "If I don't have such-and-such a gift, then I cannot and should not try to function in any ministry that requires that gift."
In contrast, a strengths-based focus broadens the scope of the answer to the question, "What am I capable of doing?" The reason is because a person will not view himself so much on the basis of what he is already capable of doing (gift/ability) as on the basis of his potential for growth into new areas of ministry and service.
For example, let's say a person used the StrengthsFinder to discover that her five strengths are: Strategic, Learner, Deliberative, Connectedness and Relator. Imagine the difference this self-perception might make in her willingness to venture into new areas of ministry in contrast to someone who has simply discovered , "I have the gift of mercy."
In effect, Greenville College may be trailblazing, not just a retention methodology to better serve and prepare students for life, but a new and discipleship tool for local churches that take seriously their responsibility to encourage and "prepare God's people for works of service" (Ephesians 4:12a).
One word of caution. Whenever Christians focus attention on human abilities, whether gifts or strengths, it must never be forgotten that God chooses to use and empower people to serve in areas outside of their giftedness, and even in areas of personal weakness. He is glad to give us gifts and strengths, but sometimes He gets more glory, and our faith is better built, when we obey Him at precisely those times we don't feel strong and able.
Reprinted with permission from the March/April 2002 issue of Light and Life Magazine.