“Gifted and Giving” – Renewing Theologies of Ministry with Young People

In a series of blogposts, CDSP presents outstanding, provocative, and inspiring written work of a student to a wider audience. We will begin with a summary of a paper written for a class in Constructive Theology.

By Sylvia Miller-Mutia.

In my experience as a parish youth minister, and now as the chaplain intern at an Episcopal school, I find that there is often a disturbing lack of critical, theological reflection on what we do with young people, and why. For example, “community service” (service learning, social outreach, volunteerism, mission trips, projects etc.) is a central component of ministry with youth in many parish and school settings. But too often our practices actually serve to distort humanity, thus undermining our best intentions and betraying our Christian faith. In my Constructive Theology paper, Gifted and Giving, I considered how our approach to community service with youth might be informed and reformed by bringing our practices into conversation with scripture and the doctrine of theological anthropology.

I begin by engaging the insights of several contemporary theologians and thinkers (bell hooks, Sharon Betcher, Nancy Eisland, and Joerg Rieger)  in order to identify three common “distortions” of humanity that arise in our practices of community service.  I conclude that humanity is distorted when : 1) community service reinforces the superiority of the one serving and reinforces the victimization of the one being served; 2) when community service results in ultimate isolation rather than increased connection; 3) when a person is defined primarily in terms of utility or action, rather than as a being in relationship.

Then I look to theological and biblical resources for help identifying alternatives to these distortions.  I propose a working definition of the human person as gifted and giving—creature– imaging God– in relationship. Theologians (from Irenaeus, to Karl Barth, to Jurgen Moltmann) and biblical texts (Genesis 1: 26-31 and 1 Corinthians 12:14, 21-26), assist us in exploring the implications of this definition.  To affirm that the human person is a  “gifted and giving-creature-imaging God-in relationship” does several things: it acknowledges the human person as limited and finite, yet created by God in the image of God; it affirms the unity of the human person against forces of fragmentation; it challenges us to resist oppressive paradigms that locate us in relationships of constructed hierarchy; it insists that we cannot image God in isolation, but only in relationships of mutuality and openness to our “other”; it identifies gifts as manifestations of God’s own Spirit, flowing in relationships of interdependence for the common good. Through our exploration we discover a theological model of humanity that may inform our approach to community service: it is in reciprocal relationships of giving and receiving that we image and encounter God.

In the final section of Gifted and Giving I reiterate key insights articulated in the paper, offering them as springboards for further questions and conversations. It is my hope that the paper might provide a starting place for reflection and discussion among individuals and groups charged with discerning how we might approach, engage in, and reflect on community service with young people in ways that most faithfully reflect our best understanding of what it means to be human.

Sylvia holds a BFA in ballet performance from University of Utah and an MA in Liturgy and the Arts from Pacific School of Religion.  She is currently enrolled at CDSP, completing coursework in preparation for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.  She has served as Pastoral Assistant for Youth and Family Ministries at St. Stephen’s, Belvedere and is currently Chaplain Intern at St. Paul’s School in Oakland.  She lives with her husband, Donnel, and their two young daughters in Berkeley, CA.

Explore posts in the same categories: O Student Post

4 Comments on ““Gifted and Giving” – Renewing Theologies of Ministry with Young People”

  1. Maureen Says:


    Thank you for sharing those insights which I also share. Would love to get a copy of your paper and talk about it some more.


  2. Mark Miller Says:

    Wow! Great article (and great paper too).

  3. Elaine Jenkins Says:

    I appreciate your comments on the distortions in teaching youth about community service : “1) community service reinforces the superiority of the one serving and reinforces the victimization of the one being served; 2) when community service results in ultimate isolation rather than increased connection; 3) when a person is defined primarily in terms of utility or action, rather than as a being in relationship.” For me it speaks to the practice of “mission trips” tend to restrict service to convenient bits of time that happens once a year rather than cultivating a lifestyle of recognizing the needs of others.

    Though rather than using the image of “gifted and giving,” I would use the image of loved and loving to frame our efforts to serve others. This image gives us a framework for living our lives in relationship with others. It recognizes our connectedness to one another and creates a web of relationships that become the paradigm of our existence. This paradigm encourages relationship and empathy. It is found in scripture in 1 John 4.7-11.

    It strikes me that to fully demonstrate this to young people, we must first demonstrate that we love them, freely and fully without strings.

  4. Jaime Sanders Says:

    I agree – but our models for young people echo those for “adults.” I remember a “service project” in which amateur middle-aged white people from the suburbs went to do house repairs in a residence for young black men. What is the message? Those young men would have been much better served by being given tools and instruction by skilled craftsmen (or even This Old House videos) so they could fix their own residence. In contrast, the Habitat for Humanity projects put rich and poor to work together, under the direction of professionals.

    My daughter’s experience with a “mission trip” alienated her from Christianity by teaching that “we help people because Jesus told us to.” She said “why can’t we help people just because they need help?” However, the valuable part was the relationships she formed with other compassionate youth from other churches and parts of the country, and in the opportunity to try different forms of work and learn that she could do things other than what she thought she could do.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: