Chapter 100

Determining Your Strengths and Weaknesses

This self-test can help you understand your gifting as a preacher

The spin cycle had just begun when the washing machine began to vibrate badly. It danced a jig briefly; then a raucous buzzer signaled that the machine had shut down. The problem: its burden was off-center.

Like the load of that dancing washer, many of us preachers are off-center. Although we have enough equilibrium not to shut down, we aren't perfectly balanced.

In one sense, this is keen insight into the obvious. Like everyone else, preachers are finite creatures who have strengths mixed with weaknesses. Unfortunately, in preachers this mixture has extraordinary implications.

Common wisdom has it that churches tend to take on the character of their leaders. This is worrisome enough when we consider matters of style and personality, but it becomes frightening when we realize that churches may take on not only the strengths, but also the shortcomings of their pastors. Where a preacher is strong, the church likely will be strong; where the preacher is weak, the church also may become weak. And even strengths can become weaknesses if they're imbalanced.

I may not be able to become a fully balanced preacher like Jesus, and I may not be able to correct my weaknesses completely. But simply being aware of my eccentricities—my strengths and weaknesses—has given me a better understanding of my ministry.

To help me identify my own eccentricities, I developed a diagnostic self-evaluation tool, the TEMP matrix. It is not a scientific instrument. It is simply one way to analyze preaching.

The TEMP matrix is made up of four scales combined into a grid. The four scales correspond to what I believe are four spiritual gifts that shape the preacher the most: Teaching, Exhortation, Mercy, and Prophecy (hence, TEMP).

For our purposes, let's think of these as simply four tendencies or natural strengths among different preachers. Read the descriptions below and then rank your preaching ministry in each area.

Avoid ranking yourself as you think you ought to be; rather, rank yourself as you are. (That's the only way, in fact, this tool will become useful.) Rank yourself on a scale of 0–10, with 0 representing "That's not me at all," and 10 representing "That's me exactly.

T scale (Teaching)

You are drawn to Jesus, the great teacher, who lived and taught the truth effectively, and whose truth sets us free.

You are a good student who finds study stimulating. You possess an organized mind. You tend to thrive on the world of ideas and principles. Grasping the meaning of things ranks high with you. You don't mind the abstract; you work well at that level and have come to appreciate the usefulness of broad principles. Yet, you shy away from oversimplifications and overstatements and often qualify the statements you make.

You believe strongly in the power of God's Word to change lives. Passages such as Hebrews 4:12 and 2 Timothy 3:16, which you know by heart, shape your ministry. You have full confidence in the power of Scripture to transform people into godly disciples.

Furthermore, you delight in understanding detail and the harmony of Scripture. You can spend hours alone with it, enjoyably. In fact, you often are moved by the sheer elegance, depth, and relevance of God's truth.

You believe God has called you to expound his truth, to help others understand. Clarity of thought and communication is among your greatest assets. You say exactly what you mean, and want your listeners to understand fully and accurately. Moreover, you want to present the whole counsel of God. Thus you prefer to stay with the text in your preaching. That's the only way people consistently can hear from you a word from heaven.

Because you love the truth, you are greatly troubled by the presence of biblical and theological error. You realize that such error leads to sick lives. You view both misunderstanding and deception with great seriousness. Thus, you strive to guard and preserve sound doctrine, the faith once for all delivered to the saints. You view this body of truth as a wonderful stewardship and desire to pass it on to other faithful men and women undistorted.

Rank yourself by circling the number that best represents you on the T(eaching) Scale. (0 = Not at all like me; 10 = That's me exactly.)

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

E scale (Exhortation)

You are inspired by Jesus, the Son of Man, who lived with, understood, and ministered to people's needs. You are touched by his ability to relate to people through down-to-earth stories taken from everyday life.

You are gregarious, friendly, and well-liked. You are generally positive and tend to be optimistic, but you are also effective at confronting or rebuking when necessary. You have a strong practical side. You are perceptive and possess a high level of common sense and practical wisdom. You don't mind innovation and change; in fact, in some ways you thrive on them. In addition, you are an active person, who maintains a high energy level. You are committed to being a doer of the Word, not merely a hearer.

Furthermore, you delight in seeing people come to know Jesus and grow in the faith, and you willingly invest yourself to help them do so. You are effective at coming alongside others and getting involved in their lives. You know the power of one life upon another, and you enjoy being used in this way. You love to encourage people and to help them solve their problems. You tend to emphasize God's spiritual resources and ways Christians may use them.

Though you see the value of study, you do not enjoy study for study's sake. Study for you is a means to an end. You would rather spend your hours with people than with books. When you do study, you tend to take regular breaks. To stay in touch with the people you are ministering to, you feel sometimes that you would do better to prepare your messages in a restaurant or on a busy boulevard than in your office.

In your preaching you take naturally to the narratives of the Bible, which portray men and women dealing with the common problems of life. You are also drawn to the book of James and wisdom literature such as Proverbs. Your sermons tend to be practical, topical, and direct, with perhaps one main idea memorably worded and thoroughly illustrated. Your sermons typically stress application, the practical "how to's" of the Christian life. You are strong on using concrete, real-life illustrations and examples.

Rank yourself on the E(xhortation) Scale by circling the appropriate number.

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

M scale (Mercy)

You are inspired by Jesus, the great physician, who comforted the bereaved, restored the sick, gave sight to the blind, and finally gave himself to heal a sin-sick race. Because of his own suffering, you know that Jesus understands the needs and pain of this life and offers redemption to men and women.

You are sensitive to the needs of people. You do not have to work to identify with the pain of the poor, the dispossessed, those who are suffering. You naturally seem to speak to that pain, perhaps out of your own experience. People see you as warm and caring.

While you are strong at comforting others, you do not enjoy confrontation. You prefer an indirect approach, using a carrot rather than a stick. Your inclination is to handle people with gentleness; you would never want to hurt them. You are flexible and easygoing, and you tend to stress a relational approach to ministry. It is not difficult for you to make room for human imperfections. You are willing to overlook weakness and shortcomings in others because you are all too aware of your own.

The ambiguities and gray areas of life do not bother you. Sometimes other people seem too dogmatic, a tendency you consciously seek to avoid. You are troubled that systems, programs, procedures, and structures get in the way of the needs of people. Your initial inclination is to put people first. You view yourself as a nurturer.

You delight in the message of God's forgiveness and you emphasize it regularly. You are moved by the truths of redemption and grace. In your preaching you regularly stress hope and the potential for restoration and healing. The notion of unconditional love inspires you. Your preaching is typically warm and gracious, filled with life-affirming truths and anecdotes.

Rank yourself on the M(ercy) Scale by circling the appropriate number.

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

P scale (Prophecy)

You are inspired by Jesus Christ, the righteous Judge and King, who calls men and women to the highest standards of righteousness and self-sacrifice. His strong demands are not a burden but your greatest challenge and delight. Some of his hard sayings are among your most familiar passages of Scripture. You note that he did not lower his demands for anyone, even when listeners refused to follow him as a result.

You are inspired by people who take difficult but godly stands for what's right and true, even at great personal cost. If you must choose, you would rather be respected than liked. You are ready to confront when necessary, even if the prospect of doing so is unpleasant. You stress that a life of deep personal holiness and prayer is the most important starting point for a preacher.

" 'Be ye holy, for I am holy,' says the Lord," is a command you take seriously. You have high expectations, both for yourself and others. It is hard at times for you to be patient with those who seem willingly to make wrong choices. You truly are offended by sin, whether in yourself or others; yet you are equally moved by the majestic beauty of God's holiness and righteousness. A passion to see others come to share this beauty is one of the wellsprings of your ministry.

You know we all make an infinite number of choices in life, choices both large and small, and God holds us responsible for how we choose. You believe the most loving thing you can do as a preacher is to call your listeners to the best choices, choices for Christ and against self, Satan, and the world. You have a low tolerance for worldliness, whether in yourself or others, because you see it for what it is: spiritual adultery. Accountability, repentance, obedience, and faithfulness to God's revealed will are some of the consistent themes of your ministry. You do not sidestep addressing the matter of God's judgment.

You are conscious of the potential for harshness and hypocrisy in proclaiming God's righteous standards, but you are determined not to let these potential pitfalls deter you from preaching the unrelenting call of God. You are hesitant to pull your punches. You believe you have been called to serve as a voice for the Lord and his ways, and you are determined to avoid waffling or giving an uncertain sound from the trumpet.

Rank yourself on the P(rophecy) Scale by circling the appropriate number.

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Now that you have ranked yourself on each of the four scales, plot your ministry on the temp matrix by drawing vertical lines through the numbers you picked on the T(eaching) and E(xhortation) scales, and horizontal lines through the numbers you picked on the M(ercy) and P(rophecy) scales. Extend the lines until they intersect, forming a box on the matrix. The size, shape, and location of the resulting box will indicate your eccentricities as a preacher.

For instance, see the sample for a preacher who scored himself a 7 on the T scale, a 3 on the E scale, a 4 on the M scale, and a 5 on the P scale.

A blank matrix is provided for you to plot your own pattern. On this one, you'll notice I've also added four terms to various quadrants of the grid: Proclaimer, Motivator, Healer, and Counselor, which I will explain in the next section.

Analyzing your preaching

I believe Jesus would score high on each of the four TEMP scales. He excelled in all areas. His ministry would be represented by a large, square, centered box. As a less-than-perfect, less-than-balanced imitation of Christ, I can't match that pattern. The size, shape, and location of your box and mine, however, will tell us about our eccentricities as preachers.

Size: The larger the box, the more gifted you feel you are.

Shape and Location: The more square and centered your box, the more balanced you perceive your ministry. Rectangular boxes indicate you sense strengths and weaknesses.

Thus, if your box is a large, centered square, it suggests you are gifted in all four areas and are maintaining a balanced ministry like Jesus. May your tribe increase!

On the other hand, if your box is a long, thin rectangle, sitting to the right of center, on top of the T-E line, you are highly gifted in one area (Exhortation), and eccentric accordingly.

Or, if your box is nearly a square, and slightly shifted left and up (as in the example), you are a preacher gifted at teaching and, to some degree prophecy. Exhortation and Mercy, on the other hand, are relative weaknesses. Since most of this box is in the Proclaimer quadrant, this is probably how such preachers would describe themselves.

Naturally, if most of a box was located in the upper right quadrant, those preachers could be described as Motivators, and so on.

What if I'm off center?

Since I began using this simple tool, I've gained a number of insights into my preaching ministry.

No quadrant is the right one. Of course, none of the four scales or corners is more right than the others. Each one represents important biblical priorities that were present in the earthly ministry of Jesus. Wherever my box is located, and whatever its shape, it can represent a valid, biblical emphasis.

If that applies to my preaching, it applies also to my evaluation of other preachers. I listened recently to a tape of a pastor who was spelling out his church's philosophy of ministry. I don't know the fellow, but his approach to ministry and his personal style indicate he'd score high on the Exhortation scale.

At the same time, he valued little the strengths of the Teaching and Prophecy scales. "In our church," he said proudly, "we always keep our message positive." He was careful to stay close to the core truths of the gospel, he said, but he didn't want to "divide people over doctrine." Instead, his philosophy of ministry was task oriented, rooted in "real life," and kept constantly before the people. In short, it was an Exhortation emphasis.

Since my own box is well skewed toward the Proclaimer quadrant (I'm high on the Teaching and Prophecy scales), I was irritated with this preacher's lack of appreciation for such strengths. Not surprisingly, I dismissed his approach as lightweight. Then I caught myself. I was doing to his strengths what he was doing to mine. Aware of this, I listened to the tape again, this time trying to learn from someone who had strengths in areas I do not.

Likewise, those who rank high on the Prophecy scale may be tempted to criticize as sentimental those high on the Mercy scale. Counselors may feel that Motivators are pushy. Healers may think that Proclaimers are harsh. The combinations of criticism are many—as any pastors' conference gossip proves. Each of us tends to define ministerial strength in our own image, forgetting that all four emphases are valuable and biblical.

Everyone has natural strengths. This exercise makes my uniqueness graphic. I don't have to be like other preachers. While remaining faithful to God, I just have to be the preacher God has gifted me to be.

Some preachers struggle, not because they preach poorly, but because their listeners don't appreciate their particular preaching strengths. In some cases, that might suggest the pastor should seek another church. There is no sense in vainly beating one's head against a pulpit.

Bill's problems started soon after he began serving a new church. It was too late before he realized the people didn't like his preaching. In the end, he was asked to leave. Naturally, he was devastated, and he contemplated leaving the ministry altogether. "Am I really an incompetent preacher?" he once asked me forlornly.

At the time, I didn't know what to say, but now I see the problem was almost certainly not his lack of preaching skills, but a poor match. Actually, Bill is a good preacher, but he is a Proclaimer. His former church apparently wanted a Healer. Since leaving that church. Bill has taken a different congregation. He has regained his composure and gone on to an effective ministry in a setting where his strengths are appreciated.

Then again, unheeded does not necessarily mean unneeded. Perhaps, as with Jeremiah, a preacher's strengths are precisely what the Lord has ordered, whether the people want to hear it or not, and whether it is popular or not.

In either case, the preacher's strengths don't become weaknesses by being unappreciated. They remain genuine strengths whether a particular congregation appreciates them or not.

Strength doesn't mean balance. Preachers are tempted to define ministry to fit their peculiarities. We say, "This is what the church is about, and this is how the work should be done," not realizing that we may be defining the church in our image. A quick look at my box quickly reminds me that the church needs to be bigger than my strengths.

We're also tempted to mistake the strengths of other preachers, especially those we envy, for balance. Some popular preachers and churches intentionally lift up their styles as universal. Others recognize that every church should fashion its own purpose and direction. But the very popularity of "successful" ministries inclines us to think these ministries are real ministries—balanced and biblical—and ours are something less.

To rid ourselves of this delusion, we need to run through the matrix the preachers we envy. We soon see that even people we idolize are skewed in one way or another.

An associate pastor in one such church said to me, "In our church, you hear constantly the theme that we are all forgiven sinners. The appeal is, 'Come join us, and let us meet your needs.' " But then he adds, with something less than full approval, "What you never hear is, 'Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ.' That puts people off." This church, large and growing, is held up as a model for others. But like most churches, it is skewed in a particular way.

Different churches have different gifts; different preachers have different strengths. There is nothing wrong with being limited or skewed, as long as we don't mistake our eccentricity for balance.

Strengths bring dangers. I also recognize the pitfalls inherent in my strengths. A piece of ancient wisdom says that within our greatest strengths lie the seeds of our greatest failures. Wise preachers will be aware of where their natural strengths might take them, especially for ill.

I have a friend, for instance, who demonstrates a high Mercy profile. John is sensitive and empathetic, constantly reaching out to those who hurt. John, of course, is also committed to God's Word, and assures his congregation that the Scriptures must be our only rule of faith and practice. However, during the tough judgment calls of pastoral ministry, John invariably falls into the trap of the Mercy preacher: he goes with his feelings. He tends to take positions or give counsel based on his emotions rather than God's truth. John is the type who might sympathize with the rich young ruler, softening the impact of Jesus' abrupt instructions to sell all.

Likewise, a preacher high in Exhortation may lack biblical substance, just as a strong Teacher may tend to preach from an ivory tower, the Proclaimer may become merely harsh, and the Healer may become sentimental. Each of us needs to guard against the liabilities inherent in our strengths.

Balance within reason. It's uncomfortable to notice the eccentricity this matrix makes so plain. I naturally want to offer my church a balanced fare. So, as long as I recognize I am who I am by the grace of God (perfect balance is impossible for anyone but Jesus, after all), then this matrix can highlight areas I can work on.

For example, one preacher high on the Exhortation scale told me he had to relearn the discipline of study. Though he has a good mind, serious study has never come naturally to him. He did well in college and seminary, but only because he had been forced to study. Once he was out in the pastorate, he'd allowed that discipline to slip.

He'd actually be relieved when interruptions cut into his study time. For a while, he even chose a public place to study. Supposedly this was to keep his preaching in touch with real people and real needs. Actually, he said, it was little more than an excuse to avoid those long hours of serious mental work. As a result, his preaching lost substance, and both he and his people suffered.

Thankfully, this preacher recognized what was happening before it was too late, and he took steps to discipline his study time. He set up firm study hours and asked his wife and secretary to help him keep them. He enlisted the help of co-workers to hold him accountable. To this day, disciplined study does not come easily for him. And he never will score high on the Teaching scale. But he is working faithfully against this weakness, and his preaching is the stronger for it.

In larger churches, of course, preachers can strengthen their weaknesses by adding staff members who complement them. Last year, we added an executive pastor to our staff. In one sense, an executive pastor must share a common vision and work in harmony with the senior pastor. Yet I also was looking for someone who would compensate for some of my weaknesses. God gave us a man who could do just that; his box on the TEMP matrix nicely complements mine. My task now is to give Rob the freedom to counterbalance my influence where necessary.

In addition, teammates in ministry can use the TEMP matrix to plot their own ministries, and one another's, to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the team. In the same way, churches looking for a pastor might plot the church's ministry and ask prospective candidates to plot theirs to see if the two fit.

No cure-all

The TEMP matrix, of course, doesn't analyze every aspect of preaching. It can't evaluate the effectiveness of delivery, the appropriateness of illustrations, or the coherence of sermon structure. It's a limited tool, but helpful.

It may not have stopped me from wobbling like a washing machine from time to time. Nor has it made me all things to all people. (I'm not sure I want to be.) But recognizing my tendencies through the TEMP matrix, I know I'm a more effective and more confident preacher—even though I remain a bit eccentric.