by Eddie Pipkin

Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay

It’s that time of year when we are either eager to give gifts or compelled to give gifts or, most likely, experiencing both compulsion and obligation in the giving of gifts, depending on the recipient.  There are people we have been excited about sharing our gift with for months – we can’t wait to see them rip that wrapping paper off!  And there are people we feel duty-bound to acknowledge – they are still on our to-do list with 24 hours to go!  You’ve probably taken care of all your Christmas gift shopping by the time you read this blog, but we’ll take a moment to consider the philosophical implications of giving people gifts and the potential pitfalls of generosity gone wrong, especially those ministry partners and casual colleagues.

Even among our family and friends, gift giving as an expression of the spirit of the holiday season can be a fraught undertaking.  Some people are easy and fun to buy for: we know them, their interests and hobbies, likes and dislikes.  Some people pose a tricky challenge: we really don’t know them that well at all, but we feel that we need to acknowledge them in a heartfelt way.  With work colleagues and ministry partners, the challenge can become even more formidable.

I was reminded of this in the run-up to family gatherings.  I still had to get a gift for my soon-to-be 17-year-old niece.  She and I are actually pretty close, and she’s a super cool kid.  Still, what do I know about teenage girls?  I did some research (always my fallback position) on what’s hip with the cool teen crowd and found this cool “thrifting” site I thought she might enjoy shopping from, but when I floated that idea with her mom she said my niece had said to tell anyone who asked that all she really wanted was DoorDash gift cards.  Ugh, I thought.  DoorDash, for those of you who don’t know, is one of those food delivery apps, like Uber Eats, and to my mind the dumbest imaginable expenditure imaginable.

There I was, caught in the eternal gifting dilemma: do I give a gift I think would be edifying and perspective expanding for her or do I get her what she wants, no matter how vapid I personally think it is?

If you know what they want, get people what they want, especially when they are teenagers (and especially when they are not your own children).

I am really hoping some of you weigh in with opinions on this and related questions in the comments section.  I don’t know that there are perfect one-size-fits-all answers to these age-old enigmas, but people do have strong opinions, and sometimes they have interesting and helpful insights.

I know that our attitudes about receiving gifts are probably the single biggest determinant in how we approach giving gifts.  And for me, receiving gifts is a fraught enterprise.  I don’t really like it; I don’t like it that someone is spending money on me; I don’t like having pretend that I like something that’s weird or makes no sense of anyone who knows the bare minimum about me; and because I am a minimalist who likes gear for my specific hobbies but knows exactly, precisely what it is that I want, I struggle with how to deal with people’s well-intentioned near misses.  Obviously, that whole previous sentence makes me sound like a gift receiving jerk.  Guilty.  But I bet I’m not alone.  I try to keep in mind the truth that, relationally speaking – in service of the strengthened social fabric – it’s as important to graciously receive gifts as it is to give them.

It’s not a matter of feigning excitement over a gift – people can be really over the top in this regard – but we can lean into appreciating the gift for what it is and, more importantly, the intent of the gift giver.  It feels great when a gift (even imperfect in its functionality) shows that the giver “sees you,” that they’ve been paying attention.

Ministry partner gifts can be an opportunity to show that we are paying attention to the people with whom we work.  They can also be opportunities to say more about ourselves and our priorities (the gift giver) than the person who is receiving the gift.  We’ve all been recipients of the kind of gift that feels like a modified work symposium: here’s a book for you all (the same book for everyone) that’s the latest best seller on ministry philosophy: “Read it over your holiday break, and we’ll convene in January to discuss it together.”  Maybe it’s a great book after all, but that just feels like mandatory homework.

On the other hand, a thoughtfully gifted book by your favorite author can communicate that the giver is paying attention to what interests and excites you.  That’s a gift to treasure.

Giving books, in general, can be one of the most profound expressions of personalized generosity.  Here’s a meditative essay in the NY Times on that topic: “How a Good Book Becomes the ‘Richest’ of Holiday Gifts.”  Shafquat Towheed, a lecturer who considers such things, makes this observation:

An astutely chosen book, especially when given by a cherished person, becomes a part of the recipient’s identity — both psychologically and physically, as an object on display in his or her home. “It’s a very resilient gift,” Towheed said. “Even if you might not read it immediately, it will sit there on your shelf. And long after the gift giver and receiver have gone away, the book will still be there.”

Towheed notes that selecting a book for someone – even though the production of books is a highly industrialized activity – can be a deeply personalized choice.

Of course, if we serve on a large team, we tend to know some people much better than others, so while we can think of a highly personalized choice for one team member, we have no clue where to start with another.  That’s why we end up defaulting to gift cards and Christmas ornaments (although, I will say that while I have no lasting memories of what I did with gift cards from past years, I do still cherish some of those Christmas ornaments crafted from authentic Holy Land olive wood that I hang on the tree each December).

The imbalance in ideas for what gift to give to whom is fraught with all sorts of internal tension.  Here’s an article from the current Time Magazine, “Why Gift Giving Makes You Anxious,” that puts the problem in perspective.

It’s an argument for taking the time to figure out more about the people with whom we are partnered, by talking to them and by talking to the people who know them better than we know them.  In this sense, gift giving is a portal to relationship building.  It is a physical manifestation that we are taking the time to deepen the relationship.

If you want to keep the gift giving focused on the work of ministry, I suggest these options:

  • A gift subscription: subscriptions to publications are a wonderful resource, but they can be a costly luxury that we choose not to pay for. It’s a great way to give someone something valuable that lasts all year long.
  • A gift certificate for a class of their choice: continuing education comes in all forms, both professional and hobby topics, and now there is an endless supply of online options. Let your recipient choose their way to engage their brain.
  • A gift certificate for a local arts group: it’s a night out, supports the local arts, and keeps those creative juices engaged.
  • A coupon for a day off, no questions asked. I’ve written about this before: it costs you nothing, but it’s a mental health day option that shows you care about people’s state of mind.

What are your thoughts on gift giving?  What are some examples of the best gift from memorable gifts from ministry partners?  Do you have any entertaining tales of gift giving gone bad?   Give us all the gift of sharing a story or two or an insight we can use on our own journey.

And Merry Christmas to you all!  God bless us each and every one.