The Unexpected Connection Between Zookeeping and Spiritual Gifts

We didn’t set out to study spiritual gifts when we began our research on the zookeeping profession several years ago. We are management professors interested in how people find meaning in their work. But our study of zookeepers provided some surprising—and inspiring—examples of spiritual gifts in action. The things we learned in our scholarship reverberated with spiritual truth and provided some powerful insights into how we can discover and enact our spiritual gifts.

The Gifts We All Know

We recently asked a group of young single adults to text responses to the following question: “What are some examples of spiritual gifts?” Their answers were familiar: healing, tongues, discernment, faith, wisdom, knowledge, and so on. These faithful Latter-day Saints were clearly familiar with the spiritual gifts we read about in the scriptures, but while their list of spiritual gifts was accurate, it was also incomplete—dramatically so.

Most Latter-day Saints have a strong basic understanding of spiritual gifts. We read about them in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants. They are the subject of one of the Articles of Faith. And Mormon and Moroni taught that those who deny spiritual gifts likely do not understand the scriptures (see Moroni 9:7–8; 3 Nephi 29:6). Paul taught the Corinthians, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant” (1 Corinthians 12:1), and the Lord commanded us, “And again, verily I say unto you, I would that ye should always remember, and always retain in your minds what those gifts are, that are given unto the church” (Doctrine and Covenants 46:10).

What we sometimes fail to appreciate is how extensive the number of spiritual gifts is. The scriptures make it clear that spiritual gifts can take a dizzying variety of forms. Paul teaches that “there are diversities of gifts” (1 Corinthians 12: 4). Moroni simply wrote, “there are many” (Moroni 10:8). You’ll notice that the seventh article of faith enumerates a list of spiritual gifts but concludes with “and so forth,” suggesting the list is not exhaustive. Elder Bruce R. McConkie put a fine point on this principle, teaching that “spiritual gifts are endless in number and infinite in variety.” In other words, we might add gifts like the ones identified by Elder Marvin J. Ashton to our traditional list: “the gift of asking; the gift of listening; the gift of hearing and using a still, small voice; the gift of being able to weep; the gift of avoiding contention; the gift of being agreeable; the gift of avoiding vain repetition; the gift of seeking that which is righteous; the gift of not passing judgment; the gift of looking to God for guidance; the gift of being a disciple; the gift of caring for others; the gift of being able to ponder; the gift of offering prayer; the gift of bearing a mighty testimony; and the gift of receiving the Holy Ghost.” And the list could go on and on. With so many potential gifts, how do we discover which ones we have? Here are three steps to identify and utilize personal spiritual gifts that we learned from our study of zookeepers.

1. Pay Attention to the Past

When we started studying zookeepers a few years ago, we found that they were the most highly motivated group of workers we had ever met. Zookeeping is dirty and difficult work that rarely pays enough to make ends meet, and yet, zookeepers love it. In fact, many zookeepers work for free for a year or more before they actually land a paying job. So what’s their secret?

Zookeepers have a sense—even at a very early age—that they are “hardwired” for animal work. As one zookeeper put it, “It’s a part of who I am.” Many shared childhood stories about their fascination with animals or their natural knack for interacting with them. This was when they first discovered their gifts. Others talked about the sacrifices they were willing to make to develop and pursue their gifts. They actually didn’t use the phrase “spiritual gifts,” but they absolutely knew that they were doing what they were meant to do—“like magic,” in the words of one zookeeper.

Our first lesson from zookeepers is about identifying our gifts. As with the zookeepers, sometimes our spiritual gifts show up very early in life in our interests and natural proclivities. We can sometimes miss them because they seem so obvious to us, just like a fish may not recognize that it is a good swimmer because swimming is just what it does. Often, we can better recognize our gifts when we look in the rearview mirror. Maybe you were that kid who always organized the neighborhood soccer match. You might think, “That doesn’t mean anything special—I just wanted to play soccer!” You probably didn’t even think twice about knocking on doors to get the game together. But consider this: you did lead out, and other kids didn’t. You exhibited an innate ability to organize people for a common cause. Those are the traces of a spiritual gift.

2. Practice Makes Gifted

But spiritual gifts aren’t just those things that come naturally to us. The zookeepers have to work and sacrifice to develop their gift. They demonstrate tremendous grit and resilience as they learned how to meet the needs of their animals and create enriching environments for them. They seem to constantly be striving to sharpen their gifts and find new solutions to problems. But the fact that they work so hard doesn’t mean that they lack a gift in the first place. We often incorrectly assume that if we have to work hard at something, it must not be a gift.

A good illustration of this misunderstanding comes from an interesting study. Some researchers invited two groups to listen to a piece of piano music. The first group was told that the pianist was naturally gifted whereas the second group was told that the pianist had developed her ability through years of hard work. The listeners preferred the piece played by the “gifted” pianist. But it was the same recording! The fact that something doesn’t come naturally to us doesn’t mean it can’t be a gift. Just ask any missionary who has struggled and toiled to develop the gift of tongues! We can and should “seek ye earnestly the best gifts” (D&C 46:8), including those that may not come naturally.

3. Use Them to Serve

“Okay,” you might be saying, “there are a lot of spiritual gifts. But you still haven’t told me why they are so important to my discipleship.” This really is the critical question. The answer, straight out of scripture, is quite simple: spiritual gifts are vitally important to a disciple of Christ because they equip us to serve. Spiritual gifts “exist so that ‘all may be profited thereby’ (D&C 46: 12). We human beings can experience an almost endless number of needs. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Lord has equipped his children with an endless assortment of gifts. There are at least as many spiritual gifts in the world as there are human needs, because that is the point of a gift: to serve another’s need” (The Zookeeper’s Secret, p. 39).
It’s easy to get mixed up when it comes to talking about gifts because we so often talk about gifts as if they elevate the possessor. When someone says, “She is so gifted,” there might be an underlying note of awe or jealousy. And, in fact, many people do see their gifts as a way to garner praise or attention. But our Father in Heaven has instructed us to see spiritual gifts as a means for serving others and not “that they might consume it upon their lusts” (D&C 46:9). “Notice the shift in mindset: A gift is not something you have been given, it’s something that allows you to give” (The Zookeeper’s Secret, p. 39).

The zookeepers weren’t happy and fulfilled just because they had discovered their gifts. The key to their off-the-charts job satisfaction was that they were using their special gifts to serve. For the zookeepers we met, their work wasn’t just about cleaning cages and playing with animals. They felt that they were helping the broader animal conservation effort by keeping and preserving endangered species and by educating the public about animal conservation. This was something the world desperately needed—and something they were uniquely qualified to do. It was their calling. And therein lies the zookeeper’s secret: we are happiest and most fulfilled when we find how we can use our unique gifts and talents to serve a need in the world.

Let’s return to the young single adults we referenced at the start. After we visited together about spiritual gifts, we asked everyone to text in answers to a second question: “What are your spiritual gifts?” This second list was quite different from the first and far more diverse. No one’s list was quite the same as anyone else’s. The lists included things like love, optimism, joy, enduring, hearing, patience, smiling, remembering, seeing. Your collection of spiritual gifts is as individual as your fingerprint. And so will be the ways you can find joy in serving Heavenly Father’s children.

Lead image from Shutterstock

The Zookeeper's SecretLearn more about spiritual gifts and lessons learned from studying the work of zookeepers in Jeff Thompson and Stuart Bunderson’s new book, The Zookeeper’s Secret: Finding Your Calling in Life. Available at Deseret Book stores and deseretbook.com.

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