Sometimes, the most important things are the most obvious things.
I learned a lot in seminary – how to interpret the Bible, how to preach and teach, loads of theology. I even learned some counseling skills and paradigms for youth ministry that have served me well. But the past few years, in the midst of crazy times, I’ve stumbled across something that dwarfs everything in terms of developing trust, goodwill, and love within the church.
It is the gift of encouragement.
This isn’t new. In fact, it seems so obvious I’m a little embarrassed to write about it. I’ve always tried to encourage people. It’s just that this year – when it feels like everyone is discouraged, when the animal of the year is the porcupine, and when there are a million contentious opinions flying around like those knives in the barn in Twister – encouragement is the sweet sound that rises above the screeching and brings life to the distressed, discouraged, and disheartened.
With that in mind, here are five ways to build a ministry of encouragement.
1. ENCOURAGE GENEROUSLY
As a youth pastor, I make encouraging students and youth leaders a priority. But there is no reason to stop there. Why not encourage the greeters, the tech crew, nursery workers, the custodians, the worship band, and yes, even the elders?
I like to imagine Johnny Appleseed skipping through the halls of church throwing around apple seeds from a giant burlap bag. Yeah, that would be weird – and messy. But what if we spread encouragement like that – doling it out everywhere, all the time, with incredible joy and generosity? It might land in someone’s eye. The grumpy and un-caffeinated might look at us strange. But for many, it might be just what they need. The long-term benefits of leaders spreading encouragement generously will do wonders for the emotional health of the congregation.
Is it possible to be too encouraging? I don’t think so, but why not test the theory?
Hack: For some reason, the words of pastors seem to make more difference to people than they should. It’s like a superpower. We don’t have many of those, so we should use this one to encourage people.
2. ENCOURAGE INTENTIONALLY
I propose making encouragement a strategy.
I keep a running list of people to encourage – friends, family members, students, parents, volunteers, and staff. I believe that list is populated by the Holy Spirit. The names remain on that list until I’ve acted on that prompting. I’m an introvert, so I’m not always skipping through the halls like I described above. Sometimes I send a hand-written note. Other times it’s a phone call, text, invitation to lunch – or even a surprising social media post that celebrates someone unexpectedly. By keeping a running “to-do” list of people to encourage – and building time to do so into my weekly schedule – I found a spirit-led way to keep encouragement as a top priority.
Hack: From someone who isn’t a senior pastor, put your senior leaders on the list.
3. ENCOURAGE GENUINELY
If you are like me, the perfectionist in you can be a hindrance to encouragement. Sometimes I withhold encouragement from others because I don’t feel they deserve it. How can I encourage when I don’t mean it? Similarly, it’s easy to offer shallow ‘attaboys’ with the sincerity of a game show host.
But that shouldn’t stop us from looking for ways to encourage people. Maybe it has nothing to do with “performance,” and more to do with the fact that human beings all need encouragement.
Part of being a good encourager is “meaning it,” and that means looking for the thing you appreciate about someone. Everyone has a unique, quirky, loveable quality they add to the body of Christ. Look for that thing – small or large – and celebrate it.
Hack: Remember that the “thing” they do at church is only a tiny part of who they are as a person.
4. ENCOURAGE SPECIFICALLY
It happens to every pastor. We stand in the lobby, exhausted after pouring out our heart in a message we spent 25 hours preparing. We shared a vulnerable moment, shed a tear, and got really passionate about the passage we were teaching. And then we heard these words:
“Nice?” That’s as meaningful as “Thank you for shopping at Walmart.” They might as well have burped on us. I want to respond, “Thank you. Can you double bag that lame compliment please? I don’t want to drop my cynicism on your nice shoes.”
Hopefully, we’ve also had that moment – standing in the lobby after that sermon – in which a person approached us with tears in their eyes, grabbed our hand, and told us how the specific thing we said hit the specific nerve of the specific situation they are facing, how our words gave them the courage to trust God and face another day.
Triple bag that and carry it to my car, please!
Encouraging generalities are not the magic bullet. What can we say that shows someone we know them, love them, and genuinely appreciate them? That’s the type of encouragement people are looking for.
Hack: I’m a better writer than off-the-cuff thinker. Maybe a note or letter is the way to go for some of us.
5. ENCOURAGE YOURSELF
Last but not least, if being an effective leader requires the gift of encouragement, then I suggest we not forget ourselves. After all, we need it too.
God is the fountain of encouragement. He loves us when we do good things, and he loves us when we stink. He cares far less about our “work” than he does about our humanity. In the words of songwriter Andrew Peterson,
And the best that I’ve got isn’t nearly enough
He’s glad for the crop, but it’s me that He loves1
Not a day goes by when God isn’t overjoyed with us, his daughters and sons. When is the last time you sat and listened for that generous, intentional, genuine, and specific word of encouragement from him?
Sometimes the most important things are the most obvious things. We may never find the word “encouragement” on our job description, but nothing we do will make a bigger impact on the people we are blessed to lead.
1 “Just As I Am” by Andrew Peterson, Love and Thunder, 2003.