For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.1 Thessalonians 2:11–12
I am not a man naturally given to encouragement. If you were being polite you might describe me as ‘analytical’. If you were being honest, you’d call me bloody critical.
This can be a helpful trait; I find it easy to look at something or hear something and spot its faults. When used correctly that can be a boon. I work in quality assurance and the quicker something can be accurately judged the easier my life is.
In church leadership it can also be really helpful, when used judiciously. Unfortunately, I have not always been the most judicious user of my particular gifts. Friends from of old would not have described me as an encouraging man.
As a church leader, based in prophetic words, kind feedback and a specific encounter with God, I’ve been trying to do something about it. Leaders need to be encouragers, that’s our ministry. As a father in our church family I need to be exhorting, encouraging and charging as Paul explains he did—each one used in the right situation.
Leaders need to be encouragers, those that put courage into people. We’re in a fight, the Christian life is lived on the battlefield, and in the immortal words of Jordin Sparks ‘you’d better go and get your armour’. Part of our armour is the encouragement others give us that God is good, the gospel is true, and we’re doing a halfway decent job of following Jesus.
It’s more important to get people back into the fight than it is to get them to fight perfectly. In the church the perfect is very much the enemy of the good. I like perfection, but its rarely attained. We should always strive to do better, but when all people receive is pointers on how to do better without being built up then they wither. Most people’s souls cannot bear unrelenting criticism. They can often bear a lot less than you (I) might imagine. Burnout is real, as is apathy, and neither take long to develop if people aren’t encouraged to keep going.
We all struggle to believe that we are the dearly loved apple of the sovereign Lord’s eye. When the Lord’s people know they are, they are unstoppable. Help them to believe it by showing them that you believe it too.
Look, these may seem like obvious lessons. For me they have been hard won, and I am learning to hone them. I am committed to being a better encourager because I believe that will make me more like Jesus and help the people I pastor to continue following Jesus along his way.
Here are four practices that I have been used to learn habits of encouragement. See them as the faltering first steps of an amateur encouraging other amateurs along the way.
Praying for people
This isn’t rocket science. It’s much more powerful. When I want to criticise something that someone has done (often for good reason), I take time to pray for them before I do. It’s very important that I don’t pray about them getting better at whatever the thing was, but instead pray the blessing of God over their life. When I do this well I gain something of Jesus’ perspective on them and what they’ve done. It makes the rest of the practices easier and will often mean I don’t really feel that I need to criticise the whatever-it-was anymore.
One of those 2020 benefits that many of us are slowly learning, I’m trying to cultivate a spirit of thankfulness. The most practical thing I’m doing is deliberately saying out loud “thank you Jesus” when a good thing happens. Our voices reframe our hearts and doing so helps me remember that whatever small everyday good has just happened comes to me as a good gift from the Father of Lights at the hand of his beautiful Son. All good things are gifts. All gifts come from God. It’s hard to remember but it’s very simple.
Why does this help me encourage? When I’m thankful I find it easier to see the good and find I’m much less concerned about whatever might have gone wrong. This doesn’t mean I say nothing, but it significantly changes my tone. In other words, when I am happy in God I’m better able to encourage others in the goodness of the gospel. I have to get my heart right.
Look for the good
If I get my heart right, I still must actively look for the good. Criticism is much better received alongside things that the person has genuinely done well. Find them. It’s the logic behind the classic management technique, the ol’ “feedback sandwich”. In a large corporate I used to work at we used to give the (mostly) humorous example of “You have nice hair, you’re terrible at your job, I like your shoes”, but when done genuinely it has real power.
Look for the good and keep looking until you find it. Refuse to settle for the facile or the trite encouragement. Nothing in my church or yours is so implacably awful or so utterly lacking in redeeming features that you cannot find something genuine to encourage. Look harder.
If you possibly can, don’t critique until you’ve found it. Again, I’m largely speaking to myself.
This may be more specific to me, but I’ve developed a habit through lockdown of writing a letter to two people a week, mostly within my church. These are primarily encouragements in the gospel and as grounded as possible in things I think someone has genuinely done well. They are good for my heart, and by the grace of God I hope do some good beyond me as well.
I have found it profoundly helpful. Originally started as a way of reaching out to some people I was struggling to get to see and then as a way of honing my prophetic gifting when there were no natural settings for it, it has developed into a spiritual practice that I hope to continue with for many years.
I would recommend finding a way of actively, regularly thinking “who can I encourage this week” and then doing something that suits your gifts and character that would genuinely bring them courage and comfort. What could you do that would help others in your church know that the God most high is on their side as they follow him?