As a leader, one of the most effective tools you have is your word(s). I know that sounds strange, but you are only as good as your word. Your followers need a leader they can trust. They are looking for a leader who speaks with hope and compassion as well as a leader who puts words into action. Every day, in almost every situation, you have the opportunity to model the character and action needed, not only by what you say but how you say it.
I just entered my 50th year under appointment as a United Methodist minister. As I reflect back upon the years, I have decided to share some things I have learned. So, over the next several weeks, I want to emphasize some things that are important for Christ-centered leaders to know and act upon.
Words are Powerful
The first blog in this series focused on people. You will find that blog at Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry: The Importance of People. So here is the second blog. Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry: Words are Powerful.
Regardless of whom you are speaking or writing, your intention in speaking or posting, whether in public, private, or social media, the words you use have the power to hurt or heal. One of the most important things I have learned is, just as God’s Word became flesh in Jesus, God’s Word is real and alive in me. As I have grown deeper in my relationship with Jesus, I have learned that whether spoken or written, words are powerful.
Words that Hurt and Heal
Early in my ministry, there was a church-wide study titled Words that Hurt and the Words that Heal: Language About God and People. (From the 1988 General Conference of the United Methodist Church). That study has had an impact on my ministry regarding the words I use in sermons, public speaking, social media, meetings, and conversations.
While I was participating in the study, I ran across an image in a newspaper (The word “newspaper” reveals how old I am). It was from the cartoon “B.C.”
There are two primary characters: A woman who carries a big stick and a snake. Most of the time the woman is beating the snake with her stick.
One day, she is walking up one side of a hill and the snake is coming up the other side of the hill. They meet at the top. The woman realizes that she does not have her stick. So, she looks at the snake and says, “Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!”
In the next frame, the snake is in a hundred pieces. The caption reads, “O the power of the spoken word.”
Words Shape Worldviews
Whether you believe it or not, words create images and assumptions that shape the way people view one another, the community, the church, and even God. You can use words to encourage and build up as well as discourage and tear down. Words feed prejudices, cultivate relationships, and set the course for decision-making. You have a powerful tool in your toolbox.
Whether giving a speech, delivering a sermon, writing an article, or posting on social media, it is important to pick your words wisely. As you lead a group, teach a class, or are in casual conversation, think about your words. The words you use reveal who you are and who you are is how you lead.
Let’s use our pattern of “Read, Reflect, Respond, and Return” to focus on the power of words.
Read Ephesians 4:29
“Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that builds up and provides what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you.” (TEV)
It is interesting that Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus at all. It’s even more interesting that he wrote what we know as Ephesians 4:25-5:2. If he had to say it, does it mean that there were problems with the way people spoke to and interacted with one another?
Words and Values
The church in Ephesus was a diverse church. Because of its diversity, there was a conflict of values. The Jews, who had a deep ethical background, were people who lived with religious values. The Gentiles, who did not have the same background or heritage, had a different set of values.
I can imagine there were times when the two sets of values clashed and created tension. In a time of conflict, Paul was instructing the church to say kind, supportive, encouraging words. When you open your mouth, do not let evil talk come out. Don’t diss one another. Say only what is useful for building up as there is need so that your words may give grace to those who hear. Paul’s direction is similar to Jesus’s teaching when he says, “it is not what goes in but what comes out that defiles…”
Words and Leadership
Although she is writing about more than words, Brene Brown writes, “In times of uncertainty, it is common for leaders to leverage fear and weaponize it to their advantage…If you can keep people afraid and give them an enemy who is responsible for their fear, you can get people to do just about anything.”
Brown also says, “…when we are managing during times of scarcity or deep uncertainty, it is imperative that we embrace the uncertainty…We need to be available to fact-check the stories that team members may be making up, because in scarcity we invent worse-case scenarios.”
Your words are powerful. Simply by what you say and how you say it, you can create fear and uncertainty. By what you say and how you say it, you can and do reflect the love you have experienced in and through Jesus.
God’s word of love and grace was made real in Jesus. So, Jesus is God’s encouraging word to us. As a Jesus follower, it makes sense to me that our words would reflect that same love and grace. That our words would be words of kindness, compassion, and encouragement.
Just as in Jesus we find the embodiment of God’s love and grace, the people we lead should find and experience the same love and grace in us.
We are living in some uncertain times. Whether it be in the politics of our government, of our employment, or our church, we are living in a time that is crying out for leaders who are trustworthy, compassionate, stable, and hope-filled. As a leader, you have the opportunity and responsibility to model the character and action needed for this time.
Reflecting on how your words can influence others, negatively and positively, can help you to respond more effectively and achieve better results. Words can change emotions and actions, and you, as a leader, must hold yourself accountable for how you communicate to ensure that people understand your intention.
Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble. Think of the power you have and the impact you can make if you become more intentional regarding how you speak and communicate with the people entrusted to your care. The right words make all the difference.
Think of one or two people who need an encouraging word. Persons who need to know of God’s love and acceptance. People who need to experience God’s grace. Get their face in your mind and their name on your lips. Keep them in mind as you read the following:
There was a first-year teacher at Saint Mary’s School in Morris, Minnesota. She said she had 34 students who were all dear to her. But one student stood out. His name was Mark. She said he was one in a million. He was very neat in appearance with a happy-to-be-alive attitude that made even his occasional mischievousness delightful. There was just one thing about Mark: he talked incessantly.
She had to remind him again and again that talking without permission was not acceptable. Every time she corrected him, he responded, “Thank you for correcting me, Teacher.”
She said, “I didn’t know what to make of it at first. But before long, I became accustomed to hearing it many times a day.”
One morning her patience was growing thin when Mark talked once too often. She said, “I made a first-year teacher mistake. I looked at Mark and said, ‘If you say one more word, I am going to tape your mouth shut!’”
It wasn’t ten seconds later when one of the students blurted out, “Mark is talking again, Teacher.” I hadn’t asked any of the students to help me watch Mark, but since I had stated the punishment in front of the class, I had to act on it.
I remember the scene as if it had occurred this morning. I walked to my desk, very deliberately opened my drawer and took out a roll of masking tape. Without saying a word, I proceeded to Mark’s desk, tore off two pieces of tape, and made a big X with them over his mouth. I then returned to the front of the room. As I glanced at Mark to see how he was doing, he winked at me. That did it! I started laughing. The class cheered as I walked back to Mark’s desk, removed the tape, and shrugged my shoulders.
His first words were, “Thank you for correcting me, Teacher.”
At the end of the year, Mark went on to fourth grade. The teacher eventually moved on to teach junior-high math. Several years passed. As Mark entered the ninth grade, Mark and the teacher met again.
She said Mark was more handsome than ever and just as polite. Since he had to listen carefully to the instruction on the “new math,” he did not talk as much. One Friday, things just didn’t feel right. The class had worked hard on a new concept all week, and the teacher sensed that the students were frowning, frustrated with themselves, and edgy with one another.
To stop the crankiness, she asked the students to put their books away and to take out two sheets of notebook paper. She then asked them to list the names of the other students in the room on their paper, leaving a space between each name. Then she asked them to think of the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates and write it down.
It took the remainder of the class period to finish their assignment. As the students left the room, each one handed her their papers. Mark said, “Thank you for teaching me today, Teacher. Have a good weekend.” That Saturday, she wrote down the name of each student on a separate sheet of paper and she listed what everyone else had said about that individual.
On Monday, at the beginning of the class, she gave each student his or her list. Before long, the entire class was smiling. She listened as the students said things like, “Really? I never knew that meant anything to anyone!” “I didn’t know others liked me so much.” After a few minutes, the class went back to studying math. No one mentioned those papers in class again.
It was several years later that the teacher learned that Mark had been killed in Vietnam. She had gotten word that Mark’s family wanted her to attend his funeral. At the funeral she watched and listened. One of the soldiers who acted as pallbearer came up to her and asked, “Were you Mark’s math teacher?” She nodded. He said, “Mark talked a lot about you.”
After the funeral, most of Mark’s former classmates headed to Chuck’s farmhouse for lunch. The teacher was invited to come by. Mark’s mother and father wanted to speak with her. When she arrived, they met her at her car.
“We want to show you something,” his father said, taking a wallet out of his pocket. “They found this on Mark when he was killed. We thought you might recognize it.” Opening the billfold, he carefully removed two worn pieces of notebook paper that had obviously been taped, folded and refolded many times. She knew what it was without looking at the paper.
Mark’s mother said, “Thank you so much for doing that. As you can see, Mark treasured it.”
Mark’s classmates started to gather around. Charlie smiled rather sheepishly and said, “I still have my list. I keep it in the top drawer of my desk at home.”
Chuck’s wife said, “Chuck asked me to put his in our wedding album. I have mine too,”
Marilyn said. “It’s in my diary.” Then Vicki reached into her pocketbook, took out her wallet and showed her worn and frazzled list to the group. “I carry this with me at all times. I take it out and look at it every time I need encouragement. We all saved our lists.” *
Do you still have the people in mind I asked you about? Sometime today, tomorrow, or this week, practice addition. Add an encouraging word to their lists. Send a text, an email, or make a phone call. Let them know how much you appreciate them and care about them. Offer a kind, caring, encouraging word. After all, God sent us his Word. Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Be who God created you to be, use your words to make a difference in the lives of the people entrusted to your care. And remember, who you are is how you lead.
You will find more stories on the power of words in the following blogs found at transformationmission.org/blog.
Give God thanks for the people you met today.
- How did you experience talking with people?
- How did you pay attention to your words?
- When did you use kind, caring, supportive, and encouraging words?
- When did you use words you later wish you had not used?
- What did you learn about yourself and about the words you use?
- In whom did you experience God’s love?
- With whom did you share God’s love?
- Who is helping you grow as a leader?
- What will you do differently tomorrow?
- Ask God to give you the faith to be the leader God has created you to be.
Gracious God, guide me today to be an instrument of healing and hope in the world. Help me to be a bearer of good news, planting words of love and hope in the hearts and minds of others. May all that I say and do today give you glory and work for the good of the people you have entrusted to me. In Christ’s name, Amen.
*Story adapted an article in The Reader’s Digest written by Sister Helen Mrosla, a Franciscan nun and the teacher in the story. The story first appeared in the Topeka Capitol-Journal in 1998.