May I offer you an encouraging word today? You are leading during a very difficult time. There is disagreement and separation at every turn, and you are expected to offer hope in the midst of grief and pain. The reality is that people want leaders who offer hope. It is the kind of hope that brings reassurance and encouragement.
The Apostle Paul
So, may I offer you encouragement? Although this is a challenging time, there have been challenging times in the past. The apostle Paul faced a difficult leadership challenge in the church at Ephesus. It was a diverse church with a clashing of values much like today. There were Jews who had deep ethical standards. They were people who lived with strong religious and traditional values. There were Gentiles who had a different world view and a different set of strong values, different from the Jews. Paul addressed the challenge by teaching about new life in Christ, a life where Jews and Gentiles could live together in mutual respect and relationship.
He grounded his teaching in love, agape. It was the kind of love that worked for the good and well-being of all persons, friends, family, strangers, and even enemies. His teaching has become part of the values of the Christian faith today.
In the midst of the conflict, he wrote the following words:
Read Ephesians 4:29
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths but only what is good for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. (NRSV)
Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you. (Good News Version)
Let me offer encouragement to you and give you a tool for offering encouragement and hope to the people entrusted to your care.
Take a moment to think about the context in which you are leading. Picture in your mind one or two persons who need encouragement. These persons might be family, friends, church members, or persons who cause you pain and grief. Think of each person as someone who needs to experience God’s grace. Get a face in mind and a name on your lips.
Now, read and reflect on the following story*:
There was a first-year teacher at Saint Mary’s School in Morris, Minnesota. She said she had thirty-four students who were all dear to her, but one student stood out. His name was Mark Eklund. 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 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 she said 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. At my desk, I 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 and the teacher was asked 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 asks 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. Charlie smiled. 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, send a word of encouragement. Send a text or email letting them know how much you love and appreciate them. Make a phone call so they can hear your voice. Better yet, when you are face to face, let them hear and see how much you appreciate them and care about them.
While you are doing that, I want you to know how much I love and appreciate you. I am grateful to be in ministry with you, sharing life with you, and learning and growing in grace with you.
The best encouraging word I can offer to you is Jesus, God’s Word made real in our lives. Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Take a moment to take a walk with Jesus and let his presence be an encouragement to you. Let God’s Word take up residence in your life.
Now, share kind, caring, supportive, and encouraging words today.
At the end of day:
Give God thanks for the people you encountered today. Give thanks for them and how they have added to your life. With whom did you offer words of encouragement and care? Give God thanks for those opportunities. How were you encouraged by the persons with whom you offered encouragement? Remember, who you are is how you lead. Ask God to love and encourage others through your words of encouragement. Be reminded that your leadership is only as good as your word.
*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 Capital-Journal in 1998.