Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Power of a Word of Thanks

On December 19th, I celebrated my 40th Anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. That morning I opened my email and found a note of thanksgiving for my ministry. It came from Professor Louie Crew a long-time leader in the Episcopal Church, and an activist for the full inclusion of all people in our faith community. For many years now, like many Episcopal Clergy, I receive a note of encouragement from him on my birthday, my wedding anniversary, and my ordination anniversary. Here is the interesting thing about all this; Professor Crew and I have found ourselves on opposite sides of issues over the years, yet, every year I get words of encouragement from him. This intentional act on his part is more than I have ever received from any other church leader including the eleven Bishops in the seven dioceses that I have served.

I remember how such affirmations and encouragement have helped me over the years when I did get them. For example, one Christmas I opened a Christmas card from Bishop John Krum of Southern Ohio. I was a chaplain resident in Cincinnati and on Sunday provided supply services at one of his congregations, although I was not canonically resident in his diocese. The card had a printed greeting. On the inside he had hand written, “Thank you for helping with our congregation in Norwood. It means much to me.” At that point in my life when I would have doubted that the Bishop of that diocese even knew who I was, it meant a great deal. 30 years later, I still remember it! Even more significant was the fact that up to then, 10 years into ordained ministry, it was the only such personal note I had ever received from a Bishop.

Of course, I have received much encouragement over the years from many folks inside the Church. I felt well affirmed by Bishop Payne in Texas, but then I worked closely with him as a member of his staff. However, I worked closely with him and I am not sure the other clergy of the diocese felt the same. Actually, I think if we are honest about it that we clergy would have to admit that affirmation and encouragement from our leaders comes seldom and far between.

I say all this not to make any of you feel bad. I actually want like to affirm all you who give leadership in the Church. What I do want to say is that my 40 years of experience tells me that when it comes to affirmation and encouragement, there is a drought in the Church. What is strange about all this is that you would think Christian leaders would be people who especially were abundant in our praise and encouragement of others. I think of the example of St. Paul who began all his letters save one with a generous thanksgiving for the church he was writing, and ended most of his letters with acknowledgement of individuals in these local communities. After all, the great commission is to make disciples, but the great commandment is to love one another.

Personally, I would have to admit that I have been slow to figure out the importance of such words of affirmations. Today, when I look upon the revitalization of the Cathedral here in Dallas, a struggling, multi-cultural and bi-lingual inner city parish, I can most attribute our positive movement to a decision I make early on to affirm and love our folks, especially our leaders. I only regret that I haven’t done it more.

I think clergy leaders need to remind ourselves that the Church in our age is entirely a volunteer organization. Our people come, work, and give because they want to do this. They choose to do it in our congregations. We should be thankful for this and make our thanks known.

One of my dearest mentors told me that he kept a stack of Thank You cards on his desk in his office. He regularly scheduled a time each week when he would stop everything else and prayerfully write thank you cards to members of his large congregation. I admired what he did. I only wish I had followed his example better. I cannot help but wonder what a healthier and better community we would be if all our leaders could show much more encouragement and thanksgiving to others.

A few Sundays ago, one of our pre-school children came up to me after the main service and said, “Dean Kevin, can I give you a hug?” And even before I could say yes, she stepped forward and gave me one. “Yes,” I said to her, “even Deans need hugs.” To my surprise and delight, she smiled and said, “Yes, I know.”


Martha said...

Thank you Kevin! My experience of working with you was one of encouragement and appreciation!


Malcolm+ said...

Sadly, my frequent experience (and not just in the church) is that words of encouragement come in the context of discipline. I've been on both ends of this, giving and receiving. It's a technique I learned in the Canadian Froces - the colourfully named "s**t sandwich." For minor failings, it was one piece of s**t between two pieces of praise. For more serious failings, the reverse.