In his book Becoming a Person of Influence, John Maxwell describes an experiment that was conducted to test people’s capacity to endure pain. Individuals were asked to stand barefoot in a bucket of ice water for as long as they could. Psychologists discovered one factor that helped one group of people remain in the bucket for twice as long as the others– encouragement.
On any given day, every single person in your small group or sphere of discipleship is standing in a bucket of ice water. That bucket could be their career, their relationships, their self-esteem, their relationship with God, etc. The ability to communicate encouragement is a vital leadership skill; we can help them endure the bucket.
The Biblical Greek word that we typically translate into “encourage” is parakaleo, which means, “to call alongside.” The word was used to describe appropriate aid given to an object under some sort of pressure. Ancient Greek authors occasionally described military reinforcements using parakaleo. Paul repeatedly referenced the importance of communication in his letters to the churches, and the noun and verb forms of the word show up in the New Testament epistles over 75 times.
Paul told pastors Timothy and Titus to both rebuke and encourage (2 Timothy 4:2, Titus 2:15). He sent Tychicus to the churches at Ephesus and Colosse to update them on Paul’s ministry and to encourage them (Ephesians 6:21-22, Colossians 4:8), and he sent Timothy to the church at Thessalonica to encourage them (1 Thessalonians 3:2). The writer of Hebrews issued the challenge to “encourage one another daily.” Barnabas was a nickname that meant “Son of Encouragement.”
Some people are natural encouragers. You can’t escape from their presence without feeling better about yourself. Certain names probably jump immediately to your mind. One of my mentors, Mike Mathews, cannot write an email unless it is dripping with encouragement. For a few people, encouragement is a spiritual gift that oozes from their pores. For most of us, it is a leadership skill that can and must be cultivated.
Think of two types of encouragement. The first is what I call the “star on the homework.” Remember in elementary school when teachers distributed stars, smiley faces, and other stickers to celebrate a job well done? Star on the homework is about recognizing and applauding a job well done. Author George M. Adams said, “There are high spots in all of our lives and most of them have come about through encouragement from someone else. I don’t care how great, how famous or successful a man or woman may be, each hungers for applause.” This first type is about celebrating the gifts, wins, and accomplishments in a person’s life.
The second type of encouragement is the “good swift kick in the pants” form of encouragement. It’s more than just cheering someone across the finish line. It’s about jumping down onto the track, picking them up, and running with them. It’s the type of encouragement that lifts people up when they are weak, challenges them when they are complacent, and stretches them when they stop growing.
People need both types of encouragement at different times. It’s also good to think in terms of areas of encouragement. As a leader, you can specifically encourage people in two primary areas:
Encourage their gifts. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he reminded him, “Do not neglect your gift” (1 Timothy 4:4). In his second letter to Timothy, Paul challenged Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God (2 Timothy 1:6). God will help you identify natural and spiritual gifts in the lives of those you lead, and it is your responsibility to acknowledge those gifts, encourage them in their gifts, and identify opportunities for them to use their gifts. Sometimes, you will need to encourage gifts that others do not see yet.
Encourage their growth. Paul’s letters are crammed full of encouragement to the churches and to individual leaders. Godly encouragement is important to helping people stay firm and to take next steps. It strengthens those who are feeling weak or are tempted to do less than their best.
Here are some practical tips to help you grow as an encourager:
Pray. God knows where people need to be encouraged and how they need to be encouraged. Through prayer, the Holy Spirit can help you discern a person’s gifts and passions and guide you in how to encourage them in those areas. Prayer helps you see people as God sees people.
Listen well. When we listen, we can more clearly hear people’s hearts. Listening well builds trust and security and creates environments where encouragement can happen.
Believe the best about people. John Maxwell said, “Believing the best about people usually brings the best out of people.” Some people require “convincing,” and your leadership can convince them of their gifts.
Set a goal to make someone’s day. I am convinced that ninety-percent of encouragement is simply being aware of the need to encourage. We need to get it on the forefront of our minds and make it a priority of our everyday life. Prayer gets it on the radar screen. Setting a goal helps us put it into action. Pick one person. Go ahead, do it right now. Maybe it’s that person sitting beside you in the office. Maybe it’s someone in your small group. Maybe it’s the homeless person you pass each day as you walk to the metro. Okay, got that person in mind? Now, think of something you could say or do to make their day. If you have trouble coming up with an idea, pray. The Holy Spirit knows exactly what would make that person’s day.
Look for reasons to celebrate. Lisa Suwandi and Lanre Williams are the masters of this. Their group is constantly celebrating the small wins and the big wins. They celebrate baptisms, the end of semesters, new jobs, and the work God is doing within them and through them. Their blog is a source of on-going encouragement by group members for group members.
Romans 12:10 says
“Love each other with genuine affection and take delight in honoring one another.” What are five creative ways you can encourage the people that you lead