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Inspired to be encouragers

Encouragersby Jennifer Hackbarth

A retired pastor recently described how, when he was serving as senior pastor of a large congregation, he would take time each Monday morning to write thank-you notes. He observed the congregation carefully throughout the week and noticed the quiet contributions: the ushers who picked up stray bulletins, the couple who swept cobwebs, the woman who polished the pews, the acolyte who shuffled through the church doors a minute before the service. It’s a practice I attempt to replicate in my own setting. But I confess that often many weeks fly by before I remember my stack of thank-you notes tucked behind a cabinet door above my desk.
And I confess that I haven’t always done that. The first congregation I served was in western Minnesota, minutes from the South Dakota border. My church stood in a tiny town surrounded by fields of corn, soybeans and wheat. I had never lived in a farm community before, and I had much to learn.

The first thing I discovered was the dedication and ownership church members felt for their congregation’s building. Because I was a new pastor, it took me several months to realize how unusual it was that I never opened the church on Sunday mornings. No matter how early I arrived, even when the temperatures were well below zero and the winds were howling, even when ice covered the roads and I slid into my parking space, the church was always open. It was lit and toasty, ready to welcome all to worship.

A decade later, I’m still not certain who unlocked the doors and cranked up the heat or opened the windows each Sunday morning. I have a good guess; but as I picture the congregation in my mind, it could have been any number of them.

Perhaps they were stepping in to make up for my soft newness at ministry and rural life. Perhaps they surmised that I would never remember to turn on the furnace as I raced around the church preparing for worship; and they would all end up wrapping themselves in their winter coats, shivering in the pews. Perhaps they witnessed a young and inexperienced pastor fumbling with a weighty set of church keys, barreling through the handful of city streets in a used Chevy truck she never felt comfortable driving, preaching to herself on the 15-mile commute Sunday mornings from the open country parsonage of the church her husband served. Yes, that was me: young and inexperienced.

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Not everyone gets thanked

Whatever the reason, I never slid a key into a lock on Sunday mornings, and I never said thank you to the folks who made sure this task was done each and every week.

I regret not writing a gratitude-filled note to those who faithfully created a warm, inviting church each week in that tiny town on the prairie. Yet a reality of bustling church life is that not everyone gets thanked when they should. Not everyone receives the accolades they deserve.
I’m confident that the people who roused themselves out of bed on those bitter Sunday mornings and trudged to church didn’t do it for recognition. They did it because it was their ministry, their way to further God’s kingdom and practice their gift of hospitality. They continued to open the church doors, warm up the building and switch on the lights long after I left.

Today, there’s nothing that cuts me to the quick quite like realizing someone’s hard work in the church has gone unrecognized and under-appreciated. Yet it happens regularly. I can’t decide whether it’s a reality that needs to be accepted or a problem that needs to be fixed. There are times when hurt feelings are valid; times when someone gets overlooked. There are also times when our egos get in the way and we begin to feel entitled to accolades for our contributions.

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Encouragement transforms us

A culture of gratitude is crucial, yet a culture of encouragement is transformational. There are times when we need to step out of the spotlight and allow others to participate. Can we be okay with being part of a group effort? When is it not so important to be recognized?

How do we recognize those times when our egos take over, when we expect credit for the wrong reasons? I wonder if it happens when we cease to find joy in our tasks—when they become drudgery rather than life-giving, when they become projects to dread rather than anticipate. I wonder if it happens when we become wrapped up in tasks to the detriment of the rest of our lives—when we’ve given so much to them that we feel entitled to receive something back. I wonder if it happens when we’re feeling insecure and need affirmation that we’re valuable.

We grasp at recognition even though we can’t control what kind of accolades we’ll receive. We stretch ourselves too thin, trying to please and satisfy and delight and achieve. Gratitude becomes something to attain rather than something to enjoy. Rather than share it, we hoard it.

In John 14:16-17 Jesus declares, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

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Walk alongside each other

John uses the Greek word paracletos to describe the Holy Spirit, which can be translated as “advocate”, one who offers encouragement or—to get to its most basic meaning—one who comes alongside us. The Holy Spirit walks with us as our helper, supporter and inspirer. And when we come alongside each other with encouragement, we are living out the Holy Spirit’s invitation. Rather than demanding gratitude and praise for our tasks, we search for ways to recognize others and embolden them to live out their gifts for ministry and for life. When we do that, we’re living out the Holy Spirit’s very being.

At another congregation I served, one member took on the job of recruiting the volunteers for vacation Bible school every year. She quietly invited more than 100 adults to help with set-up, run games, teach classes, bring food and cover all the other countless tasks that were required. VBS week was a major outreach for the congregation, with kids from all over the neighborhood attending.

People started looking forward to her phone calls even though they knew no one could say no to her—because when people were invited into ministry, encouraged to use their gifts, and knew someone had seen them and thought they could contribute—how could anyone decline?

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Unleash others' gifts

Vacation Bible school flourished under her support, yet I don’t ever remember seeing her at a vacation Bible school event. She preferred to do her work behind the scenes, using her extraordinary gifts of connection and inspiration to support a thriving program. People felt deep gratitude for her work. But her joy came in knowing she’d been instrumental in unleashing the gifts of others, which led to more than 100 volunteers living out their faith and strengthening their relationship with Jesus every summer.

The Bible describes several dramatic and memorable scenes with the Holy Spirit. One such scene was Pentecost, when the Spirit stormed through a house and burned as tongues of flames above the disciples’ heads. Another was the spectacular conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus.
 Yet we forget in most cases that the Spirit chooses to work in small, mundane ways in our everyday lives. The Spirit doesn’t attempt to draw attention to itself. Rather, it focuses on creating and strengthening our relationship with Jesus Christ. The Spirit makes us children of God, inviting us into the family of Christ as full heirs. It walks alongside us each day, supporting our fumbling faith and giving us hope and encouragement.

Joining with Christ doesn’t mean we’ll receive accolades or appreciation for all we do. When we’re one with the Spirit, we are sent into the world to live lives full of self-giving love. We will experience the peace that passes all understanding. We will enter the pain of the world in profound ways.

After the Spirit descended on Jesus in his baptism, it immediately drove him into the desert where he endured temptation and hunger. As Christians, we can’t expect our faith will bring us positive recognition. Walking in Jesus’ footsteps means trekking to the cross.
To be communities of the Spirit is to be encouragers of one another as we live out our faith. I’ve witnessed choir directors nurturing apprehensive soloists. I’ve watched church members visit scared patients. I’ve seen adult mentors invite kids to usher. I’ve participated in challenging conversations in church about peace and justice.

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Serving becomes a joy

The delightful reality is that I’ll never be able to thank every single person who helps around church or lives out their faith in this place because I can’t keep up with the amount of dedicated acts of service. I would have to purchase enormous stacks of thank-you notes and spend every day writing them.

When we lift up the gifts of others, the good work of the church is spread among many; and serving becomes a joy instead of a burden. I pray that our faith communities are places filled with gratitude and appreciation for the countless acts of generosity that happen inside and outside our doors.

Yet I also pray that the Holy Spirit inspires us to be communities of encouragement where we challenge each other to live out the self-giving love of Jesus—where unexpected people are recognized as examples, where kids are emboldened as leaders, where quiet ones are heard as speakers, where we say to all, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” 

The Rev. Jennifer Hackbarth Jennifer Hackbarth serves as pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Church, White Bear Lake, Minn. She and her husband have two young children. She blogs at www.narratinggrace.wordpress.com. (back to top)

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