"Nobody has ever told me that before," she said to me. Her tired voice and tired posture betrayed years of faithful ministry work that had gone unnoticed and unappreciated. It was my first week on the job as a Senior Pastor and I had much to learn about shepherding God's people. But one thing I carried with me from childhood, something my mother taught me repeatedly, is the value of a simple "thank you" to those who work with and for you. So I said thank you to this church lady for volunteering every week for one of our key ministry programs.
Leaders of all types have one thing to give to their people that nobody else can give: encouragement. By this I don't mean flattery that withholds useful criticism and coaching. I mean a simple affirmation of their gifts and their contributions. Even if you're managing people who make a salary and shouldn't have to be rewarded with praise for performance, you should still let them know periodically that they are valued and appreciated. If you're a pastor leading mostly volunteers, your gratitude is even more important. Volunteers don't have to give you their time and money, they do out of belief in the cause.
Sometimes Christians withhold praise from a kind of Pharisaical moral platform. I've heard longtime believers say, for instance, that we shouldn't clap after someone sings in church, for fear that this person might "get a big head and not give glory to God." For one thing, God never tasks you and me with the "Glory Watch" of others. What I mostly hear in Scripture is that any identification of pride is to be a Spirit-directed self-discipline. In other words, if there is anyone's pride who needs to be kept in check, its my own, not the dear saint who labored to give us some music on Sunday. And of course we have Jesus' own example of praising John the Baptist, calling him the greatest man who had ever lived (Matthew 11:7). One wonders if there was a know-it-all disciple within earshot who felt Jesus went a little far in his praise. Jesus also lamented that only one out of ten healed lepers expressed their praise to him. Ironically it was the Samaritan, the least likely object of a healing by a Jewish rabbi, who felt the weight of his miracle enough to offer praise. Often its those who expect miracles lose the wonder when they actually happen. Lack of gratitude, far from a minor character flaw, is at the root of man's disobedience from God. Satan's enticement of Eve began with the premise that God was withholding good and in Romans, we see the Apostle Paul finger this insidious sin as the root of human rebellion (Romans 1:18-32).
Those of us who have experienced an even greater miracle, whose souls have been cleansed by Jesus' healing death and resurrection, should be among the most grateful. Not only toward God who, through Christ, rescued us from death, but also toward those who He has sovereignly placed in our lives. Those who we are privileged to work with and around, the loved ones we live with, and friends who enrich our lives. For leaders, especially, gratitude should be a discipline. There are words we can speak to those who look up to us that only we can speak, words that mean more coming from our mouths than anyone else's. A son shouldn't assume his father loves and values him. He should actually hear, regularly, that his dad actually loves and values him. Employees shouldn't wait years to know their worth to the company. They should hear it, not in flattering, untrue ways, but in real, tangible, specific instances.
I have found, personally, that gratitude is like a muscle. I must discipline myself to exercise it regularly. So I must remind myself to daily affirm those I'm called to love at home, my wife and children. I must remind myself to notice something special about my staff. And I must regularly remind my friends how much I appreciate them.
I have found that when it comes to encouragement, I needn't worry whether or now my praise will "give someone a big head." The rough and tumble world already takes care of people's ego quite well without me. Plus, I've found that it's usually me with the biggest head and uttering words of gratitude usually let out some of the air.