In my early ministry I had two short exchange pastorates in the USA – the first at Buffalo Lick Baptist Church in Kentucky, the second at Peach Tree Baptist Church Georgia. There I experienced affirmation ‘in overdrive’. At the end of the service people would come up to me at the church door and tell me ‘what a mighty fine preacher’ I was. One Sunday I had had enough, so instead of going to the door to say goodbye to people, I just stood by the pulpit. To my embarrassment, people lined up at the pulpit to tell me what a ‘mighty fine preacher’ I was. It all seemed too unreal.
By contrast with our distant American ‘cousins’, who major on positivity, we Brits – together with our nearer Australian and New Zealander cousins – tend to be critical of the achievements of others. One expression of this is the ‘tall poppy syndrome’, in which we put down other people who in one way or another have done well. We, as it were, cut down the tallest poppies in the field so that they are the same size of others. But that is often untrue and unfair, and born out of envy. By contrast Margaret Thatcher, prior to becoming Prime Minister, explained her political philosophy to an American audience as ‘let your poppies grow tall’. That is a much more positive approach to life. Although, on reflection, in view of the diversity of people’s gifts, maybe we should recognise that not just the poppies, but the roses and tulips and other beautiful flowers also need to grow tall too. Whatever, we need to affirm the talents and achievements of others.
I shall never forget my first experience of Spring Harvest, the Easter holiday Bible teaching event, where I had been invited to be one of the main speakers. On the first full day there was a meeting of speakers and helpers at which one of the leaders challenged us to major on the positive. Instead of being critical about the sessions, he asked us to find something positive to say about one another. Amazingly, this was what happened. By the end of the week I seemed to be walking on air. It was a wonderfully affirming experience.
Precisely because affirmation makes such a difference, when I later came to draw up a team covenant for my staff, one of the practices I encouraged was positivity. “In our relationships with one another – and indeed with the rest of the church – we will always exude a positive spirit. We will shun negative talking and thinking. We will instead affirm one another and will speak well of one another.”
I had learnt that if we want to get the best from people, then appreciation is what is required. According to William James, ‘The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated’. We all have our ups and downs. What a difference a word of encouragement then makes. I am reminded of a legend, which told of how one day God decided to reduce the weapons in the Devil’s armoury. God told Satan that he could choose only one ‘fiery dart’. Satan chose the power of discouragement, on the ground that ‘if only I can persuade Christians to be thoroughly discouraged, they will make no further effort and I shall be enthroned in their lives’. Although but a legend, it does point to the desirability of regular encouragement. Indeed, this is what Scripture affirms (see 1 Thess 5.11 & Hebs 10.25).
It is also what the psychologists affirm. In a ground-breaking paper entitled ’The theory of human motivation’, Abraham Maslow argued that esteem is one of five basic human needs: He wrote:
All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, (usually) high evaluation of themselves, for self-respect, or self-esteem, and for the esteem of others. By firmly based self-esteem, we mean that which is soundly based upon real capacity, achievement and respect from others. Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability and adequacy of being useful and necessary in the world.
In other words, if we are to motivate volunteers, then we need to affirm this. In this regard it is not enough to write a thank-you note to people who helped at a church event – good leaders will also say how much they appreciated the help that was given and what a difference that help has made. Even better, good leaders will express their appreciation publicly. What a difference it makes when ministers publicly praise members of their congregation for their achievements, rather than themselves take the credit for what has happened. This ensures that in a church there is always a large base of willing volunteers.
Now as a retired minister, on a Sunday I look for what was good in the sermon and to express my appreciation accordingly. I find it significant that the Greek verb which is normally translated by our English word ‘encourage‘(parakaleo) literally means to ‘come alongside’. It can have the sense of to ‘instil someone with courage or cheer’, and the cognate noun (‘Paraclete’) is used by John in the farewell discourses of Jesus (John 14-16). I like to think that when I draw alongside a minister with a word of affirmation and encouragement, I am sharing in the ministry of God himself. The fact is that constant affirmation, which is rooted in reality, builds up others.