Good leaders affirm the potential of those they lead. They bring out the best in them by showing them what they can be. That kind of affirmation gives people courage – the kind of courage that can propel them further than they ever thought possible.
Your congregation is hungry to know that you believe in them.
I have a trainer, a guy who goes to Saddleback and used to be a fitness trainer for the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Angels. I work out with him several times a week. He's a great friend, but I have one big problem with him. He keeps adding on more weight! He believes in me. That's what a good trainer does. He tells you that you can handle more weight.
And that's what a good leader does. Good leaders constantly tell people they can do better.
The truth is, everyone around you has tremendous potential. But we often miss it. Why? We're usually in a hurry. When I'm in a hurry, I don't stop to see other people's potential. Pastor, we're often on autopilot. We rush out the door and say, "Hey, how are you doing? Nice to see you." We don't even look people in the eye. We're not really talking to them. If you do that, you're going to miss a lot of potential in other people.
You can affirm people with just a look. When you give people your attention – your undivided attention – you're giving them the most valuable gift you can: your time. I remember one time I was reading the paper, and my daughter (when she was just a little girl) was trying to talk to me. Finally, she threw the paper down and grabbed my face. She said, "Look at me, Daddy!" I learned a lesson right there – love means looking.
Jesus showed us this, too, when talking to the Rich Young Ruler. Mark 10:21 says, "Jesus looked steadily at him and he was filled with love for him."
Notice that this Scripture says he "looked steadily" at the man. This might even have become uncomfortable for the Rich Young Ruler. But paying attention is an act of love.
When you look people in the eyes, you're giving them a gift. When you're shaking hands with people after the worship service, look them straight in the eyes. Give them the gift of attention. That'll affirm them.
Telling it like it could be
Of course, you can – and should – also affirm people with your words. Here's how you do it. Don't just tell it like it is. Tell it like it could be. That's affirmation. Telling it like it is doesn't change anyone. We've all sinned. That's not news. We all know we've messed up. Affirming people's potential means letting them know you believe they could become a godly person through Christ.
Again, Jesus did this. Jesus always told people what they could become, not what they were. Jesus looked at Peter and said, "You're a rock." Peter was anything but a rock. Peter was Mr. Impulsive. He was Mr. Foot-in-the-Mouth. This is the guy who says I'll never deny you and goes on to deny Jesus three times. He's the guy who impulsively jumped into the water with Jesus and sank. He was the kind of guy who'd pull out his sword and cut off an ear. Yet Jesus looked at him and let him know that he could be a rock. You look at Peter in the book of Acts, and you see that Jesus was absolutely right about Peter's potential.
Pastor, it's really a faith issue. To affirm the potential of others, you've got speak in faith about what God can do through their life. Matthew 9:29 (NIV) says, "According to your faith, it will be done to you." Have faith in what God can do through those you lead, and let people know it. Great leaders make other people feel great. That's a key.
You also affirm a person's potential by recognizing his or her uniqueness. One of the things I've learned as a parent is that it isn't my goal to re-make my kids in my image. I can't try to fulfill all my dreams through them. If we're not careful, we can do something similar with the people in our congregation. We project our gifts, talents, and interests on them. We assume they're good at the same things and interested in the same things that we are. That's downright discouraging – definitely not affirming. No one likes to hear over and over that they need to become something they're not.
People aren't things to be molded, like clay. That's not your job. That's manipulation – not leadership. People aren't things to be molded; they're lives to be unfolded. And that's what true leaders do. They unfold the lives of others and help them reach their God-given potential.
How do you do it?
1. Make affirmation real. Your affirmation has to come from the heart to be effective. Your people can smell it a mile away when you're faking it.
2. Make affirmation regular. Don't be stingy with your affirmation. This isn't something you do every now and then. It's something you do as a consistent part of your relationship with those you lead.
3. Make affirmation recognizable. Be specific with your affirmation. Don't just tell someone they're a good person. Tell them why. Tell them a character trait you appreciate in them. Affirm them for something you saw them do that you liked.
4. Make affirmation written. A written note means you've taken the time to affirm. I used to send most of my encouraging notes through email, but one sentence in a handwritten note is better than three paragraphs in an email.
You never know what one little note can do. Twenty years ago I wrote a short little note to a struggling seminary student. The student and his wife had lost everything they had when their U-Haul crashed and burst into flames on the way to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. They thought they were doing God's will and heading to seminary and lost everything in the process. His wife was very discouraged and eventually went back home to Colorado without him.
In a moment of personal crisis, David wrote to five well-known pastors, one of which was me. He got a handwritten note back from me that said, "David, I know you're going through a tough time right now, but hang in there. Put your marriage first. There's always a time for ministry. Put your marriage first. The tide goes out, but it will always come back in." I didn't know David at all then. But he followed the advice. Fifteen years later he became an Orange County Sheriff. Later, he started attending Saddleback and eventually joined our staff.
Pastor, you never know what kind of difference affirmation can make to someone. A good leader sees the best in people and lets them know it.