The world, our churches, and our leaders are in an encouragement drought. While we are able to track approval–through likes, retweets, and comments, we are rarely extend affirmation for who we are and what is done through us. Social media is cheap affirmation and its help is fleeting in the life of a person. We are thirsty for encouragement Leaders and communities need to be reminded they are on the right track, they’re moving forward, and God is at work. More importantly, we all need to be shown the transformation God is doing as we follow Jesus. Encouragement, as a leadership skill is not a matter of boosting the esteem of others. Rather, it is crucial to our worship of God and his glorious works. Encouragement is important because it is how we notice and remember God’s gracious transformation of our lives. Sam Crabtree, in his book, Practicing Affirmation, makes this connection well:

“To affirm Christlikeness in transformed believers is to affirm what Christ purchased with his own blood. I am suggesting that we rob God of praise by not pointing out his reflection in the people he has knit together in his image.”

When a leader and their team move exclusively from one strategy, issue, concern, or opportunity to the next, they miss the transforming work God is doing through their obedience. Through leadership development, we see God do miraculous things like give confidence to the cowardly, patience to the uptight, grace to the perfectionist, and hope to the despairing. If we see inattentive and disobedient leaders turn their ear to God in prayer and then take steps of faith, we ought to celebrate! This is what encouragement is in leadership and mentoring relationships: bringing clarity to the work that God is doing in and through the life of the leader and celebrating it! Our people need this sort of clarity. Sadly, we’ve not only forgotten to encourage, we’ve forgotten how.

RELEARNING THIS LEADERSHIP SKILL

Encouragement ought to be specific. Meaning you acknowledge and celebrate a real action, attitude, repentance, and character growth in the leader. Good encouragement isn’t a generic: “You’ve grown and you’re doing a good job.” Instead it is: “You’ve grown as a leader, establishing boundaries and understanding your limits. Just look at last week when you told a person in your community that you couldn’t help them but needed to take a day to rest after a week of travel! That’s huge!”

Encouragement ought to be genuine. You can’t do encouragement well if you are doing it simply because you think you ought to do it. Instead, you truly have to be caught up in the wonder, grace, and transformation the person is experiencing. You must agree with the encouragement and not force it.

Encouragement ought to be timely. Try to encourage your team or leaders you are developing soon after they have experienced and done the thing you are encouraging them in. Encouragement looses its impact when you say in June: “You guys really did a great job celebrating Christmas as a community! Wow, I don’t remember the details, but I remember thinking it was good.”

Encouragement ought to be relevant. I’ve frequently been caught in the desire to encourage a leader so badly it comes from left field and isn’t about what they are experiencing at all in the moment. To be relevant you have to be disciplined to listen and see the work of God in and through them.

Encouragement ought to be theologically true and aligned with the gospel. For example, you wouldn’t say, “Look at all the people you are saving! Wow, remember that guy you singlehandedly rescued!” Unless you are talking to Jesus (or Superman), this is heresy. Instead you might say, “God really has you in a fruitful season right now. He is using you to bring people into the family of God and you are physically showing God’s love to people through your sacrifice and generosity. The gospel is being clarified through that.”

Encouragement doesn’t have to be about them or something they are doing well. Many times, if not all the time, a clear and relevant articulation of the gospel and the pilgrimage that is discipleship, with its ups and downs, is itself encouragement. Often, this can be a reading of a passage of Scripture that you think they might need to hear is more helpful than hearing about what is going well. Remember, encouragement brings clarity to the work God has and is doing.

Encouragement Experiment

Think of three people you can encourage today. Think of something that is timely, relevant, true, and genuine and share it with them. You are guaranteed to see something that resembles a thirsty person receiving a drink of water. Follow that encouragement with a question. Questions after an encouragement can be powerful. For example, you could ask:

  • What do you think is causing that growth?
  • What has changed that allows you to be believing and doing these things?
  • How do you see your growth in this area?
  • What would help you excel even more in this transformation?

This practice done on repeat will develop leaders and disciples faster than any system, document, or training.

Brad A. Watson serves as a pastor of Bread&Wine Communities in Portland, Oregon where he develops, coaches, and trains leaders to form communities that love God and serve the city. Brad is passionate about helping people live lives that reflect their belief and hope in Jesus. He lives in southeast Portland with his wife and their three kids.