A few months after my husband and I began leading worship at church—a ministry we entered into with fear, trepidation, and a very real sense that we had no idea what we were doing—I found a note in our mailbox. The handwritten message from a couple in our fellowship read, “We wanted to let you know how much we enjoy the song part of the service when you lead.”
Oh, the beauty of unexpected encouragement! God’s Word instructs all believers to practice this spiritual discipline (see 1 Thessalonians 5:11 and Hebrews 3:13). But how do we do it? And do it often? And do it well? Here are six habits the encouragers around me practice with grace.
1. Just say so. How many times have you thought something nice about a friend but not said anything? A simple, genuine “that dress looks fabulous on you” or “you do a great job working with the kids at church” will probably make her day…or her year.
Do you admire your child’s teacher? Are you praying for a co-worker who’s struggling? Could new parents at church use some assurance they’re doing a great job? The point is to say it, tweet it, text it, or message it, not just think it!
2. Be aware. Skilled encouragers notice needs around them. Years ago, our family finances suffered one blow after another, and I carried my worry with me everywhere. Two weeks into our crisis, Julie, a friend in my church family, sent a card. “I wanted to drop a note of encouragement to you. I have noticed the past few Sundays that you have been under a lot of stress. If you need an ear to listen or to connect with another stay-at-home mom, don’t hesitate to call.” Julie’s well-timed words did not solve our financial problems, but they encouraged me because they were the best kind of gift: the one you need but haven’t even asked for.
3. Find an “expert.” You might not know what will truly encourage someone going through a difficult time. But you probably do know someone who has been through a similar struggle. Ask them, “What was helpful to you?” Gleaning the wisdom of those who have “been there” allows you to tell the recipient of your encouragement, “I do not know what you are going through. I have not been where you are. But I’ve talked to someone who has, and this is what helped her. Maybe it will help you too.”
4. Exit your comfort zone. Does this excuse sound familiar (it does to me!)? : “I’m just not comfortable getting involved.”
Being an encourager has nothing to do with feeling comfortable. One of my friends made an effort to build up her co-workers in spite of the fact that she describes herself as “pretty much an introvert.” She decided to be more deliberate about keeping her office door open and talking to other employees directly. “I began realizing how wounded others were. I began to feel that God wanted me to reach out and be an encourager where I could. I try to notice people and comment on something concerning them. Sometimes it’s just a ‘how are you doing?’ and waiting to hear the answer.”
Your willingness to enter into a tense situation can be encouraging in and of itself. After my cousin’s daughter was diagnosed with a childhood cancer, friends and family descended on the little girl’s hospital room. “Knowing people cared enough to visit was amazing to me,” my cousin recalls. “I know how hard it is to walk into an emotionally charged situation and try to offer what you can.” The fact that you are willing to enter an “uncomfortable” situation says to the person in crisis, “This problem is not so bad it has scared me away.”
Keep in mind that phrases such as “I’m so sorry” do not have to solve a problem to be healing. When my husband and I lost our second child to miscarriage, words I previously thought meant nothing suddenly meant everything. They told us that what hurt us hurt someone else, too. They told us that our sorrow wasn’t ours alone.
5. Spend the time. In the days and weeks after my friend Lori became a widow at age 32, supporters dropped off food, sent cards, and split wood for Lori’s winter fuel supply. “All of those have one thing in common: people taking time out of their busy lives to show they care,” Lori told me.
When my friend Pam fell and broke her ankle, her first thought was, “Who’s going to take care of my family?” Relatives, friends, and church members answered that question—and one more: “who’s going to take care of Pam?” During weeks of near-confinement to a recliner, phone calls and leisurely conversations with visitors helped Pam hold on to her sanity. A dropped-off meal can nourish a body, but time spent in conversation can nourish a soul.
6. Keep on keeping on. Those walking through a valley often receive abundant help when they first enter that low place. But if they stay there very long, outpourings of kindness can diminish as friends and family begin to view the person’s burden as a “normal” part of life. Keep this in mind: just because you’ve gotten used to the idea of a friend’s struggle or suffering doesn’t mean your friend has gotten used to the reality of it.
One Valentine’s Day, God brought to mind a friend in the midst of a long, unbearably painful martial separation. Knowing she would be alone on a day devoted to love, I invited her to dinner. Together, we enjoyed a Valentine’s celebration that, unlike so many others, I will not soon forget.
A woman named Vi is a gifted encourager in our church who nicknamed the other three members of my little family “charming Chad,” “lovely Lydia,” and “adorable Anna.” Searching for a fitting “e” adjective for me, Vi came up with “elegant Elizabeth.” I certainly don’t mind being referred to as “elegant,” but I’m thinking if I work long and hard at weaving some new habits into the pattern of my life, Vi might assign me a new description: encouraging Elizabeth.
About the Author
Elizabeth Spencer is a follower of Christ, wife, homemaker, and mom to two daughters. She blogs about baking, country living, family life, chocolate, and mothering imperfectly at guiltychocoholicmama.blogspot.com and writes Bible studies for tween and teen girls at sweetforyoursoul.blogspot.com. In her spare time, she plays the piano badly and works on her family’s 100-year-old farmhouse.