Small gestures can set the tone for a leader, writes Louis Weeks.
The woman sitting in the pew next to me showed me a card, part of what she called her “flower ministry.” It was a simple folding thing and inside it said: “These flowers have been in our church where hymns were sung, prayers offered and the sermon preached. Now with their silent message they come to you with our love and good wishes.” The little card also offered the priestly benediction from Numbers 6: 24, “The Lord bless you…”
“I feel so good about taking the flowers to the sick and frail on Sunday afternoons,” she said. “It makes the trips wonderful.”
The gift this woman offered, which might be considered a little thing in the wider consideration of congregational life, meant a great deal to shut-ins and those in hospitals. This card also made her feel fulfilled in the ministry and gave her words she could not say on her own.
As a pastor, seminary president and researcher, I have discovered that little things make a big difference. People in positions of leadership should remember that it’s not just the grand gestures that set the tone for their tenure -- it’s also the small gestures along the way.
Once I started paying attention to those little things, I was haunted frequently by Kitty Kallen’s song “Little Things Mean a Lot.” Those of us around in the early 1950s could not avoid the hit song. In it, Kallen declares she doesn’t want diamonds or pearls. What does she really want?
“Say I look nice when I'm not
Touch my hair as you pass my chair
Little things mean a lot.”
Soon after arriving as the new president of Union Seminary in Virginia, I received a phone call from a former professor. “I wrote you last week, and you have not responded,” he said. As I stammered to excuse myself because of the enormous number of letters and messages I had received, he laughed and said: “I know. It’s just that someone in your shoes needs to be prompt about saying, ‘I hear you.’ Then you can take your time in making substantial replies.”
I remembered a university president known for writing brief notes. He wrote personal notes -- handwritten -- and people remembered him for it. I determined to try my hand. Same with personal emails I received. I tried to say “thank you” even for messages generated on a listserv. The time it took was minimal, and I discovered deeper relationships developed more quickly when someone got back an “I hear you,” even if the real reply came later.
I learned to attend to other “little things” around the school as well and teamed with others who cared about such matters -- getting the quadrangle clock accurate and to chime musically, getting speedy recognition to donors, having good signage, sprucing up the grounds, insuring hospitable people were on the lookout when visitors were expected.
Little things. Learning the names of students, remembering the names of spouses and children, sending baby tee-shirts to newborns, writing staff on anniversaries and birthdays -- little things.
In my research among church leaders for my book on church scutwork, I also found that healthy congregations attend to little things. One example I love came from the office of Larry Chapin, former pastor of the Chester Presbyterian Church in suburban Richmond, Va.
Once, while I was in his office, his phone rang. Larry said, “Excuse me” and picked up the receiver. “Yes, Jen?”
(Pause while he listened.)
“Yes. I see. I think we can wait. He’s out of town until next Tuesday, I think. I’d like him to know everything you and I know before we go ahead, and there’s no real crunch. We have the time.
(Pause while he listened.)
“Yes. Good idea. Please do. Bye.”
“That was our bookkeeper,” Chapin said. He explained that the bookkeeper was ready to send out several year-end benevolence checks approved by the mission committee, but for several reasons, he was concerned about sending them out while the committee chair was out of town.
“I do not want to undercut his authority. I don’t want him to be surprised, or hindered later,” Chapin said. He encouraged the bookkeeper to call the committee chair before sending the checks.
Here was a little thing, done instinctively and efficiently. He turned a phone call into an act of mature ministry. Note his intuitive respect for lay authority, his positive, supportive response to a staff member and his succinct conversation. He was engaged in church administration as pastoral care, developing leaders and respecting everyone in the process.
Afterward Chapin said: “Our relationships are made of thousands of little transactions. I know I cannot give attention to every one of them, but the more I can use constructively, the better I can serve.”
He did a little thing, one that meant a lot.