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Affirmation

“Thank you. I really appreciated that." These words light up the soul of any clergyperson or lay leader of a church, synagogue, temple or other congregation.

When we hear good things about ourselves and our work, it gives us energy, a renewed purpose and acknowledgement of our connection to others. But too often we don’t hear these words.

Sometimes we literally don’t hear these words even when they are spoken. A clergyperson might receive multiple positive comments about a sermon. The one comment that sticks with him or her throughout the week is this one: “That was disjointed. I didn’t understand the point."

One negative comment can overpower multiple positives, because we tend to let the positive comments go while repeating the criticisms over and over in our minds throughout the week. Add to that the fact that people are much more likely to criticize things that bother them than to praise things they like.

We tend to take the good things for granted. We expect the pastor to give good sermons, the committee chair to run a good

meeting. And at home, we expect our spouse to make dinner, our children to follow the rules.

Affirmation is important to our well-being, but it can be scarce in church and congregation leadership. How do we combat this?

  1. Don’t depend on the congregation to affirm you. Seek out outside sources. Tell colleagues, close friends or family about your successes. But especially, affirm yourself! Remember who you are and why you do what you do. Say supportive statements to yourself, such as: “These people don’t define me.” “They may not understand my whole job and what I am trying to achieve with this.” “He or she may be scared, or hurt, or seeking attention, and it has nothing to do with what I did or didn’t do.” “My actions, weren’t perfect, but it’s a huge improvement over what I did last week. I can keep working towards my goal.”  If you can’t affirm yourself, try seeking therapy.
  2.  Hold onto the moment when someone affirms you. Give these affirmations as much weight as the negatives, sometimes quite literally. For many years, both as a congregational pastor as a hospice chaplain, I kept an affirmation folder where I stashed thank you notes, complimentary emails and drawings that children had given me as gifts. Other people keep a mental file of complementary interactions.  In either case, pull them out when you need to remember why you do this work. If you aren’t a file person, at very least listen to the positive comments and repeat them to yourself later.
  3. Don’t equate negative comments with failure. None of us are perfect. Sometimes criticisms are given harshly. Because there is often a grain of truth in even in the most outrageous comments, they can hurt. We don’t like others to see our imperfections, but these negative comments can become growth experiences. Soften the way you receive harsh comments. Remind yourself, “It’s o.k. to have faults and personal challenges.” “I don’t need to be perfect.” “Most of this is a huge exaggeration, but I can see the value in this particular part of it.”  “It’s hard to hear, but this person is giving me a gift by pointing this out.”  “I know this is totally inaccurate, but I can understand why this person might see things that way."
  4. Show appreciation to others. Remember that other people like to hear praise and appreciation for their work at least as much as you do, but good things are often left unspoken.  Take responsibility to change this pattern. Give compliments liberally whether you are a lay-leader or a clergyperson. Model this behavior and watch the praise spread.
  5.  When evaluating other people, and especially yourself, remember human nature and compensate. Be cognizant that people are more likely to speak up about things that make them unhappy, and that we are more likely to focus on the negatives than the positives. Seek out comments from people who haven’t spoken up. Pay careful attention to the negatives. Where is the grain of truth? Where might there be unrelated axes to grind. Let go of the unrelated or exaggerated pieces of what has been said.
  6.  End the day by giving thanks for the good things in your life and your work. Let the rest go until the morning.          

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