In his book Say Please, Say Thank You (Putnam, 1998), David McCullough makes the case that simple words and respectful behaviors can have a powerful impact on others. Learning to live together, he asserts, involves much more than toleration. We also must learn how to speak to each other, affirm the value of another and embrace the opportunities that build true community and hospitality.

It’s not just society at large that needs to learn the impact of good manners. Often in the church, we have neglected the power of simple words and the kind expressions that build the body of Christ.

This realization came home to me some months ago when I witnessed an exchange between two of my parishioners on a Sunday morning. During the coffee hour, I noted that one of our Sunday School teachers was in a bit of a huff because some tables had been moved out of her classroom. Quickly, a couple of the older teens rallied to assist her; but in her state of agitation, she failed to recognize their helpfulness—continuing, instead, to dwell on the mistake. As the teens finished moving the tables, she neither recognized their contribution nor thanked them for their efforts.

Days later, my own sensibilities were awakened when one of our staff members pointed out that I had failed to write an official thank you to a group of men who had helped move some heavy boxes for our preschool. “Wow,” I thought, “I’ve got to help change the culture of our gratitude.” For the next year, I made that one of my goals.

Interestingly, learning how to say thank you had a greater impact than I imagined. People who were marginalized in the church became more active in time. Those who had contributed and given for years actually gave more. Individuals who had become disenfranchised with the church found a new spirit and life.

How did these things happen?

For starters, I made it a point to purchase some fine thank-you cards and stationery, which I kept ready in my desk. Whenever I noted someone giving something extra or special, I would do my best to acknowledge their contribution with a quick, handwritten note. These simple recognitions from the pastor made a difference. People were more eager to repeat their efforts and to avail themselves to God’s work.

Likewise, I made it a point to write at least one bulletin cover, newsletter cover or pastoral letter every quarter that applauded the congregation in some fashion—be it financial giving, mission offering or just the hard labor of responding to a mundane task within the church. Often, it is not the big things people yearn for us to acknowledge but the simple gifts of their time and effort.

Additionally, I began to say thank you to those who made special contributions to the church. For example, during our building campaign, I made a point of writing a personal note of thanks (handwritten) to every family making a pledge. These simple notes were my way of acknowledging that I recognized their sacrifices and their faith. Every time someone gave a large gift, I’d either thank that person by card or letter or take the family to lunch or dinner and express my gratitude face-to-face.

In fact, I believe most congregations greatly under-fund the pastor’s business/dinner accounts—with negative financial effect. I have found that taking families out to dinner—especially newcomers, seekers and large contributors—is crucial for the growth of the church in all respects. The families I have dined with are always the ones who do more, help more, give more and feel better about their involvement in God’s work. This all begins with a spirit of gratitude. Of course, as the church grows, this isn’t always easy. I can’t dine with every person or family, but by making a consistent effort to take an hour or two a week to thank others, in time the dividends become noticeably real.

Likewise, having a time officially to thank those for their leadership and service is crucial. When is the last time you thanked the Sunday School teachers, the ushers, the greeters, the choir, the staff or those who help post the monthly newsletter or plant the flowers? In time, if people receive no acknowledgment for their efforts, they usually will lose interest. “No one notices,” they tend to think.

As pastors, we might find ourselves taking the approach that people shouldn’t need a thank you for doing God’s work. A sense of duty, call or purpose often can drive our lives; but the average person in the church doesn’t always experience this same sense of direction. Many may feel inadequate, alone or invisible in their efforts. So it isn’t necessarily the accolade or the big buildup they are seeking. Often it’s just the simple recognition from someone in authority that their efforts and gifts do have significance in the kingdom of God.

Not long after I began writing my notes, I had a visit from an older gentleman in the congregation. He showed up in my office one afternoon, sat down across from my desk, and held up the card I had written him some days before. “This is the first time in my 42 years in this congregation that anyone has thanked me for my contributions,” he said tearfully.

His admission wasn’t a cry for validation or recognition—as can be the case with some people—but merely an acknowledgment that he wanted to keep on giving and was glad someone had given him the confidence to press on. That’s why the power of thank you isn’t to be found in soothing fragile egos or shoring up difficult people—but rather in offering the simple truth that people’s sacrifices and efforts do make a difference.

A casual reading of Paul’s letters to the churches can bear out these truths. Consider for example how often Paul opened or closed his letters by thanking the congregation for their love, prayers or faithfulness. Paul often thanked co-workers. He also thanked those in leadership and told them how grateful he was for their work.

How often do we practice this example in our churches today?

Learning the power of thank you can go far beyond the church. For pastors, learning to say thank you may begin at home. When is the last time you thanked your wife or husband for the sacrifices he/she makes for your ministry? When is the last time you thanked your children? Your staff? Friends and colleagues who are your support and strength in difficult times?

Indeed, thank you is a simple expression—but a powerful one. Those two small words can yield large dividends when it comes to ministry and the church. Learning to use them well—and often—can make all the difference in the world.

Click here for “10 Ways to Say Thank You in the Church.”

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