by Eddie Pipkin

There are lots of things that local churches do well.  There are plenty of things that local churches don’t do well at all (and while I was tempted to add there, “not for lack of trying,” the sad truth is that often is exactly because of a lack of trying).  One of the struggles that faithful, sincere church leaders face is determining how to direct their talents and resources.  You can’t be all things to all people, so what should your priorities be?  What truly matters?  Helping people feel valued matters.  ‘Mattering’ matters.

Gail Cornwall, in a recent article in the NY Times titled, “Want to Believe in Yourself? ‘Mattering’ is Key,” explores what it means to ‘matter’ and why feeling like you do is essential to mental health, connecting with others, and feeling purposeful (quoting in this first paragraph from Dr. Gordon Flett at the University of York):

Mattering involves “more than feeling like you belong in a group,” he explained; it’s also being “missed by people in that group if you weren’t there.” When it comes to self-esteem, you can like yourself and feel capable, Dr. Flett said, but “you still won’t be a happy person if no one notices you when you enter a room.”

To matter, people must feel valued — heard, appreciated and cared for — and they must feel like they add value in ways that make them feel capable, important and trusted, said Isaac Prilleltensky, a professor at the University of Miami and a co-author of “How People Matter.” It’s a two-part definition: feeling valued and adding value.

Of all the things that churches do – and churches do lots of different things – one of the things they can do better than almost any other institution is help people understand that they have value and purpose.

Note the distinction that is made between feeling like we belong and feeling value (that our presence makes a difference that affects other people – that, therefore, our presence has impact on the world that is noticed and beneficial – and conversely, that our absence is felt).

A sense of group belonging can project from inside us if we feel gratified to be a part of a group that is excited about the same things we are excited about.  This is the feeling that I get when I put on my fan gear and attend a football game with 40,000 strangers.  I am a vital, living, participatory part of that enthusiasm of cheering our team on, and I am even part of a community of shared grief, trudging back to the parking lot when my team inevitably loses.  But I don’t actually know any of those other individuals – and none of them would miss me, as a unique individual, if I wasn’t there on a given Saturday.  It’s all the flashy bells and whistles of the big game that reinforce that sense of identity.  It’s the overt costuming, the branded t-shirt, the hat, the scripted cheers we all shout together in unison: the rituals of the game that unite us in one spirit.

This sounds a lot like . . . church.  I watched my daughter-in-law and several other young ladies head off to the Taylor Swift concert movie this past weekend, just as they had made the pilgrimage to the Taylor Swift in-person concert back at the beginning of the summer.  These “Swifties,” as they are branded as diehard fans, don’t know T.S. personally, and she certainly doesn’t know them.  They don’t the other people at the concert or the movie that was made about the concert, but they definitely feel like they are part of a special community.  You can tell by the costumes they wear depicting Taylor’s various ‘eras,’ and you can tell by the friendship bracelets they exchange and the call-and-response phrases they shout back the movie screen at key moments and the large sums of cash they willingly spend to be a part of the fandom.  They know all the lyrics to all the songs, and the love singing them with other people who know and love them as much as they do.

Again . . . sounds a lot like what we love about church.

But unlike football games and pop music concerts, church, where we come together to not only celebrate, but to perfect our faith means more in helping us understand our value as uniquely created souls and our purpose as we actively live out our principles.  At least it’s supposed to.

I think about some of the quiet work I do during any given week (and you do as well, I am sure) checking in on some of my elderly friends.  It is not glamorous, and it requires some discipline to pay them a visit and give them a regular phone call.  It’s not always convenient to get involved in the logistics of their lives.  But I understand it as sacred work, according to the tenets of my faith.  It helps them feel valued, and it reinforces my own sense of value and purpose because, while I know that my activities in the wide work may or may not have impact in a given week, those calls and visits matter greatly to the individuals who receive them.  It’s a synergy of mattering.

Looking back to the paragraphs I quoted from at the beginning, here are some key words and phrases:

  • Heard
  • Appreciated
  • Cared for
  • Adding value
  • Capable
  • Important
  • Trusted

When thinking about the relationships that our organization builds and nurtures, the question to ask is do we feel these things ourselves, and do we live out values that help others feel these things.

Does a given individual who is part of our community feel heard?  Feel valued?  Feel cared for?  Feel like their presence and involvement adds value?  Feels capable as they contribute?  Feels important in the life of the community and the context of groups in which they are involved?  Feels trusted by others, especially the leaders – are they given responsibility and assignments that demonstrate a little (or a lot) of faith?

I know I just repeated the bullet points back to you, but I really want for us to take the time to picture individual faces and ask that series of questions.  When I think of individuals around the edges of all of our activities, the ones who are there but not part of the ‘in crowd,’ I think of three things:

  • People need to be involved and participatory to find purpose. I’ve written a lot about how this process only ultimately works if we help them find their unique purpose, the one that aligns with their blend of talents, gifts, and passions, as opposed to the aligning them with self-aggrandizing goals and narrowly defined roles.  But they need useful work to do.  And we should recognize that work when they do it.
  • Small groups are the lifeblood of a healthy organization. This does not have to be classically defined small groups, in the sense of study groups, life groups, etc.  But people have to be part of a more intimate cadre of others who share a common interest or mission and interact with one other on a more personal level.  This is where the work of caring for one another gets done.  The buzz of the big group fades, but the intimate connections of the small group can last forever.
  • Authentic communication is essential. Even in big group settings, we have to be talking to and listening to one another in ways that are sincere and provide pathways to follow-ups and deeper connections.  We have to be constantly inviting people into deeper interactions, both through our public-facing communication strategies and as part of our one-on-one culture of communicating with one another.

These are the ways that people feel that they matter.  And feeling like we matter is key to bonding with communities in which we are willing to invest ourselves with enthusiasm over the long term.

How do you and your team do at helping other people feel like they matter?  Do you communicate the principles of mattering as part of your core values as an institution?  Do you follow through on living out those principles?  Do you give people ample opportunities to have impact?  And do you reinforce in those people the esteem-building knowledge that they have the skills to pursue those opportunities?  Share your own reflections below.