By Eddie Pipkin

I confess.  My family still mails out old-school Christmas cards with a goofy pictures and a handwritten note on the back.  I know; we run the risk of being labelled Luddites.  There are wonderful social media options out there for sharing Christmas cheer, and for all of you who send me greetings with full-on synchronized multimedia year-end-reviews and custom-animated cartoons of your family cavorting through a winter wonderland while singing “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” I salute you.  I will cuddle up with my smartphone and a hot chocolate and my loved ones and enjoy every second, I promise.  But there is just something about writing out those short notes, sticking that card in an envelope, and dropping it in the big blue box that makes me feel connected to folks.  Maybe it’s nostalgia.  Maybe it’s the time involved – the intention it requires.  Maybe it’s the idea of picturing that card on its physical journey, how it’s like a little package that can be opened and shared and posted up on the fridge for all your kitchen visitors to enjoy.

Whatever it is, I know I’m not alone.  Researchers continue to tell us that handwritten notes still have resonance in the age of high-tech.  Perhaps even more so.  Maybe in a world in which technology makes it easier than ever to toss off a quick text or email or Instagram post, and our senses tell us everything is moving way too fast, maybe we our comforted by a quiet act of hand-crafted, low-tech defiance.  Those who study such things tell us that when someone opens a handwritten note from us, they understand that it took a little more effort.  It feels thoughtful.  It feels special.

It is a highly effective ministry tool.  Since much of the work of leadership is the cultivation and nurture of relationships – meaningful connections with team members, ministry partners, those who inspire us and those we serve – here is a powerful practice that requires no special training and a limited infrastructure to support.  I’m not advocating abandoning the use of technology to build relationships – far from it!  You have read many entries in this blog in which I have encouraged you to lean into the technological options.  We should be using texts and social media to strengthen bonds.  But in a world in which we are tempted to use the rote default options provided by tech – a world in which Google’s artificial intelligence assistant will soon be able to make common appointment scheduling phone calls FOR you – the intimacy of the handwritten note has impact.

I already knew this from my own personal experience in charitable giving.  Some of the organizations my wife and I support are attentive about sending us notes thanking us for the work made possible by our donations.  I admit we are more likely to donate to these organizations again in the future, because they make us feel like our participation in the partnership matters.  The blog you are reading was inspired by an improbable story reported last week in multiple news outlets: “Syracuse profits by handwriting thousands of late tax notes.”  Local officials in Syracuse, New York sent tax-delinquent residents handwritten notes rather than standard legal form letters.  Rather than using the usual threats for non-payment, they appealed to these scofflaws as fellow neighbors, stressing how things could be made right.  And this approach worked at a 57% higher success rate!  They collected an additional 1.5 million dollars.

Thom Rainer lays out the case for positive outcomes from personal notes in ministry (and Bruce Raley makes a compelling argument as well).  Here’s a summary of a few of their thoughts, supplemented by a few of mine.  Writing notes to people . . .

  • Increases your sense of gratitude. Just by deciding who to write to, formulating what to write, and taking the time to do it, we exercise our gratitude muscles.
  • Moves the focus from negatives to positives. The act of note writing is different from emails and face-to-face conversations.  Emails and conversations are good things – we should do them! – but they are different in focus.  Notes are by definition brief, and inevitably positive.  Emails are used to problem solve and critique, and they demand a response.  Conversations – even ones that start off on a positive point – can veer in any direction.  A handwritten note is a carefully considered gift.  It frames the exchange positively, in the same sense that prayer does.  (As we always say, it’s hard to angry with someone for whom you are praying.)
  • Helps us remember the core of our mission. Once we are in the positive mode, we are also able to offer encouragement and add reminders of the shared ministry vision.  Mostly, we are reminded that relationships are at the core of all ministry.
  • Has an outsized impact for the amount of time invested. A little time used in this manner can have a big payoff.  Think about how much time you spend preparing for a meeting or crafting a group email (which will receive eye rolls and be roundly ignored).  The note is an efficient way to make an important point without leading you off into the weeds.
  • Has great meaning for the recipients. People who are struggling, people who aren’t sure where they fit in, people who aren’t sure if anyone is noticing their work, people who are wondering what’s next, are all uplifted, reassured, and certified as “valuable” by a personal note.

Those who practice the art of note-writing recommend making it part of your regular work discipline.  Have the supplies on hand and time set aside, and it becomes a part of your routine.  Don’t overthink it: you don’t have to be Dickens or Tolstoy when you’re writing to tell an event worker how much they contributed to the success of a ministry even.  Keep it simple.  And you’ll find that the more of it you do, the easier and more effortless it becomes.  Jeremy Roberts describes his own personal system for note writing here (he does 20 per week – think of the impact of that every month!).  Gather up some interesting stationery and card packs from the dollar store, a sheaf of addresses (which you should have anyway), and a book of stamps, and you’re ready to go.  If you want to take it a step further, creatively speaking, there is someone already in your ministry who loves to handcraft cards.  Make them your creative partner!  Start a note-writing club!  Extend this idea to the community as a way to pray for and uplift neighborhood leaders and servants!

Paul served as an example when he wrote those wonderful, personal letters.  He had to do letters instead of notes because the mail was a much more imperfect process in those days and because he was basically inventing Christian theology, but just like Paul, we too can build our reputation as people of Christ who care about relationships by taking the time write.

What are some of your favorite personal ministry touches?  Any ideas for writing effective notes?  For implementing disciplined note-writing practices?  In this case, I know you’re pressed for time, so don’t feel the need to respond in long form.  Just use the comment section handily provided below.