It was the final game of the 2003 NBA Championship. A San Antonio Spurs player gets fouled and goes to the line for two free throws. He misses the first. Teammates quickly converge on him, touching fingertips down low. It never mattered who was shooting, whether he made the first shot or not, his teammates always came to touch fingers before the second shot.
Strange ritual for men, athletes of the highest caliber. It wasn’t just a silly public display of affection. Rather, it was a gesture that said, “We’re with you. You can do it. You the man!” He may be the best shooter, he may be the worst shooter. He is attempting to score one for the team—and the team pulls together behind him. This is a basketball expression of encouragement.
I believe that was a key to San Antonio’s success. They played as a team, encouraging each other in tangible ways. I believe it is also one of the keys for effective ministry in the church today. As believers we are part of a team. As elders we are team leaders, role models. As leaders, we need to model this ministry of encouragement, this tangible expression of “team-mindedness,” this spiritual “fingertip touching.”
The apostle Paul touched on this in Philippians 2:1-2:
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ . . . then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (NIV).
The need of it
“Oh, brother Joe knows I am behind him; he doesn’t need me to tell him. I wouldn’t want him to get a swollen head.” Is that so? Does he know you are supportive of him? (Incidentally, the same principles apply in marriage. When was the last time you told your wife, “I love you”?)
The other elders may not tell you when they are discouraged. When was the last time you told someone that you were discouraged, or felt unsupported, alone at the line? The other elders probably are like you.
Encouragement is that attitude in a group that leaves people thinking, “We can lean on and trust each other when the going gets tough. I know you are behind me.” David and Jonathan were a team. When David was running for his life, Jonathan “went to David at Horesh, and encouraged him in God” (1 Samuel 23:16 NASB). The KJV uses the word “strengthened.” The context doesn’t say exactly what Jonathan did, but clearly he acted and spoke in a way that helped and supported David. The Divine Writer portrays this as a noteworthy event. In David’s mind there was no question that Jonathan was on his side.
We elders each need encouragement, but who is going to encourage us if we don’t encourage each other? In fact, the Lord commands it (1 Thessalonians 5:11). This is not an ego-soothing selfishness, as some might suppose. Rather, the Lord recognized it as an inherent need, or he wouldn’t have commanded us to do something about it. Neither is it a sign of spiritual failure. We all are weak from time to time. That is simply a fact—and we are sometimes in need of emotional help (though rarely do we men admit it).
True, the Holy Spirit is the One who supplies encouragement: “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:13). And where the Spirit encourages, there is growth. But often the Spirit uses flesh and blood (that’s you and me) to work his ministry.
What does it look like?
To be sure, we all respond to different kinds of encouragement. In some cases, it is simply one elder telling another elder that he has done a good job of something—maybe a message preached, a comment made in a meeting, a better insight (horrors, that’s a tough one to cough up!)
There are many ways you can encourage another elder. How about letting him know before he preaches that you are praying for him? Let him know you are aware of the load he carries. Tell him the good thing someone has said about him behind his back. Say good things about him behind his back (positive gossip), especially to his wife (that will be sure to make it back to him). Mow his lawn when his work and ministry load gets heavy. When he fails or does a job poorly, don’t jump all over him. Come alongside him and assure him you are still on the same team.
There have been people over the years who encouraged and strengthened me with spiritual “fingertip touches.” One of the first times took place when I was a young leader who made an unwise decision. Severe criticism assailed me and beat me down; a sense of spiritual failure overwhelmed me. An older brother, Larry, gently took me aside one Lord’s Day morning. “Remember that a man who is never criticized is a man who never does anything.” He didn’t deny that I was unwise. However, his words were like cool water to a parched soul. He “touched fingertips” with me. And I can still hear his encouragement every time I feel overwhelmed by criticism.
Another time, the elders had prayerfully changed the time of the evening meeting to accommodate young families whose children needed to be in bed early on school nights. Many seniors were up in arms because it disrupted their evening meal schedule. Gordon, in his eighties, relayed to us that many of the older people were quite upset at the elders. But he “touched fingertips” with us. He went on to tell us how he responded to them: “You and I will not be around in five or ten years. Let’s let these younger men make the decision and stand by them.” Encouragement? You bet!
Just do it
Only an elder knows the pressures that frequently accompany the time-consuming, energy-expending, emotion-wrenching work of “eldering.” Discouragement is often only one conversation away. We need to pull together and encourage each other in tangible ways. Who else understands the need of it but we elders?
Touch fingertips with another elder. Do it often, do it verbally, do it unreservedly. But just do it.