Leadership Principle No. 8–Remember Names, and Use Them

I’ve previously mentioned the lengthy conversation I had with C. C. Hope, Jr., some years ago when his wife was in surgery and we sat for hours in the waiting room of the Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem. At the time, he was one of the three F.D.I.C. commissioners in Washington, D.C., and past president of the American Bankers’ Association. I told him I had heard of him before becoming his pastor.

In the summer of 1986, when I announced our move from Mississippi to become pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charlotte, NC, a Starkville banker friend, John Mitchell, told me about Mr. Hope. He said, “You have a deacon in that church whom I really respect. C. C. Hope was president of the ABA. We had him down here to speak at a bankers’ function. My wife had just broken her leg. The next time I saw him was five years later. He called me by name and asked about my wife, remembering that her leg was in a cast the last time he’d been here. I was stunned.”

C. C. laughed when I told him that. “That’s actually what did it for me,” he said. “Remembering people’s names.”

He had taken an obscure committee chairmanship of the ABA and found a contemporary hot-button issue that fit under its assignment and began flying around the country to speak to bankers on that subject. “Wherever I went,” he told me, “I always kept a piece of paper with me to write on.” With that, he reached inside his suit coat pocket and pulled out a plain sheet of paper that had been folded twice.

“Every time I met someone, as soon as I could, I jotted down their names and something about them. Later, I filed those notes under that city. Then, I would send them a personal note, following up on the visit, and when I was invited back, I’d pull out that file and brush up on the names. It was that simple.”

Simple? Not by a long shot. But it was his system and he had worked at it and it worked for him.

I have heard church members criticize their pastor because “He doesn’t remember anyone’s names.” One said, “My pastor calls every man ‘Brother.'”

I bumped into a friend one day who belonged to a large church in Alabama. He was serving on his church’s pastor search committee and they were talking with a neighboring pastor of mine in Mississippi. He said, “Our former pastor was not very friendly. He would pass you on the street and not even speak. This time, we’re determined not to make that mistake again. We want someone friendly, a pastor who will learn people’s names and speak to them.”

He didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell him that they were about to repeat the error. The Mississippi pastor they were interested in was well known to never remember a name. They ended up calling him as their new pastor, so I suppose they discovered it soon enough.

I have a fun memory about this business of remembering names. I’m not sure how much help it conveys to someone trying to get on top of this challenge, but perhaps there’s something in it.

James Denton Watson was a classmate of mine in seminary. I was called to pastor, but he went straight into itinerant evangelism. In the fall of 1967, when I moved to the Emmanuel Baptist Church of Greenville, MS, James had just concluded a revival in that church. By all accounts, it was successful so I invited him to return one year later for another week of special services.

He walked into our church, 12 months after his last visit, and started addressing my church members by their first names. I was stunned. “How do you do that?” All he would say was, “I work at it.”

Not long after, another classmate, Gene Brock, invited me to Edison, Georgia, to hold a revival in the First Baptist Church there. Edison is a peaceful county seat town and the First Baptist Church ran perhaps 130 in attendance. We had morning and evening services for seven days, with several meals at the church and in people’s homes, so I had plenty of opportunity to get to know the members. By the end of the week, I could call every person in church by their names. Gene thought it was amazing.

“How do you do that?” he asked. I smiled and said, “I work at it.”

Barring having a phenomenal memory–which few of us do–the answer to the business of learning names may be that simple: work at it.

Recently, Dr. Jimmy Draper spent a day in New Orleans with a group of seminary students and pastors. At one point, I asked this veteran leader of our denomination about the business of learning and remembering names. He said, “There’s no substitute for working at it. When I hear a name, I repeat it to make sure I’ve heard it right. Sometimes I’m not really listening, so I’ll have to ask the person to tell me again. Then I try to use it four or five times while talking with them to fix it in my brain.”

Marilyn is a director for one of New Orleans’ busiest funeral parlors. Some days, she will oversee a half dozen funeral services. Not long ago, as I was meeting with a bereaved family and preparing for the memorial service that would take place that afternoon, I noticed Marilyn shuttling from one room to another and calling various family members by their names. When she had a moment, I expressed my admiration for her ability to remember names of people she had met only a day or two before. She said, “I’ve been blessed by an incredible short-term memory.”

Which means of course that tomorrow, she won’t recall a single name. But that was all right, since those people would move on and she would have another succession of mourning families in her establishment with an entirely new set of names to learn and use.

It’s always a pleasure to see a person matched up with a job that is perfect for them.

And that leads us to make this point: a pastor’s job is to know his flock. There is no substitute for learning the names of the members. Speaking of the responsibility of shepherds, Jesus said, “The sheep hear his voice and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” (John 10:3) If one is to be a pastor–the word literally means “shepherd”–it should be assumed that he will learn the names of his flock.

And that leads invariably to the question of the mega-churches where it’s impossible for a pastor to learn everyone’s names. I have no solution to this, but two observations.

One, it may surprise the reader to know there are many megachurch pastors who excell at learning and remembering the names of their members. In the conversation referred to above, Jimmy Draper said he once walked the halls of the massive Bellevue Baptist Church in suburban Memphis and was astonished at the way Pastor Adrian Rogers seemed to know the names of everyone he met.

Two, in many cases, the name “pastor” does not apply to the leaders of the megachurches. With untold thousands present every Sunday, the minister has no way to learn their names and in fact, no situation in which he would have occasion to call them by their names. He is a preacher, a motivator, a Bible teacher, and a lot of other things. But not a pastor.

A pastor knows his members’ names. He has to work at it, but the payoff is well worth the effort.

4 thoughts on “Leadership Principle No. 8–Remember Names, and Use Them

  1. Joe: Very good article. All those young in the ministry, and those coming into the ministry need to put it into practice. It will go a long way in developing relationships with the church family.

  2. Great principle, Joe. When I was called to this church, five years ago this November, I had four weeks before my first Sunday service in December.

    I was fortunate to get my hands on a recent church pictoral directory and studied it furiously trying to put names and faces together.

    The first Sunday morning, before the worship service, I circulated throughout the sanctuary shaking hands and greeting more than half of them by name. I also made an effort to learn the other folk’s names as quickly as possible. It made a tremendous impression and started me off on the right foot. People want to know that you know them, and it is reassuring when they hear you call them by name.

  3. Bro. Joe, I always marveled at how you would remember every name as new church members stood before the church.

    Pat Kruse

  4. I really enjoyed your artical on name remembering. I have a Pastor friend Max Palmer who can a meet a person who will visit the Church at a Sunday Service and will remember their name when he sees them years later.

    I know I have to work at it very hard as I have what is called Noise Injuced Deafness from Army days and I have to repeat the name numbers of times to remmeber, its hard but I keep trying. Again thanks for your encouraging articals

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