Passing on Praise

A colleague stopped me in the hallway last week and passed on a positive comment from a student about one of my classes.  It was a shot in the arm and I appreciated it.

It got me thinking about academic environments and passing on encouraging words.  In his memoir, Hannah’s Child, Stanley Hauerwas notes that academic departments are hives of professional envy—and he’s speaking of Religious Studies departments and divinity schools!  Academics often have fragile egos and tend toward self-importance.

These dynamics can produce competitive environments in which colleagues don’t encourage one another.

Several years ago a colleague relayed to me a positive comment he had heard about something I had written.  I thanked him and said that was really great to hear.

He then said that he thought about telling me when he had originally heard it, but declined because he didn’t want me to get a big head.  I still don’t know how to think about that sentiment.

It seems to me that we ought to be eager to pass on good reports to others.  It’s a practical way of encouraging one another and fostering an environment of mutual support.

Another colleague told me that he had heard good things from students about a professor in our department.  I asked if he had passed it on to him, and he shook his head, saying, “nah, he probably hears it enough.”

I’m always baffled when I hear about someone intentionally withholding praise.

These are strategic opportunities to foster fruitful community life, strengthen relationships, encourage others, and keep the destructive dynamics of envy at bay.

Further, it’s a good spiritual discipline.  Envy and destructive competition shrink our spirits and shrivel our souls, distorting our vision and corrupting our hearts.

Taking initiative to speak an encouraging word expands our hearts and enlarges our spirits.  We want to be the kind of people who love and honor one another, who seek the good of the wider learning community.  Encouraging one another is an excellent practice that makes us better people.

23 thoughts on “Passing on Praise

  1. Jerry Goodman

    Great Insight. How does that speak into you as you must “walk daily” in the field you serve? What ways does God communicate when your heart is less of God and more of you? Your sharing would be so helpful.

    1. timgombis

      Very practically for me, Jerry, I need to be attentive to how colleagues are doing. I get very caught up in my own thing and am happy to be left alone. But I try to get out of my office and have conversations with colleagues and I speak an encouraging word whenever I can. If I hear something about a colleague that’s positive, I don’t keep it to myself but pass it on and encourage them. I know how much such things mean to me!

      When my mindset isn’t so good, I try to remember that being small-hearted and getting into a competitive frame of mind only shrivels my soul and shrinks my capacity for happiness. It makes me miserable. The way of blessing is to encourage others.

  2. Pingback: To Compliment or Not | Missional Meanderings

  3. John Duffy

    I think that education is particularly a lonely profession at times, so a good word is especially welcome. You’re all by yourself with your students and they never tell you what they really think about your class.

    I often wonder how effective I am, whether I actually have a positive impact on the young people I teach. When someone tells me that a kid likes my class or that a kid even remembers anything from my class, it makes my day.

    1. timgombis

      Well-put, John. The dynamics of teaching are such that teachers don’t often hear good comments. It can tend to be lonely and you wonder if anything is ever connecting. That’s one reason I pass on good comments about others when I hear them. Such encouragement often carries a person for weeks!

  4. Adam O

    I tend to agree with you, being a person of encouragement is a good self-discipline and helpful for removing pride in your own life hopefully. This seems to be your take as well when you say, “Envy and destructive competition shrink our spirits and shrivel our souls, distorting our vision and corrupting our hearts.” The only question I might have to your statement would be the converse: isn’t pride destructive and corrosive as well? If you know your colleagues tend to be self-important, prideful types…does that change your heart toward encouragement or only prompt you towards more discerning use of words in that encouragement?

    1. timgombis

      Good question, Adam. The destructive dynamics exist in these environments (and, by the way, among professional pastors, too, since pastoring has become more of a profession, drawing in all the similar dynamics) and they foster vices, both in behavior and attitude. And it seems to me that pride may be one of those.

      But it seems also that the tendency to not pass on an encouraging word comes from those destructive dynamics, too. A competitive spirit may be driving me to resist passing on encouragement. That’s not good!

      Further, good deeds are powerful to break destructive dynamics and purify social environments, so I should just carry them out for that reason. And I’m responsible to do good, and my colleagues are responsible to watch their own spirits so that they resist pride. That’s not my responsibility. Hopefully they take that encouraging comment and imagine that they’re doing well and it energizes them to continue serving our students with a joyful spirit.

      1. Adam O

        I think you are right, mostly. Encouragement should probably be our default, and if we choose to withhold praise because we judge that the person “struggles with pride,” we are likely to have a plank in our own eye situation going on.
        But I am not sure how I feel about this statement,
        “And I’m responsible to do good, and my colleagues are responsible to watch their own spirits so that they resist pride. That’s not my responsibility.”
        I am not sure how that squares with the context of Christian community (let’s assume we speaking of fellow Christians in a religion department or fellow pastors, like some of the examples we’ve looked at, etc.). Obviously, we can’t definitively determine the spirit in which another Christian may handle our encouragement, but we do, as members of one body, bear some responsibility for helping them overcome sin or bear burdens and such. That being said, I think as it comes to encouragement, God more often uses our encouraging words, as you note, to transform and influence more often than our critical comments or withholding. But I would list that as the primary reason to stick with encouraging even a prideful person, rather than the argument that we are not responsible for how they deal with our comments.

      2. timgombis

        I hear you on our responsibility to one another, but on the specific issue of encouraging one another while risking fueling a person’s pride, I prefer to be effusive with praise and encouragement rather than stingy, wondering whether someone may take it wrongly and become proud. Hopefully they won’t!

  5. Ted M. Gossard

    I agree wholeheartedly. We need that kind of encouragement, and we need to encourage others in the same way. I often wonder from what little I pick up of the academic outside of it. It does seem like a world, at least oftentimes that is not of Jesus. You have to meet a certain standard all the time; you are measured all the time. I don’t think Jesus would have cared about that, or for that matter the learned Paul, either. Just a thought. I’m sure there is a responsibility that goes with being an academic which one should meet.

    1. timgombis

      Any and every environment is open to becoming destructive, and many of the same dynamics are found on big-church pastoral staffs–competitiveness, envy, etc. So, there’s nothing inherently wrong with academic departments, but many of them don’t have people intentionally counteracting the destructive effects. Having been around them for over a decade, I can see that the deck is stacked against them being healthy environments.

      But I can also see (and this is evidenced in my current home) that there is MUCH that can be done to create environments where people flourish, where colleagues encourage one another, and where people given to pride stand out as an exception. Even academics can be people who love, serve, and embody humility! It’s stunning (and wonderful) to see!

  6. Andrew T.

    Why is it, do you think, that it is easier to criticize than praise? Everyone seems to criticize naturally; while rare few praise naturally.

    Perhaps it’s because it is easier to recognize when things are fallen, than to recognize that things are as they should be.

    1. timgombis

      It seems that passing on compliments or finding reasons to commend and encourage others takes effort; it takes love. Criticizing seems to flow from impatience, maybe jealousy or envy when others do well and we want to nit-pick. There must be other reasons, too.

    2. John Duffy

      It seems to be a very basic aspect of our sinful nature. Much of the New Testament encourages us not to focus on the shortcomings of others.

      I am especially convicted by the scriptures that show that the devil is essentially an accuser. He’s certainly not who I want to follow.

  7. Gus P.

    I agree! — I am currently serving in a culture that thinks this way and the only compliments come by way of rebukes, like “I know that this will make you proud, but I really enjoyed ….” or my favorite ever, “I liked how you explained this, remember God gets all the glory…”

    Though at times we can fall into the same trap thinking, I am sure he does not need me to tell him this…

    Thanks for your insightful thoughts!

    1. timgombis

      That ends up being so back-handed! As in, “I know your character is such that anything good will incite you to sin, but you did a good job on X today.”

      Further, it’s a terrible theology that drives this. Humans behaving rightly or doing things faithfully and effectively actually IS the glory of God and brings glory to God. To attribute a skillful presentation in class or whatever else to God is actually to diminish God’s glory. That whole mindset flows from a sort of platonized vision of Christianity that feels like it’s right but is actually sub-Christian.

  8. Maryann

    In light of this post, I indeed owe you an apology. I have been one of those people that assume that instructors like you probably do hear encouraging words (often) of how your words and insights have blessed them. So I will say now that you have been an encouragement and a challenge to me and my walk. I am so appreciative of it. Thank you for your blog which allows me to benefit from what God has taught you though I am not in an academic setting. So….thanks:)

  9. Bri DuPree

    excellent insight dr.gombis! i’ve thought of this very thing as everything went down at CU. as various loved faculty/staff have left, we have showered our praise on them. and while these gestures were kind, i was disheartened that we hadn’t praised those who have made such a great impact on us earlier.

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