“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” —Maya Angelou
My theory about what matters most in the ministry is based directly on Angelou’s quote: It wasn’t so much what I said or did during my 50 years in the ministry. It was more about that certain “something” that made the people I worked with feel a particular way.
I was a youth minister for the first five years after seminary. I loved the work and loved “my kids.” We keep in touch in a Facebook group. I asked the group about our ministry and the Angelou quote.
Interestingly, a few noted specific things I said or some teaching from the books we read. Okay, so maybe people DO remember the things you say. One fellow, who eventually became a teacher and hospice chaplain, commented, “I don’t see it as an either/or but a combination.”
Others confirmed my theory that how people felt was most important. Another one of my kids (who also went into the ministry and travels the world training substance abuse counselors) commented:
“Absolutely. Experiences of pleasure, pain, joy, and shame have the biggest impact on the wiring of our brains and, therefore, how our souls interpret and interact with the world. Hank, you created a safe space where we could experience the joy of God and His love for us in nature, community, and individually.”
Sitting alone in a dark cave
I would sometimes take the teenagers into the wilderness as a place of ministry. We rafted on the Chattooga River, where the movie Deliverance was shot. We backpacked all over the north Georgia and western North Carolina mountains. We paddled and camped for three days in the Okefenokee Swamp. And, my favorite, we explored caves.
Part of every caving experience always included time for silent introspection. I would separate the kids along a passageway, take their lights, and have them sit alone in the darkness for 30 minutes. Recently, a participant on one of those trips shared with me the journal he kept at the time. The now-retired pharmacist wrote in 1975:
“I was really nervous before entering the cave. I never really liked the idea from the start. But when all lights were put out, I felt one of the greatest feelings of inner peacefulness and calm.”
Here’s part of a report I wrote about another caving trip with junior high kids, also in 1975:
“There was one girl who was very much afraid to sit alone. I sat her down at the end of the line, where I would be close to her. After approximately five minutes in the dark, she began crying and eventually called me. I went to her, comforted her, told her I was near, and asked her to continue to sit, think, and pray as she remained in her place. She calmed down and completed the half-hour in darkness. She later revealed that it was not so much that she was afraid of the darkness but afraid to face up some of the own things in her life.”
“…people will never forget how you made them feel.”
A deathbed and the gift of presence
Fast forward 25 years, when I was a hospice chaplain. I was called to the home of a woman dying of cancer. I had made several attempts to schedule a time to see her and her family, but they were always busy and put off letting me in. Now, she was in her last hours. It was time to let the chaplain in.
When I arrived, a family friend sat with me in the living room and explained what was happening. We then went into the bedroom where the woman lay dying. Her husband sat beside her, and a nurse was not far away. I said very few words. There was little to say. I asked the husband if I could offer a prayer. He said, “Please do.” I finished my prayer, and he asked, “Can we say the Lord’s Prayer?” “Of course,” I replied, and we all prayed.
I left the bedside, and the friend followed me to the living room. I stopped to say goodbye, and this woman threw her arms around me, hugged my neck, and said, “You are so wonderful. That is just what we needed.” My first thought was, “Boy, is this job easy.” Anyone who could recite the Lord’s Prayer could have done what I did in that room. But then, I was so grateful to be invited into this moment in this family’s life.
I think Maya Angelou and I are on to something. People always remember how you made them feel.
Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together, they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.