People say I’m naturally gifted at learning names. To some extent that might be true. The full truth, however, is I cheat.
But before I tell you how I cheat, let me stress why—as a pastor—I labor to learn the names of those who attend our church.
The reason we should learn names is twofold. First, a general reason: God has always existed in relationship—the loving relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. And because we are made in God’s image and likeness, it’s not good for us to be alone. I believe this is the main reason why people desire to be where everyone knows their name, as in the tagline from the old show Cheers. God designed us for community.
Knowing Lives Starts with Knowing Names
But there is also a specific reason why I want to excel at learning the names of my congregants. Embedded within the universal longing to be known, there seems to be echoes of the specific longing for relationship with God. We want our church shepherd to know the names of his sheep, just as the Good Shepherd knows the names of all his sheep (John 10:14).
Although many people in the Bible are nameless to us, God knows them. From the Israelites who were set free from Egypt, to the 7,000 who hadn’t bowed the knee to Baal, to the 5,000 who ate the two fish and five loaves, to the 3,000 who were added to the church at Pentecost, to the countless multitude in Revelation—none is nameless to him. The Great Shepherd knows each by name.
And God’s knowledge of his people is intimate, warm, and relational. Jesus knows his sheep’s birthdays, their passions and longings, their wounds and fears, their sins and failures, the hairs on their heads and their length of days.
We’ll never know all this about others, even all this about ourselves. Consequently, as pastors we must point people to Jesus as the Good Shepherd, not try to take his place. Nevertheless, Jesus’s shepherding creates the paradigm for our shepherding. What Jesus does perfectly, we strive to approximate as we “shepherd the flock of God among [us]” (1 Pet. 5:2). And following this pattern means we must know the sheep he has put in our charge—starting with, and hopefully moving beyond, simply knowing their names.
How I Do It
Learning names is a skill we can improve with practice. I do several things to improve.
With my last two ministry transitions, the process of learning names began during the interview stage. I’d scour the church’s website and Facebook page looking for people in leadership. I also asked for access to their church picture directory (if they had one). Then, I’d make flash cards and study like I was cramming for a Hebrew exam. Perhaps this sounds excessive and a bit creepy, but it makes a huge difference. Once, when introduced to eight leaders in a group interview, they made the obligatory quip, “You probably won’t remember our names.” Yet over the next two hours I spoke to each person by name.
If this isn’t for you, two more methods require less homework. First, when you end a conversation with someone new, ask, “Could you remind me of your name again?” This is socially acceptable because no one begrudges this the first time you meet, maybe even the second. It’s often in restating the name that I catch it, especially if I repeat the name by saying something like, “I really enjoyed meeting you, Joe.”
Also, ask people to restate their names each time they contribute during a Sunday school class or Bible study. People probably won’t remember to do this, so you’ll have to remind them a few times. If it’s a lengthy meeting, however, don’t make them continue doing it very long.
Be careful to make certain your effort to learn names doesn’t seem insincere or conniving. Consider whether your children feel slighted when you make the effort to thoughtfully prepare a surprise birthday party for them. Does your wife feel slighted when you work to prepare a surprise anniversary getaway? Probably not. That’s because sometimes it’s the unseen effort, not merely the thought, that shows you really care.
Like most churches, mine has a transient fringe—those people who are neither members nor regular attendees. I’ll never learn their names; indeed, they haven’t given me a chance. And if this is true in my small church, it’s that much more impossible for the lead pastor to know everyone’s name. Still, we can make an effort to know more names than we do.
Learning names requires bravery; you have to be willing look foolish. As our church has grown in the last few years, it’s been more difficult to keep names straight. Recently, I called one woman Jennifer, which wasn’t her name, as she gently reminded me. Swing and a miss. But I’ve gotten her name right ever since.
Church members, you can help your pastors by going out of your way to remind them of your names and being patient when they get it wrong.
When you first begin attending a church, perhaps you could come early a few times or linger after a service to chat. It seems simple, but these things help local churches become a place where more of us know each other’s names, which is a decent first step toward becoming the intimate community God desires. It’s much more natural to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep” when the pastor knows your name is not Jennifer, but Jessica.