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Excellence Lessons in Thanksgiving Letters

In 1975, I began a Thanksgiving ritual that has become an important annual practice for me. That year, I began writing letters of gratitude to people who had significantly shaped my life. I sent the first letter to Dr. Earl H. Ferguson, who taught me preaching and pastoral theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s. In that letter, I thanked him for expanding my understanding and experience of the Christian Gospel and for relentlessly pursuing excellence in himself and his students.

A week or so later, I received a reply from Dr. Ferguson, then retired and living in Maine.

“Thank you, Ken, for your kind letter,” he wrote. “I suppose you have learned that preaching and teaching are like shooting arrows into the air. You are never sure where they land or if they actually hit a target. Then, someone takes the time to write and suggest that something you did or said made a difference in their lives. Your letter reached this old man on a cold day in New England and it warmed my heart and revived my hope.”  

Since then, I have written to dozens of people who have influenced me — teachers, professors, friends, pastors, bishops, district superintendents and family members. Though their responses have varied, they have also typically had much in common including humility about their contribution, surprise that I had taken the time to write, gratitude for being remembered and rekindled optimism that their lives have mattered.

Over the years, these “Thanksgiving letters” have taught me much about excellence. They have kept me in touch with that “great cloud of witnesses” who teach us, inspire us, support us, hold us accountable and cheer us on toward the highest and best. Their company is composed mostly of obscure people whom you likely would not know, people whose influence extends only within a small circle. Few wrote any books, filled prominent positions, or received widespread recognition. Many have died, but living or dead, they all continue to teach, challenge and inspire me.

From their responses, I learned that those who exhibit excellence rarely see themselves as exceptional. Conversely, they seem unaware of the difference they have made in others. They have been content to “shoot the arrows into the air” and trust that at least some of them reach an appropriate mark. Personal integrity and vocational faithfulness are at the core of their being. They are less occupied with visible results than with substantive relationships grounded in mutual respect and love.

The truly humble seem surprised, even embarrassed, by attention. Such humility reflects a self-worth and personal security grounded in grace rather than achievement. It is the insecure who demand and expect recognition and who depend upon persistent praise for motivation. Without exception, the people to whom I wrote my Thanksgiving letters were surprised that they had influenced my life and ministry. They had just been faithful, with no expectation of recognition or even thanks.

Yet all of them were grateful to be remembered. Most were elderly when I wrote to them, typically living out the last chapters of their lives amidst a reduced circle of relationships and interactions. As people grow older, the world moves on and a new generation assumes responsibilities they once fulfilled. The past becomes a storehouse of remembered relationships, activities, and experiences. Being remembered confirms that we are still connected to a broader community.

For my Thanksgiving correspondents, being thanked and remembered kindled hope, one of the chief marks of excellence. And in turn, they inevitably sparked and nurtured hope in me. One of those was John Tallent, my high school English teacher. When he introduced me as a freshman to Dickens’ Great Expectations, he ignited dreams that wooed and pulled me toward the future, dreams that have lasted my entire life.  

At the time Dr. Tallent received my letter, he was crippled with arthritis and confined to his home. Later, his pastor told me that Dr. Tallent had shared the letter with him during a visit.

“Your letter seemed to spark something in John,” the pastor said. “The last several years have been tough for him, and your letter gave him hope. He asked that I read your letter at his funeral.”

Humility grounded in grace, personal and vocational integrity, connection to community, hope rooted in memory and gratitude — these are lessons I learned from “letters of thanksgiving” exchanged with people who are models of personal and vocational excellence. We are all “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” to whom we owe thanksgiving and from whom we have more lessons to learn.

Kenneth L. Carder is the Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School. He was bishop of the Mississippi Area of the United Methodist Church from 2000 to 2004 and the Nashville Area of the UMC from 1992 to 2000.

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The Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program is funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.