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September 6, 2016

“Motivation” Philemon 1-25 © 9.4.16 Ordinary 23C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Those who speak and write about human motivation remind us that there are two sets of factors that move us to particular actions or influence us enough to alter our behavior. On the one hand, there are the extrinsic motivators, which come from outside ourselves. On the other, as you have already guessed, are the intrinsic, arising from within us. (See for all studies and talks mentioned below. Also see

Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations can be further subdivided into the familiar categories of carrots and sticks. In the world of work, extrinsic sticks might include the threat of getting caught in some unacceptable behavior or being fired, demoted, investigated, reprimanded or losing your reputation. In family life, we could name loss of privileges like playing video games, going out, having your own phone or back in the day, being sent to bed without supper; the withholding of affection or being given the silent treatment; or even being done physical harm.

Carrots, of course, are the opposite. If you’re an employee, an incentive would be fair and sufficient pay, job security, recognition by your peers and superiors. For a kid, the carrots might be privileges anywhere from choosing the movie the family will watch, what to have for supper or inviting friends over to staying out late, having some privacy or being included in conversations and asked your opinion. And of course, knowing that whatever you might do, you will be loved and cared for, even if not understood.

As to intrinsic carrots and sticks, it’s been shown that at a certain point, not even money can motivate a worker if there are not other, less tangible benefits being afforded. “You can’t pay me enough to do this job,” says the employee who is fed up with being pushed around or not feeling as if anything she or he does matters. Says expert Dan Pink: “Management is great if you want compliance, but if you want engagement, self-direction works better.” Workers need to be AMPed up, that is, they are most productive when they have autonomy, mastery, and purpose. No one wants to be micromanaged or feel as if his or her work doesn’t matter or is futile. Think of the myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to push a stone up a hill, only to have it roll back down as soon as he almost made it to the top. We want to reach the peak and see the fruit of our labor.

In a similar fashion, feelings of guilt, shame, and fear may motivate us as intrinsic sticks for a time. But surely taking pride in your lawn is a better reason to keep the grass cut and the shrubs pruned that the comments of your neighbors or the threat of a fine by the city. The same goes for the satisfaction we might get from some other job well done or attending to our dress and appearance or preparing a great meal. We do it because we want to or we savor a challenge.

When cake mixes first came out back in the middle of the 20th century, everything was in the box. All a home baker had to do was add water. The cakes tasted fine, but the mixes were a failure. It was when the manufacturer took out the eggs and milk from the powder, and required the cook to measure and contribute that the products became popular. That’s intrinsic, carrot motivation, the pride of accomplishment, of owning a project, of making something that requires effort that we can look at and say “I did that.”

Now take all these principles over into the realm of the volunteer organization, whether it’s the church or a food pantry or a club. People choose to belong to a particular church or seek membership in Rotary or a golf course. They see the plight of the hungry or the homeless and decide to give a morning every week handing out groceries or seven days working in Memphis with Habitat for Humanity. What motivates a volunteer, whether an individual or a whole congregation that affiliates with a particular brand? No one is paid. There’s no stick being brandished, like the possibility of getting fired. Maybe guilt or shame could work, as I have tried, to my regret, more than once. But such a strategy is only good for the very short term. You can get workers with guilt, but you won’t develop disciples.

More pointedly, why be a Presbyterian or a Presbyterian church? When I first started out, in the 1970s and on into the 1980s, the presbytery held the upper hand. Small churches and other ministries had to follow rules laid down by the hierarchy and submit regular reports if they were to get funds from “aid to field.” Being a Presbyterian was still a prestigious affiliation if you were interested in social status. Now the shoe is on the other foot. Large churches withhold funds from higher councils desperate for money, a move one official called “ecclesiastical extortion.” There are no external sanctions for not following the Book of Order or failing to have a proper Manual of Operations. The liturgy police or the Robert’s Rules enforcement squad won’t pay us a surprise visit. And now, being a Presbyterian is no better or worse than belonging to any other denomination. Indeed, if you’re interested in business contacts and networking through a church, you’d be better off joining a congregation with more people.

What Wallace Alston said about the Church near the end of the twentieth century is enlightening: “The legal, psychological, social, and interior pressures that once compelled people to be Christian and join a church are essentially gone. People choose to participate of their own volition, not because some external force has compelled them. Frequency of attendance, the amount of financial support, the degree of personal commitment to the doctrine and social proclamations of the church, are all matters of private and free decision. If people strongly object to what the church says or does, they are free to join another or to belong to no church at all” (The Church: 108-109).

So, why do what we do? Why accept a nomination to a position or go spend your valuable time in a not-for-profit organization’s work? Why keep up the shrubbery or come to worship or sing in the choir or go to a study group or any of those activities volunteers do all the time in any church of any stripe? Why be a Presbyterian or a Christian of any kind in these days of so many choices, when the second largest religious group in our country is those who identify with no religion at all?

We find some important clues about our motivation in studies of human behavior, with Paul’s personal letter to Philemon serving as a good example of how principles operate in practice. Certainly we could mention how we get a good feeling from serving or being needed, the sense of accomplishment we gain from seeing a project through to completion. But both motivation theory and Paul’s letter suggest two other important factors that move us to involvement.

One is connection with others. Presbyterians are fond of saying we are a connectional church, and that’s true. There is no such thing, really, as an independent Presbyterian. We share with each other through our church government from session to General Assembly. Your Two Cents a Meal offerings are multiplied as they are joined with those of other Presbyterians. The per capita and the benevolences this church sends to Presbytery are pooled with gifts from congregations everywhere to support all sorts of ministries which no one church could do alone, like our camp or our campus ministries or denominational missionaries. In a local church like this one, we share challenges as we address issues with our buildings or seek to comfort and help those who are ill or grieving or figure out how best to minister with our children and youth or determine who will lead us. And that feeling of collaboration, of pulling together with others toward a common goal, is a positive motivator. Paul used it with Philemon. “If you consider me your partner,” he said. And remember, that though Paul was writing a personal letter to Philemon, the matter was not private. The epistle would be heard by the whole church in Philemon and Apphia’s house. They would join with the couple in making a decision about Onesimus. The whole church could lend its wisdom as Philemon struggled to think outside the cultural boxes of his day about slavery and his relationship with someone in a lower social class.

So we are motivated to serve and continue in community with others as we wrestle together and accomplish together. But the other important factor in motivation, according to the business speaker Simon Sinek, is having a common story, buying into meaning, purpose, calling. We share goals and beliefs. We give the same answer to the “why” question, though we may disagree on what and how. As Sinek says, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” And there is a difference, he claims, between leaders and those who lead. The former have power and authority because of a position. The latter may have no position, but they lead us because they inspire us. They evoke loyalty; they earn trust.

Paul appeals to Philemon out of their common story, the gospel. They are co-workers. They have God as their Father and Jesus as their Lord. Their shared goal is to do good for the sake of Christ through their testimony of faith. They encourage and care for each other “in the Lord,” as does every member of the house church and those people who send greetings.

One reason churches split internally or leave presbyteries and denominations is that the bond created by a shared story has been broken. Perhaps the disagreement on the surface is over some theological or social issue, and a congregation votes to go somewhere more in tune with their convictions. Maybe in a church there has been some dirty political trick by one group against another. Perhaps the minister or some prominent elder has lost the respect of many of the members due to some immoral act, while others line up behind him or her. But at bottom of all this is a failure of trust and love, without which, our standards tell us, our system cannot work at any level. The sense of a common bond that holds no matter what may come is an important factor in motivating us to keep working, even through hurt and disappointment and failure. We keep on because we want to, not because we have to.

Jane Parker Huber, in a hymn we sang last week, reminds us of who we are and what motivates us, even as she invites us to act: “Called as partners in Christ’s service, called to ministries of grace, we respond with deep commitment, fresh new lines of faith to trace. May we learn the art of sharing, side by side and friend with friend, equal partners in our caring, to fulfill God’s chosen end. Christ’s example, Christ’s inspiring, Christ’s clear call to work and worth, let us follow, never faltering, reconciling folk on earth. Men and women, richer, poorer, all God’s people, young and old, blending human skills together, gracious gifts from God unfold. Thus new patterns for Christ’s mission, in a small or global sense, help us bear each other’s burdens, breaking down each wall or fence. Words of comfort, words of vision, words of challenge, said with care, bring new power and strength for action, make us colleagues, free and fair” (

Thanks be to God.


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