How Pastors Can Learn and Remember People's Names

Knowing and remembering people's names will help you in your relationships with members of your congregation. (Photo by Product School on Unsplash)

"[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name, and he leads them out" (John 10:3).

The evangelist had held a revival in my church one year earlier, just before I arrived as the new pastor, and it had gone well. Since we had known each other in seminary and the congregation had appreciated his ministry, I invited him to return a year later for a repeat engagement.

He walked in and began calling my people by their first names.

I was floored.

I said, "James, how many meetings have you been in since you were here last year?" The answer was something like 36, as I recall.

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I said, "How in the world can you remember the names of our members?"

"I work at it," was all he said.

Looking back, I wish I had not let him off so easily and insisted he tell me what he did.

His words stuck with me. A few months later, I preached a revival in Edison, Georgia, in a congregation running 130 in the morning service. By the end of the week, I was calling all the people—every person in the building—by their first names.

Pastor Gene Brock said, "I wish I had your ability with names. How do you do this?"

"I work at it."

Smiley-face goes here.

It was the right answer of course. Few people are so gifted that with no effort they learn a name once and retain it forever. Most of us have to work and keep on working to learn a name, keep it and not forget it.

The question, of course, is: 'What kind of work? What exactly should I do to remember a name?'

My church once brought in a former professional basketball player to speak about memorizing Scripture using a technique he had developed, on which he had written a book. We attended his class, learned his methodology and promptly discarded it.

It was too gimmicky. He had us creating outlandish mental images to represent various events and people in chapters of the Bible. To reconstruct that chapter, we had to drag out that awful monstrosity of an image we had made and dissect it, remember what each part stood for, and go from there.

No, thank you.

No gimmicks. Nor do we want to remember that "Sister Womack's name rhymes with 'stomach' and she is very heavy." (The joke on that is that the next time he saw her, he called her Mrs. Kelly. Rhymes with "belly"; get it?)

Here is what I have learned about remembering people's names:

  1. Ask heaven for help. You may assume the heavenly Father is more interested than you in your learning the names of your people.
  2. When you first hear a name, repeat it. Get it right the first time or nothing else matters. Then use it in talking with them.
  3. If you are uncertain, ask the person to spell it. They will not mind.

This is their name; it's highly important to them and they will be impressed that it matters to you. If the name is fascinating or unusual, feel free to ask about it. Sometimes when a name is unique, I'll say, "And have you ever met another person with your name?" On the train two days ago, I sketched a lot of people, including a woman named "Miranda" and another who spelled hers "Meranda."

  1. Use their names immediately. This begins to fix it in your mind as well as on your tongue.
  2. Then, recall them later. Think back about meeting them. What about them will help you recall their names? This is the primary reason most people forget names: They forget the individual altogether. The next time they meet, there is no basis for recalling anything.
  3. When sitting in church, look around. Try to place the names of everyone you see. Some names will come easily, while others will be more reluctant to allow themselves to be captured.
  4. Do not be afraid (or ashamed) to say, "Please tell me your name again" or "I really want to remember your name; tell me again." My favorite art store had employed a young man named Jacob. For reasons unknown, it took me numerous attempts to remember his name. Each time I returned to the store, I would admit to him, "I don't recall your name. Sorry." (That was mostly for my sake, as though to rebuke myself and establish that I was determined to get this!) What finally did it was asking about his art. He gave me his website. When I began to learn more about him, his identity became fixed in my mind.
  5. When you have trouble remembering a name, learn more about the person. Once you establish their identity, the problem is solved, as it was with Jacob.
  6. Love people and be interested in them. When a minister has been at a church for a decade or more, he has touched the lives of almost all his people up close and personally. If you have loved them, they will never forget you and you will remember them forever also.
  7. Jettison the perfectionism. Expect to call someone by the wrong name occasionally, and do not let that fluster you. Laugh it off and learn from it.

Two Quick Stories

1. When my children were in elementary school, they would often stop by my office before worship for a piece of candy. So, I began keeping a jar of hard candy on the corner of the desk. As they brought their friends, the word spread. In time, as many as 90 and 100 children would parade in and out of my office between Sunday school and morning worship. Occasionally, I would sit at the desk and try to call the name of every child who flowed through. When I could not place a child, I stopped them and asked.

It was great discipline. And may I add, it's the kind of thing that makes you know you were called to be a shepherd of the Lord's people. After all, the shepherd knows his sheep.

2. Second story: Entering the room to meet with the pastor search committee, I was startled to discover 13 people. That is enough for two or three such teams. As they introduced themselves, I listened closely and made mental notes about each one. Then, as the evening progressed, they were interviewing me about my beliefs and experience. In my responses, I spoke the name of the questioner.

Please do not miss that.

I used the names of every person in the room in my responses. During my closing prayer with them, I prayed for James, Tom and Helen; for Mark, Ray and Mildred; for John and so forth. The entire 13 people.

They called me as pastor and God blessed us with nearly 13 wonderful years in that outstanding church. Everyone on that committee became a great friend and remains so to this day.

Had I waited until I entered that room to attempt to learn and recall people's names, this would not have worked. However, I'd been at this for several years and was beginning to get the hang of it.

This is not a parlor game and not a trick of memory. This is an important skill for anyone wanting to lead people, particularly one called (and sent!) by the living God to shepherd His people.

Work at it, make it fun and stay with it, but don't be a perfectionist about it.

Eventually, even if you do not become a champion, you'll still be far better at remembering names than you would have otherwise. After all, the only person you're competing with is yourself.

Joe McKeever is retired from the pastorate but still active in preaching, writing and cartooning for Christian publications. He lives in Ridgeland, Mississippi.

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