In 2001, after three decades of entertaining little hearts and minds, Fred Rogers closeted his cardigan and removed his sneakers for the final time. A couple years later, the hero to countless children died. A recent documentary on the life of the celebrated broadcaster has reminded me how much this sweater-clad Presbyterian minister influenced my own life and ministry.
Looking back, I can say that (almost) everything I needed to know about thriving in ministry — and in life — I learned in that pre-kindergarten with my three preschoolers.
Here are just a few of the gems I’ve gleaned from the Neighborhood.
1. Accentuate the positive
Mister Rogers always reminded his viewers that he likes them just the way they are. It was something his Grandfather McFeeley used to say. While other family members discussed young Fred’s introverted nature, someone he loved and respected celebrated his praise-worthy qualities.
I needed that reminder in my first church. Early on, a few vocal critics challenged my adequacy as a spiritual shepherd. It was painful. I didn’t feel loveable or loved. But when I heard Mister Rogers telling my daughters “I like you just the way you are,” it felt good — to them and to me. People could like me, just the way I was. Mister Rogers said so.
2. It takes a neighborhood
Even though it was called Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood, Fred’s program was not a one-man show. John Costa arranged the music and led the jazz ensemble, Betty Aberlin sang and interacted with the puppets, and Mr. McFeeley delivered the mail. There were many more regulars, both on camera and off. They had much fun working—and playing—together.
The years I spent watching children’s TV with my kids coincided with a time in my life when I attempted to do most of the ministry myself. As a result, I burned out.
That’s when I called on my own “neighbors” to share in the ministry with me. The gifts others offered brought creativity, a shared sense of ownership and much-needed community.
3. True leaders work beneath the castle
What most kids didn’t know is that during the segment of the show that featured the Neighborhood of Make Believe, Fred was under the castle supplying the hands and voices for many of the characters. He was in cramped spaces, willingly working shoulder to elbow with other puppeteers to bring fantasy to life without being recognized.
While being successful as a pastor — and in life — doesn’t typically include hand puppets, it does mean getting involved up to your elbows, whether anybody knows it or not.
4. The value of ugga-mugga
One of my favorite residents in the Neighborhood is Daniel Striped Tiger, a shy, threadbare puppet with a scratchy little voice.
There was only one person with whom Daniel confessed his fears and insecurities, and that was the lovely, human Lady Aberlin. She knew the tiger’s flaws and loved him anyway. Often after he unloaded his heavy heart, Lady Aberlin would rub his nose and say “ugga-mugga.” I think it meant, “I care about you and you’re going to be OK.”
Everyone — pastor or otherwise — needs a confidant who listens but is also free to confront you with difficult truths.
5. Every day is special
It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive. Mister Rogers wrapped up every show with this upbeat song. The message of the song was powerful: Every day is special and, even as one day is ending, we can anticipate with excitement what the new day will bring. And based on what I’ve read about Mister Rogers, he believed what he sang. He unwrapped each day’s show as if it were a personal gift from God, because according to his faith, it was. Like Mister Rogers, I’ve learned to anticipate each new one as a “snappy, new day.”
Mister Rogers, thanks for all you taught me!
Greg Asimakoupoulos is a Wenatchee native living on Mercer Island, where he is the Faith/Values columnist for the Mercer Island Reporter.