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Make Your Days Count
Leadership lessons from a cancer survivor about living life to the full.


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Sometimes life surprises you.

A tear fell down my face as I entered a restaurant recently with my daughter. We had decided to go out for soup and salad, and to talk. We love to joke and laugh and sometimes dive into deep discussions. So why the tear?

I realized at that moment that I had hit another anniversary. Exactly 14 years ago to the day, a doctor gave me a cancer diagnosis. His words: "You need to press pause on everything you have going on now so you can fight for your life."

My daughter was 3 years old then. Today she's 17. As we raised our water glasses to toast the special day, she asked, "What's that thing you say about learning from cancer?"

"When you believe your days are numbered, you commit to making them count."

Those words apply to anyone. The challenge lies in approaching days differently—maybe a little differently for some people, for others much more. They certainly apply to leaders—whether in a church or other faith organization. What leader doesn't want to make his or her days count?

I have enjoyed the privilege of experiencing results from strong leaders I deeply respect and attempt to emulate in my role as the president of a faith-based organization. Sometimes I get it right, many times I need more tries. But the commitment is there.

As a leader, you will make a day count when you …

  1. Light someone up in your organization, in a good way. Become generous with specific encouragement and in sharing opportunities for an individual to do more than he believes he can—all because you believe in him. This takes deliberate effort.

    The place to start is to notice, recall, and mention details about a person's efforts. The fire this sparks in someone burns bright and long.

    When appropriate, take this further and cast a positive vision for someone to live into, and then let them chase it. Whenever I found myself the recipient of encouragement and challenge by the senior pastor of the church where I worked, I grew. I changed. And years later I still remember when it happened. "You have what it takes to [fill in the blank]" are amazing words to hear. Why? Because a leader's voice carries a tone of believability. Many people walk through day after day wishing someone would notice them—and what they're capable of becoming.

    It's easy to go through a day occupied solely by your cares. What would happen if, at least once every day, you committed to encourage or share an opportunity?

  2. Appreciate someone who doesn't expect it. Every day, our paths intersect with people outside of our organization. Share with one of them a few brief words of appreciation. Dan serves as the CEO of another organization in our area, and we meet for coffee or lunch once or twice a year. Every time, he says a genuine thank-you to me for our organization's work. He doesn't have to, and it doesn't come out forced. But it's memorable and makes me want to appreciate people more.

    Consider how easy it would be to talk with, not at, someone who serves you. Whenever I travel and turn in a rental car, I'm asked the same question: "How did the car drive?" Rather than join the masses and say "fine," I reply with: "It shimmies a little when you get it up over 105. How's your day going?"

    One hundred percent of the time the attendant smiles and engages in a few moments of chatter that ends with a thank you for the job he does. Do this with people who don't expect it, and doing it with people in your church or organization becomes even easier.

    What would happen if at least one person ended their day feeling appreciated by you?

  3. Release the hard stuff for a moment, and enjoy life. At least once a day, remind yourself that you really do believe that God has everything you face under his control. For an extended moment, relax and smile because God is bigger than it—whatever it is.

    At the start of my cancer battle, my oncologist shared these instructions: "Ruthlessly remove stress and anxiety from your life. Your attitude will be your most effective weapon to win this fight."

    Is this possible? Yes—through a myriad of little ways that will make tremendous differences. Here are some favorites: Set a realistic to-do list, then get it done and stop working for the day. Leave a little early so traffic doesn't ruin you. Read more, exercise as regular as possible, and get enough sleep. Focus on your family at night; stop working. Always kiss your kids good night, and always say I love you at bed time (and dozens of times before). Step out of any meeting to take calls from your family. Those goofy breathing techniques for relaxation? They work; do them often. Yes, nutrition matters. But food can also bring great joy, like dark chocolate, good coffee, crispy bacon, chips and salsa, and anything with mustard.

  4. Become real with God. Fourteen years ago my prayers shifted in tone. Instead of lifelessly talking at God, I began to pray in a more personal manner—as if talking with a friend. That's because I seriously thought the day might come soon that I would meet the One to whom I prayed. Whenever I catch myself using unusual formality while talking with God, I chuckle and say, "Okay, this is what I really want to say or think or feel … " It's not always reverent—faking a happy face, contentment, or strong character seems wrong, and God sees through the charade. Honesty is a must for any deep relationship.

    I try to replace "no" with "yes" whenever I can: full, real availability. That's how I moved through ministry. That's how I landed in my current role. And that's how I want to respond every day.

    Here's to many more.

David Staal, senior editor for Building Church Leaders and a mentor to a first grader, serves as the president of Kids Hope USA, a national non-profit organization that partners local churches with elementary schools to provide mentors for at-risk students. David is the author of Lessons Kids Need to Learn (Zondervan, 2012) and Words Kids Need to Hear (Zondervan, 2008). He lives in Grand Haven, MI, with his wife Becky, son Scott, and daughter Erin.


Topics:Christian life, Health, Pastor's Family, Recognition
Filters:Pastor, Prayer
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Displaying 1–2 of 2 comments

Nettie Wood

March 06, 2014  1:25pm

I must also point out that I so agree that this is a time to reflect on ones relationship with God. I cannot imagine a person being told they are dying and continue to live in sin, including hateful behavior towards themselves and others. "Luke 10:27"

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Nettie Wood

March 06, 2014  1:18pm

Thank you so much for this insightful, empathetic lesson for those cancer survivors, caregivers, including those in the faith community, i.e. pastors, lay counselors, chaplains, relatives, friends, family members...There is not enough space for me to tell you of a personal experience I had with my husband who was in hospice. Of course his immune system was not strong and true, he needed all his strength to 'ruthlessly remove stress & anxiety from (his) life.' I agree, 'Your attitude will be your most effective weapon to win this fight.' My husband received a 'stressful' phone call and suffered a heart attack that immediately ended his life sooner than even his doctor and hospice caregivers expected. To me, also a cancer survivor, one must be ruthless in the very fight for your life when cancer raids your body. This must be taught to those who are responsible for hospital, hospice, home visits from the faith community. Thanks for an excellent article.

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