Won’t You Be My Neighbor? 4 Things I Learned from Mr. Rogers

Carl Barnhill

In Columbia, SC, where I live, there is a small theater downtown called The Nickelodeon that shows obscure and independent films. Earlier this year, I visited ’The Nick’ one evening and attended a screening of the documentary film, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, based on the life of Mr. Fred Rogers.

The theater was small and intimate, with maybe 50 people in the theater. These were film enthusiasts – people who like to see documentaries and small budget movies in the theater – so the air was different. Those attending were more engaged and really wanted to be there.

As the lights dimmed and the film started, I knew I was in for a unique night. As I watched the film, I looked around and it was amazing to see people soften and respond to hearing about the life of a presbyterian minister turned television personality talk about how love was the driving force of his life.

You might be wondering at this point – what does this story and Mr. Rogers have to do with church media and leadership? Good question. There are several leadership qualities I learned from the life and career of this unique man.

1. You don’t have to be flashy to make an impact.

There is a line from Margy Whitmer, Producer of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, that was interviewed in the documentary where she said – “You take all the elements that make great television and do the exact opposite, you have Mister Roger’s Neighborhood – low production value, simple sets, unlikely star – yet, it worked.

Another quote from Mr. Rogers himself – “I always felt like I didn’t have to put on a funny hat or jump through a hoop to have a relationship with a child.

It was amazing with his children’s show, that it was the content of the program that transcended through the screen to us as children.

The documentary showed how the producers of the show where deliberate in making the show slow – as a counter to the action shows and cartoons of the day.

In church world, we have the greatest story in all of human history. I’ve worked on staff a mega-churches, I’ve consulted and produced eye-catching content for Worship Experiences around the world – a great privilege – but one thing I think we need to remember is that the message of the gospel is powerful on its own. We can use tools to make the message more memorable or stick. But sometimes, we don’t need the flashy. Sometimes – the simple speaks louder than the pop. Silence can be louder than the decibel level we run our mix at. No lights can be more memorable than our new LED toy.

We don’t have to be flashy to make an impact.

2. Be consistent.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood began airing in 1968 and ran for 895 episodes. The last set of new episodes was taped in December of 2000. At its peak, in 1985, 8% of US households tuned into the show every week.

More than his show, Mr. Rogers was incredibly dedicated to showing love to other people and to the teaching of young children.

We respect people who have immense experience. Someone who has been consistent in their mission for decades is admirable.

Suggested Tweet: "Someone who has been consistent in their mission for decades is admirable. As leaders, let's be consistent. @CarlBarnhill"

As a leader, I want to be consistent in what I’m known for. Do people know me as a loving person? As a dedicated person? As an encourager? Can people count on me?

As leaders, let’s be consistent.

3. You don’t have to carry a big stick.

I’m amazed at how Mr. Rogers did not force his agenda. He dealt with major controversial issues on his children’s show – from race, to divorce, to suicide, to death, to war.

The documentary spent some time showing a period in which PBS needed funding in order to continue with children’s programming. In 1969, Rogers appeared before the US Senate subcommittee on Communications. His goal was to support funding for PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in response to proposed budget cuts. With only about six minutes of testimony, Rogers spoke of the need for social and emotional education that public television provided. The soft-spoken Rogers convinced the chairman of the subcommittee, John Pastore (a well-known impatient man) to approve a $20 million dollar increase in PBS funding.

As leaders, we don’t have to carry a big stick. We don’t have to figuratively beat people over the head with our authority or our agenda. If our vision is powerful, if our “why” is compelling, it will convince people to follow. We don’t have to carry a big stick to get things done as a leader. We don’t have to be loud to have a massive impact.

4. Love conquers all.

Francois Clemmons, an African-American gentleman, was a recurring character on the program. Francois is gay. Both of these attributes in the 1970s and 80s were taboo. In the documentary, it showed how Clemmons told Fred Rogers he was gay, and Rogers asked him not to share that as it would damage the impact of the show. I was watching this in the theater and I thought for sure Clemmons would speak ill of Rogers as being unaccepting of him or might have some ill-will toward him for this situation. What amazed me – is by the end of the documentary, Clemmons is in tears remembering the man Rogers was – praising him and his friendship toward him. Admiring the love Rogers had for him. Telling the world that when the world was hating blacks and gays – Fred Rogers didn’t agree with his lifestyle, but loved him and embraced him. What a powerful example of love.

The name of our ministry (12:30 Media) comes from the passage in Mark 12 – where Jesus is asked the greatest commandment and he shares that Loving God and Loving People sums up our entire Christian journey. And really if we love God – loving people will follow. It is our desire as a ministry that as we help churches like yours Transform their Worship Experiences that we can help you show God’s love and help you love the people in your community. It’s also a reminder to ourselves that everything in our ministry and in our lives should flow from our love for God.

Mr. Rogers demonstrated this principle well. He loved. It was the essence of his life and his mission – kindness and love.

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Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” – Fred Rogers

The greatest thing we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.” – Fred Rogers

“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Please won’t you be my neighbor?”

The documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is available now on Amazon and wherever movies are sold.


About Carl Barnhill

Owner, Church Visuals

Carl Barnhill is a creative entrepreneur, motion designer and author. He is the Owner Church Visuals, a company that helps Ministry Leaders visually communicate the Gospel. He is the host of the Your Visuals Matter Podcast. You can find him in Columbia, South Carolina with his wife, Katie and two sons, Jacob and Wesley.

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