Charles Stone pegged me well with his book People-Pleasing Pastors, which I highly recommend. I have struggled with people-pleasing for most of my life. As a kid, I think I had a positive tendency to want to obey authorities in my life, but as an adult I managed to add to that dynamic a tendency to avoid any correction or conflict. And the only alternative is to keep everybody around me happy while bottling up my own feelings of frustration and disagreement. And whatever we keep stuffing inside… eventually leaks, or explodes, and I’ve been guilty of both.
As Charles points out, Pastors are particularly prone to people pleasing. We want people to like our sermons, to feel good after our counsel, to agree with our vision and leadership, and to feel better about themselves for having been around us. While some level of encouragement and affection toward others is healthy and biblical, if we’re not careful it can ultimately feed our ego, present itself as a false humility, and change the way we lead and live.
I’ve learned this lesson the hard way over eighteen years of ministry, and I’m still learning it regularly. So for my fellow undershepherds and anybody else in leadership, here’s a list of people you have permission NOT to please anymore…
You’ll always have some. They’re not always wrong, but often convey their feedback in a rather wrong spirit. And sometimes, they’re really wrong. I was told once over a decade ago that I was “unapproachable” by someone who had visited our church in Kentucky. It stung. I was defensive. Me? Unapproachable? Who’s more approachable than me? It finally sunk in that I needed to change some things about the way I related to people. I grew and the church did too.
Far more common, however, is the empty chatter of the critic whose voice we need to simply ignore. Hear this big truth: It is only as we come to fully embrace our true identity as a child of God that we can deflect untrue and unloving criticism from others. Listen to the criticism of godly friends who seek your betterment and ignore the rest while finding your confidence in the truth God speaks about you as His child through His Word.
To put it another way, there are people who have permission to speak boldly into my life where I need correction. And then there are strangers and acquaintances with mere opinions about me who don’t know my heart. Value the former as “wounds from a friend” and throw away the latter. And live to please God alone.
The power players.
For Pastors these may be Deacons or a board of Elders, or that lady who controls the money, the thermostat, and the unofficial coffee table business meetings about you. In the business world it is often boards, bosses, or fellow employees seeking to climb the ladder even if your head makes a good rung to step on. You don’t have to please any of them. You may be called to serve them well as though you’re serving Jesus (Colossians 3:22-25, where the word please is used a little differently), but you aren’t called to keep them happy.
Every time you acquiesce to the voices of those who express disapproval with the way you’re leading them, you sacrifice a little bit of your God-given influence within the organization. Pastors, in particular, are called to oversee without becoming lords over people. In other words, God often calls you to lead forward even when everyone doesn’t agree. Just ask Moses. Or Peter. Or Jesus.
I sometimes reflect back over moments in my own pastoral life and wish that I’d had the guts to risk getting fired or at least criticized for sticking to what I believed God wanted me to do next. But what I find, sometimes, are moments that I yielded to the pressure in the name of patience and gave up an opportunity for growth, choosing to please power players rather than do whatever it takes to reach the next lost person. I wish I’d always led to please God alone.
We all want affirmation from our peers and colleagues. We want them to know that we’re like them and that they can like us with confidence. But I’ve had to embrace the face, especially lately, that I’ll never be conservative enough for some of my peers, or liberal enough for others. I may never have the approval of the Reformed camp, the Charismatic camp, or the Ecumenical camp. While one peer is calling me out on my soft stance on some issue, another is proclaiming that I’ve been too harsh and unbending.
In light of the fact that I can’t keep my peers happy and gain their approval of all of my opinions, I’ve decided to be who God has called me to be while respecting who God has called them to be. Because of this, I’ve felt released to love and encourage my peers who lean in all kinds of different directions from me. I have friends in every camp, and probably “frenemies” too (those are enemies who act friendly out of obligation but secretly don’t like you).
I won’t get to heaven and have God ask me, “Well Brandon, how did you do at impressing all of your friends?” It’s too easy to fall into the trap of saying things we don’t really hold as a conviction to garner an “amen” from people who didn’t call us to lead to begin with. So live to please God alone.
A non-believing world.
My philosophy of ministry was drastically altered in 1999-ish when I first read The Purpose Driven Church, in which Pastor Rick Warren devotes two chapters to explaining the seeker-sensitive approach to worship. Rick couldn’t predict what would happen after the release of the book. A lot of church leaders took his ideas and ran with them… right off a cliff. That is, “seeker-sensitive” was hi-jacked and instead of being about communicating the gospel in a language a post-Christian culture can understand it often became offend no one by avoiding truth.
Our evangelistic commission from Jesus compels us to be wise, sensitive, loving, and grace-filled as we patiently present the gospel to a world in a way that can be understood and experienced. But Jesus never asked us to water down or alter His truth. He called us to choose a seat alongside our fellow sinners, but not to join in anyone else’s sin (we have enough of our own to repent of). It’s great to be creative in our communication and outreach methods, but it’s unnecessary to seek the approval of those outside the faith. Live to please God alone.
Yep, that’s right. Living to please your spouse and kids can kill you, your marriage, and your relationship with your children. I spent the first decade of my marriage loving my wife in a slightly dysfunctional way. I tried to keep her happy and to keep her from ever getting mad at me about anything. Therefore, I was dishonest about my faults, failures, and internal struggles, and I framed her in an unflattering light.
I eventually came to realize that she’s not out to get me and isn’t prone to disliking me. She’s a safe place. She’ll be upset at times, but we have yet to divorce or kill each other over our differences. She actually loves me. And I really love her. The grace she’s shown me over the years has shaped me into someone I would never have become without her. And I’m not just writing this to please her. I want to serve her, love her, and lead her well, but I want to stop trying to please her.
When it comes to our kids, the danger here may be more obvious. We’re called to lead and shepherd them, correct them, encourage them, and instruct them. We’re not called to keep them happy. And every time we choose to keep them happy instead of helping them to be holy, we reinforce the selfishness wired into them by the sin nature they inherited from us to begin with.
If you’re living to please your church, your wife, your kids, or your critics, you’re headed for spiritual and emotional burnout. Furthermore, you’re pulling away from God who is, as the Scriptures describe Him, “the one with whom we have to do.” (Hebrews 4:13)
You have only One person to please – your Creator. Serve others. Encourage others. Seek to accept and work alongside others well. But live to please an audience of One – Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.