People-Pleasing Pastors, an Interview with Charles Stone
Ed Stetzer: Dr. Stone, explain a bit of your experience in church leadership and how that motivated you to write your newest book, People-Pleasing Pastors.
Dr. Charles Stone: I've served as a pastor in some capacity for over 33 years either as a church planter, an associate pastor, or a lead pastor. Early on in my ministry I found that I sometimes said 'yes' to people in the church even though I wanted to say no. It seemed that an invisible pull inside me prevented me from saying 'no.' And, if I said 'no,' I either did it too forcefully or kept thinking that I'd suffer some negative consequence for doing so. Over time I realized that I had developed ingrained habits of people pleasing. I realized that such a problem would stifle my ministry. So, I began to learn some insights about how to avoid people pleasing, had LifeWay Research perform some research for me, and realized I wasn't alone. Over 70% of pastors deal with people pleasing at some level, As a result, I felt prompted to write the book to process my stuff and to help other pastors and ministry leaders deal with unhealthy people pleasing.
ES: What is unique about the office of pastor that makes it exceedingly tempting to try to please people at all times?
CS: Pastors and politicians both find themselves in a similar situation. We are constantly in the public eye and the expectations on us to successfully perform looms large. As pastors, we want those in our churches to willingly serve, love Jesus, and give generously. Often we succumb to pleasing people thinking that if we work really hard to get them to like us, they will do those things. And although all people pleasing is not bad (we after all are called to love, show compassion, and be kind to others which pleases them) often we cross the unhealthy line and people please not for another's benefit, but for ours…we want to be liked. And add to that, neuroscientists are discovering that the brain itself is bent on avoiding rejection. And people who voice their disapproval of us is a form of rejection
ES: One of the first points you make in the book is that pastors ought to "Revisit the past." Explain a little bit more about whose past and to what depth it ought to be revisited.
CS: Sometimes we can wallow in the past too much and not truly move ahead in life. However, a psychiatrist in the 70's and 80's, Dr. Murray Bowen, discovered that if we can map our family's relationships out to two to three generations, we can pick up on patterns that have affected our relationships. When we do that, often we can pick up pleaser patterns. Simply going through the discovery process, in Dr. Bowen's research, showed that we can actually begin to break those unhealthy patterns. This relates to the book of Exodus when it describes how generational sin can bleed into future generations. Although those unhealthy patterns can affect us, they won't determine our destinies if we take proactive action.
ES: What are some of the most common ways you see pastors attempting to please people?
CS: Often when someone comes to us with a request, we pastors can sidestep the issue without truly being honest with the person by telling them that we can't honor their request. The person goes away thinking one thing yet we plan on doing something totally different. And when that expectation is not met in the person, problems occur. We sidestep, thinking that if we please the person in the moment, we will be better off. In reality, we make things worse. It's better to be honest up front.
ES:Another one of the points you make in the book is that it is wise for the pastor to "Engage your critics." This can be difficult for some, especially in particularly hostile, emotional situations. Share a little bit about how this can be done well without insulting or people-pleasing the critic.
CS: To engage our critics does not mean that we become a punching bag, allow division, or let ourselves be run over. It does mean that when we face critics in the church, we don't constantly avoid them. At times I've literally walked in a different direction on a Sunday when I thought I might cross paths with a critic. I now make sure that I don't that. Rather, I engage my critic, smile, and talk to him or her. When a critic feels left in the dark, cut off, or rejected their criticism can often heat up.
ES: In all of your research and experience, what is the most important thing for people-pleasing pastors to remember as they try to change?
CS: Perhaps the greatest insight that has helped me recover from my people pleasing tendency has been to learn the discipline of thinking about what I am thinking about. The term is called metacognition. One of the greatest drains in a pastor's life is excessive rumination, reflection over, and rehearsing of negative stuff in the church (like people who feel disappointed). The more a pastor can make himself aware of these negative thoughts and then switch them to more positive ones (Phil. 4.8), the healthier his emotional life will become and he'll enjoy ministry more. A spiritual formation practice of Christian mindfulness has dramatically helped me think about what I'm thinking about and stay more consistently in the present moment. I devote an entire chapter in the book to explain how to practice mindfulness.