James is a young pastor in his first church. James learned great theology from seminary, but very little about what to expect from boards or how to handle conflict. His first meeting shakes him.
Several board members come across as harsh and opinionated. Several times James tries to make a point, but each time his ideas get shot down. When he verbally agrees with the deacons, even though internally he doesn't agree, they respond with smiles and affirmation. He begins to regularly acquiesce to these deacons to keep their approval and support, thus subconsciously forming some patterns of thinking and relating. In board meetings, he constantly scans the deacons' eyes and body language to gauge the meeting's emotional temperature.
Based on what he senses, he knows when to speak and when to remain quiet. He finds that being agreeable and non-assertive makes the meetings more peaceful. Even though he may disagree with a decision or want to go in a different direction, he doesn't speak up. He puts on a smile, nods, and agrees. And he feels better, at least in the meetings. But the next day he berates himself for not speaking up.
James also begins to notice something else. The day the deacons hold their monthly meeting, he always has to take a heavy dose of ibuprofen to stop a headache. Resentment slowly builds. His wife and kids also notice that he becomes irritable with them on those meeting days. This cycle repeats itself for his entire five years as pastor of this church …
People-pleasing, approval-motivated leadership afflicts many of today's church leaders.
To research this topic, I commissioned a survey of nearly 2,300 pastors, including men, women, young, old, minimally educated, and highly educated from both large and small churches in North, Central, and South America.
Surprisingly, 79 percent of the leaders in one survey of 1,000 pastors and 91 percent in another survey of over 1,200 pastors admitted to people-pleasing tendencies to some degree in their respective ministries.
Pleasing people, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. And some professions, by their very nature, draw people into them because they offer opportunities to help others. Ministry and politics fall into that category. Both pastors and politicians, rightly motivated, want to help and serve others.
That desire, however, often makes us susceptible to the type of people-pleasing that becomes problematic. Indeed I have been a people-pleasing pastor. I'm still in recovery.
In my more than 30 years in ministry as a senior pastor, church planter, teaching pastor, and associate pastor, I now see the impact of people-pleasing. Not only have I felt its effects, but so have my family and the churches I served.
The churches I served grew numerically and the people grew spiritually. We served the community and we served the world. On the whole the people felt that I served them well. I believe we honored the Lord.
Yet I wonder how many decisions I made motivated by a desire to please somebody in the church resulted in missing God's best. I wonder how many more people could have moved closer to Jesus had I not allowed desire for approval to influence my leadership.
People-pleasing, approval-motivated leadership can be subtle, often counter-intuitive, and it will stifle a spiritual leader's passion and joy if left unchecked.
Luke 6:26 sounds the alarm: "There's trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them" (The Message).