The Fishbowl, My Friend
Why living on display isn't the worst thing ever.

As a young pastor I hated the "fishbowl effect" of ministry. You know—that feeling that everyone's watching you, and that your mistakes count more. It seemed unfair to my young mind that my personal shortcomings (which would never be an issue in terms of most people's employment) could lose me my job, my reputation, and my community.

Maybe the reason it bothered me so much was that I had such a surplus of those shortcomings.

But through years of living in the unfailing eye of critics and cranks (along with cheerleaders and encouragers!) I've come to see the fishbowl in a slightly different light.

Now the fishbowl is my friend.

Think not to lie hid

Richard Baxter, a Puritan pastor who lived in the 1600's spoke of pastoral life this way:

"While you are as lights set upon a hill, think not to lie hid. Take heed therefore to yourselves, and do your work as those that remember that the world looks on them, and that with the quick-sighted eye of malice, ready to make the worst of all, to find the smallest fault where it is, to aggravate it where they find it, to divulge it and to take advantage of it to their own designs, and to make faults where they cannot find them. How cautiously, then, should we walk before so many ill-minded observers!"

Baxter understood that those who call others to live like Jesus would necessarily be faulted when failing to live so themselves. He understood that the fishbowl's a perennial dynamic in ministry. And so he encouraged us to live as though the world was watching. Because they are. There are those in our lives ready to shout "hypocrite" at the slightest provocation, to call us out for human failings which they themselves share and even, as Baxter says, to make faults where they cannot find them.

But Baxter took it further. He said we ought to be glad for this.

"As you take yourselves for the lights of the churches, you may expect that men's eyes will be upon you. If other men may sin without observation, so cannot you. And you should thankfully consider how great a mercy this is, that you have so many eyes to watch over you, and so many ready to tell you of your faults; and thus have greater helps than others, at least for restraining you from sin. Though they may do it with a malicious mind, yet you have the advantage of it."

That's right. The fact that you have more eyes on you, more people examining how you live means that you have greater helps in living rightly than others. What they might mean for evil, God means for your good.

June 17, 2013

Displaying 1–5 of 5 comments


June 19, 2013  10:26am

These are fair questions Bob. I think circles work very well (with no one in the middle). Rows put the person up front in a bowl. The more others are engaged – the less they are outside looking into the bowl – and the less critical they are of you when it's your turn. There are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers sitting out there in most congregations. Problem is they are just sitting. Maybe we could find creative ways to get rid of the ‘I talk – you sit and listen' thing. It never worked with our kids anyway – how about let's all experience this thing together (whatever "this thing" is) – and we all get back together and talk about what just happened - now that works really well with kids. I especially love the "what went wrong" discussions – they are priceless. Turn the world into a lab – take a group out - and try out your beliefs and theories and see if they work – move on quickly. (Get out of the bowl sometimes – go outside the camp!) I don't think this gets rid of the bowl yet- but it's a start.

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June 18, 2013  6:16pm

Ahh- the ever-present house church guy :) This article really has nothing to do with institutionalism, and any attempt to insert that issue here is pretty cheap. Whether a mega church pastor our a house church member, the fishbowl I'm talking about is the same. It remains.

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June 18, 2013  3:29pm

Jerry Nice turn on the analogy. When I was in school learning to be a leader fish in the bowl, one of the national big name preachers came and told us budding leaders to maintain a professional distance from the flock. We were the shepherds and they are the sheep. Here the shepherding analogy was being used to justify a relational separation. I knew this wasn't right. God designed sheep to grow up to be shepherds, and that only happens in a dynamic of mutuality and intimacy. God designed us to live up close and open with others. This is a struggle with our flesh which likes to posture the absence of failings. When the saints systematize their gatherings as a ceremony driven from a platform rather than one driven by fellow members of one another, what we are to observe and learn from each other is completely distorted and devalued. Peter tells us spiritual leadership is leading by example. Don't just watch what they do, do as they do. So the gathering must be set up so anyone can do what the leader does, including things like serving, hospitality, fathering, family interaction, etc. Ceremony is a false eco system for saints. Full relational participation is the correct system. We are a body. We are a family. We are a building of living stones. We are a priesthood. We are not an institution. It took me 20 years also, so I figure anyone else can take that long.

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June 18, 2013  11:41am

Jerry- how would you suggest throwing the fishbowl away? What practically would that look like? This is a part of life- if you are a parent, your kids are watching you. If you are a teacher, your students. If you live around anyone at all, your neighbors. And if you are a pastor, the people you pastor are looking to see if your life matches your teaching. Those are the facts- so how would you suggest living as though there is no fishbowl effect when you can't really change the dynamic?

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June 18, 2013  7:42am

I used to believe in the fishbowl. I know several people who were hurt very deeply in that bowl - and I was one who hurt them. I am very sorry for that. Maybe they were messed up, but that doesn't really matter any more. We're all messed up really. That's why we need the Lord and one another. I'd love to help them now, but I'm not allowed in the bowl - and I really couldn't go there anyway. It's tough to keep fish alive in a bowl. One of my kids won a fish somewhere with a ping pong ball and one thing led to another and before I knew it we had an aquarium and filters and all of that - and finally - we just had enough and said - no more fish in bowls. We put them in the creek down the road and took the aquarium to Goodwill. (this is a true story!) The bowl really removes the fish from their God given environment and puts them in an artificial environment. There's not much can go right there - really. There are good days, but there are lots of dead fish. Embrace the fishbowl???? NO!!!!!! Throw the bowl in the lake and let the fish go free!!!! It's the bowl that's the whole problem - not the fish. I so wish I knew that 20 years ago.

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