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What's Wrong with People Pleasing?

The pitfalls of approval-motivated leadership.

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).

It's often hard to know when we actually please God. So as a tangible way to please God, we try to please people through our service, preaching, and leading. When others approve, we assume God approves.

But here's where the challenge comes. We can play to the crowd and ignore the harder path of godly leadership. How do I discern if my motives were rooted in pleasing God or seeking the approval of others?

Paul puts it well. "Am I now trying to win the approval of people, or of God? … If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ" (Gal. 1:10).

I believe any spiritual leader can change his or her unhealthy approval motivations with the Lord's help. When leaders turn from their people-pleasing tendencies, they can experience a fresh wave of spiritual power reflected in these ways.

  • greater creativity
  • healthier teams
  • vision clarity
  • renewed passion
  • more internal peace
  • clearer decision making
  • decreased anxiety
  • less defensiveness
  • fewer mental distractions
  • successful conflict management
  • clarity in hearing God's quiet voice
  • more fruit from spiritual disciplines.

Is People-Pleasing Always Bad?

Not all people-pleasing is misguided or unhealthy. Pleasing God and pleaseing people are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul talks about his freedom as a minister of the gospel. God gives pastors certain rights … to be treated with respect, to enjoy the spiritual fruits of his labor (both spiritual and material), marriage. Yet certain responsibilities counter-balance those rights … to preach willingly, to serve others, and to not be a slave to anyone. He captures this tension in these verses:

"Though I am free and belong to no one, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law, I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law.

"To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings" (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

In other words, Paul committed to pleasing others if it promoted the gospel, to bend his preferences to theirs. Yet he also refused to please people if he perceived doing so would hinder the gospel (Gal. 1:10, 1 Thess. 2:4). So, the ultimate test to determine whether or not our people-pleasing is wrong is whether or not it promotes the gospel.

God-honoring deference to others happens when we foster healthy relationships, exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, and practice the Golden Rule. We've pleased others in a healthy way when they are better off when we do it and when we sense God's peace in our hearts.

There are plenty of verses that seem to say that we're supposed to please others.

"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather in humility consider others above yourselves" (Phil. 2:3).

"In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'" (Acts 20:35).

"Honor one another above yourselves" (Rom. 12.10).

How should we take these truths in light of the dangers of people-pleasing? How do we serve others, honor them above ourselves, and appropriately care for ourselves at the same time?

We get a clue by looking at Jesus' teaching and practice. Although he healed the sick, raised the dead, and taught many, he often pulled himself away from the crowds to replenish his soul and be with his Father (Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16, Matt. 14:23). He took care of himself and didn't try to meet everybody's needs or please everyone who clamored for his attention. He didn't always make himself available.

The People-Pleasing Virus

Edwin Friedman applied family systems insight to religious leaders. In his insightful book, Failure of Nerve, he draws parallels between the negative emotional processes in organizations, including churches, to what viruses and cancer cells do to the human body. This parallel helps explain how people-pleasing can damage our leadership.

First, good cells in our bodies do certain things to keep us healthy.

  • They specialize for the greater good of the body.
  • They self-regulate. They don't go off half-cocked doing what they want to do.
  • They communicate with each other.
  • Rather than compete, they cooperate.
  • They know when their time is up because they have a gene for self-destruction, which activates when needed

But viruses, unlike healthy cells, work against the body's health. Since they can't self-regulate, they destroy healthy cells by infiltrating them like a parasite and sucking the life from them. Another pathogen, the cancer cell, provides an even better metaphor to describe how people-pleasing can hurt our leadership.

My youngest daughter, Tiffany, was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age one. But 26 years later, after six brain surgeries and an experimental device implanted deep in her brain, she is now doing well. We'll never know what caused the tumor, but we understand some of the characteristics that make cancer cells deadly. In several ways Tiffany's tumor cells subverted the good processes of normal cells.

  • They lost their ability to self-regulate. They went on a growth spree with no respect for the healthy part of her brain. They invaded the life and space of the good cells. Had I not noticed a twitch in her eye that led to a CAT scan and a tumor diagnosis, the cells would have continued to replicate themselves, ultimately taking her life.
  • They did not colonize or group into a brain structure that was growing for her body's common good.
  • They were rogue cells, unconnected and non-communicative to the good cells. They were living for themselves and if left alone would have ravaged her brain.
  • They reproduced indiscriminately, with no higher purpose in mind.
  • They did not know when to quit. It took surgery and radiation to kill them.

Essentially, both viruses and cancer cells do their deadly work because, as Friedmann says, "their behavior and their direction are determined by what is outside rather than what is within."

People-pleasing can be as deadly to our souls and to our leadership as a cancer cell can be to our bodies.

Likewise, people-pleasing leadership gets its direction and behavior from what is outside (people we strive to please) rather than from the inside (our values, convictions, and vision). People-pleasing can be as deadly to our souls and our leadership as a cancer cell can be to our bodies. However, it's important not to view difficult people as viruses. Instead, we must see the unhealthy patterns to which they (and we) sometimes succumb as the problem.

In addition, we set up unhealthy emotional processes in our ministries when we try to placate others through choices like these.

  • Allow those with no respect for our boundaries to suck the life out of us.
  • Try to make them happy even though they don't have what it takes to be happy, just as a virus or cancer cell has no ability to self-regulate.
  • Inadvertently allow them to take us down just as viruses commit biological suicide by taking out good cells when they die.

In How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems, Peter Steinke extends Paul's analogy of the body in 1 Corinthians to the function of cells within the body. Cells can either live for the benefit of the whole or live for themselves. Often those people we try most to please are selfish and don't really want what is best for the whole, but what is best for themselves.

One pastor noted how his people-pleasing virus took him hostage and what he finally did to rectify it.

"A man with a strong personality felt he spoke for a large segment of the church. When decisions were made that he did not agree with, he immediately voiced strong opinions, usually with an implied threat of a revolt if the decision did not change. It affected my ministry because I knew it was not an idle threat, but I did not know how many people would follow him. It reached a point that before making decisions I often asked myself how he would respond and would often avoid going against him.

"This issue culminated with one key decision I made that I knew he opposed. I made it clear that I was going ahead with the decision. As predicted he tried to create a revolt and even contacted our denominational headquarters.

"When they came to assess the situation, they found that while a small group supported him, as a whole the church strongly supported my decision. They encouraged him to leave the church or get on board and stop his resistance. He chose to stay and kept quiet from that point on. It was a turning point for the church, and a long phase of growth soon followed."

People-pleasing can take a tremendous toll on your vitality, joy, and effectiveness. Counteracting the people-pleasing virus is not easy. There are no quick fixes. Getting rid of boundary-less staff with new leaders won't solve our internal heart issues and patterns. It's a scientific fact that viruses are impervious to new blood. And passively ignoring the problem won't make it go away.

The solution lies in the power of the gospel as the Lord helps us develop a healthy immune system. I take great comfort in the life of Timothy. The apostle Paul encouraged him to not be timid (2 Tim. 1:7), as apparently he struggled with people-pleasing. Yet, as his life and ministry unfolds through the pages of Scripture, he became a bold servant of Christ as he experienced the Spirit's transforming power.

Charles Stone is pastor of West Park Church in London, Ontario.

This article is adapted by permission from People Pleasing Pastors by Charles Stone (IVP, 2014).

From Issue:Winter 2014: Fit to Lead?
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