Every day, I walk a fine line between servant leadership and people-pleasing. Some days, I get it right. Other days, I can’t even see the line.
Let’s face it — pastors are human. We like to help people and fix lives. We love to hear, “Great job, Pastor!” We are ecclesial golden retrievers — we want to be loved by everyone. But at what point does the need to please others become idolatry? What happens when being liked replaces courageous leadership and human applause outranks God’s approval?
L. Gregory Jones once told about a 13-year-old who complained to his mother, “You know, Mom, the trouble with our new pastor is that he needs us to love him so much that we can’t see God anymore.” Ouch!
Attention and praise are like drugs. The more we have, the more we need. And like a drug, the tyranny of being admired is enslaving. What an irony. We pastors are the very people who should be communicating liberating grace. Instead, we are imprisoned in our neediness. We grovel, as if our worth is derived from our efforts. “Have I earned your approval and respect yet? I can do more tricks. Just watch me!” Until we get comfortable in our own skin, God’s shepherds will be running from funeral home to committee meeting to hospital, becoming, in the memorable words of Stanley Hauerwas, “a quivering mass of availability.”
Don’t get me wrong. All pastors are called to mundane tasks and, at times, frantic schedules. But healthy caregivers perform out of a calm core. Rather than being driven by “oughts” they are led by joy and purpose. Beginning each day with a centering awareness of God’s love frees us from frantically grasping for the praise of others.
Experts talk about the need for all of us to self-differentiate. That is, we need to be able to distinguish ourselves from others. For example, your perception that I have failed you does not equal “I am a failure.” In fact, in some respects, your opinion of me is none of my business. Recently, I addressed a breakfast meeting of new church members. I warned them that sooner or later, I would disappoint them. “In fact,” I said, “if you want to make an appointment, we can go ahead and get that disappointment over with.”
How do we balance servanthood and healthy self-care? I’m always looking for clues from scripture. In the opening chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we read that Jesus was experiencing success in Capernaum. In fact, one could say they were having a revival, complete with healings and large crowds. Early one morning, Jesus went out alone to pray. His disciples found him and said, “Everyone’s looking for you” — the implication being, “Let’s get back to town. You’re popular. It’s working.” Jesus replied, “Let’s move on to other towns. They need the gospel, too.” Jesus seemed to be saying, “Your expectations are not my priority. The fear of disappointing you isn’t driving my life.” Self-differentiation.
One would be hard pressed to find a better example of a servant leader than the Apostle Paul. Yet he knew how to take care of himself and self-differentiate. When some in the Corinthian church disrespected his ministry, he confronted them and told them such behavior was unacceptable. True, their opinion of him was not what validated his life. That validation came from God. But still, they needed to cease their attacks, because such corrosive words cheapened the gospel, hurt the church and made them (the Corinthians) smaller people and less Christ-like (see 1 Corinthians 3-4; 2 Corinthians 10:10-13).
Every congregational leader needs to get in touch with his/her insatiable need for approval and attention. Many growth opportunities are available: clinical pastoral education, professional counseling, an honest spouse, a peer group, some well-researched workshops or conferences. By all means, let’s get healthy emotionally. We owe it to our families. We owe it to our congregations. We owe it to ourselves.