The road of church leadership is marked by potholes too numerous to count. Most are small ones. Step in one and it hurts a bit for a while, and then you move on – hopefully wiser for the misstep. Some are far more serious: like a change implemented clumsily creating unnecessary opposition and angst; a loudly promoted initiative that fails due to poor planning; or a poor staff choice resulting in a “divided house” with their “fans” pitted against you and your board.
Then there’s the “Mother of all Potholes.” It’s deep and difficult to get out of. It’s different from all the rest of the potholes because it’s movable! It goes wherever you go. It’s always just a step away. We all step in it from time-to-time, some more often than others. And the consequences of stepping in it are significant, sometimes even debilitating.
The name of this pothole is “people pleasing.” Part of the “human condition’ is the need to please others. It’s a need every healthy human being shares. At the right times and in the right places, pleasing others is a good thing. But it can easily become a way of life making life miserable, since we can’t please everyone all the time. To the extent it becomes a way of life, people-pleasing diminishes and even destroys one’s ability to lead.
If you have ever preached a sermon that upset some people, take heart. You are not the first. The Apostle Paul upset some in the church at Galatia and was taking heat for not preaching the “gospel” the way they wanted to hear it. In defending himself Paul said, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
What are our “take-aways” from this incident in the Early Church? First, leaders are sometimes criticized even when they are 100% right. But the second is the more important take-away. Paul did not waver from preaching the true Gospel in order to please his critics. He did not succumb to either the internal or the external pressure, and the people-pleasing pressure always comes from both sources.
Paul warned Timothy, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”
Though others might alter their message to please people, Paul would have none of it. “For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness.”
Managing Our Need to Please People
By his teaching and his example, Paul demonstrates how to manage the need to please others. He could have reacted to their displeasure and made the changes they desired. But he did not. He refused to compromise what he knew to be right in order to please his critics. He did not become belligerent and attack his critics. He simply pointed out that if he had to choose between pleasing people and pleasing God, he was going to choose pleasing God every time, no matter the cost.
In Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, Tod Bolsinger makes this thought-provoking statement. “Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.” Upon reading it, I laughed. It is a funny thing to say. But then upon reflection, I thought, “He is right. That’s a profound insight.” When we realize that disappointing and displeasing people is an unavoidable part of leadership, we are better able to resist the temptation to travel the people-pleasing route.
Bolsinger expands on the thought. “Leadership isn’t so much skillfully helping a group accomplish what they want to do (that is management). Leadership is taking people where they need to go and yet resist going. Leadership… is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world. It’s about challenging, encouraging and equipping people to be transformed more and more into the kind of community that God can use to accomplish His plans in a particular locale. And often the very people who called us to lead them are disappointed when we do.”
The last sentence of that quote drives home the uncomfortable reality, “…often the very people who called us to lead them are disappointed when we do.”
Finding the Courage We Need
Here are some things we can do to avoid stepping in the mother of all potholes and doing serious damage to ourselves and our ministries.
- Anticipate the Displeasure – Don’t be surprised when you lead and people don’t fall in line and follow. Expect that some, maybe even many, will be unhappy with you.
- Admit Your Vulnerability – Be honest with yourself about the degree to which you feel the need to please people. Pray, asking God for the courage you need to resist lapsing into people-pleasing.
- Seek Wisdom – the greater the anticipated resistance, the more important asking for input from your “Wisdom Council.” Just because a leader must risk displeasing people from time-to-time, does not mean you should. Is this really a good idea? Let trusted, experienced people help you decide.
- Pray – Ask God to help you discern if this is something He really wants you to do even though you know it will displease some. If it’s what He wants you to say or do, it will be worth all the flack. Note, not easy, but worth it.
- Stay the Course and Stay Close – When the attacks come and you are tempted to relent. Stay the course. And stay close to those who are unhappy with you. Stay close to those who seek to sabotage your efforts. Resist the natural tendency to withdraw from them.
 Galatians 1:10
 2 Timothy 4:3-4
 1 Thessalonians 2:3-5