The Sinister Lure of People Pleasing

Have you ever made a decision because you wanted to please someone?  If the person we want to please is a significant donor in our church, a leader in our ministry, or an important person in our life…we may find it difficult to disappoint that person.  Make no mistake about it, people pleasing can be seductive….and, anxiety producing.

My friend and colleague Adam Borneman, on our Macedonian Ministry staff,  heard the prolific author,  Dr. Wil Willimon,  speak at a conference on Karl Barth for preachers and theologians.  Willimon startled his audience when he said, “ You know what’s wrong with you preachers……you care more about people than you do about Jesus!”

Ouch! Does that hit any of you with the force with which it hits me? Think of how many decisions in the church are made in order to please an influential church member? So often the deciding factor on a church board vote is what decision will anger the fewest amount of people, rather than asking “what does God want us to do” or, “what is the right thing to do”… or “what decision is most consistent with our mission?” People pleasing and trying to meet the expectations of others is exhausting. And, think of all the anxiety and sleepless nights that we have to endure in an attempt to please people!

In his book, “The Anxious Organization”, Jeffrey Miller writes: “In and of itself, anxiety is neither functional nor dysfunctional. It is a state of readiness to do something.” Miller explains that sometimes anxiety is a gift because it warns us that danger is near and we need to act quickly. Psychologists call this “acute anxiety.” It motivates us to do something to get ourselves or our loved ones out of danger. In Canoeing the Mountains, Tod Bolsinger explains that another type of anxiety is “chronic anxiety,” which lingers in a family or a social system even after the threat is gone. So often “the ecclesiastical system” of the church is filled with chronic anxiety that has come from decades of “people pleasing” rather than desiring to please God. In this kind of environment, one of the most important lessons for pastors and lay leaders to learn is how to be a “non- anxious presence” in the midst of change, stress and anxiety in the church.

I learned a valuable lesson about being a non -anxious presence and resisting the lure of people pleasing in “ the school of hard knocks” a few years ago. As I faced a huge leadership challenge, I realized that there was no way to please everyone. That was the moment that one of my colleagues said, “Tom… this is a perfect scenario. Whatever you decide to do is going to disappoint someone…big time! It is not possible to have a ‘win-win’ outcome. So it’s perfect. All you have to do now is … do the right thing! You simply need to do what you believe God is calling us to do, and make the decision that you believe in your heart is right.” Actually… my colleague’s words were extremely liberating for me. Often I have done things in order to please people or to anger the fewest people possible, but in this situation… I received the strength from God to do the thing that I thought was right. And you know what? Once I did what I knew was right… I relaxed…and the congregation actually went along with me! I was worried and anxious, and losing sleep because I thought dozens and dozens of people would leave the church over this decision. A few did… but only a few. But, the best part of all was that I felt “ right” about my decision and therefore, I could  relax and be a “non-anxious presence. ” I could “let go” of  the families who left the church, because I was no longer anxious about my decision.

The lesson I learned about people pleasing is this: : It is never wise to make decisions by looking in the rear-view mirror. It is wise to make decisions by saying your prayers, listening to God and a few  trusted advisers who can give us perspective… but ultimately, remember that we “play to an audience of one!” God is the only one whose opinion matters! If we do the thing that we believe is right and the thing that we believe God is nudging us to do, we will experience “the peace of Christ that passes all understanding.” That is  not only the antidote to anxiety …but it is the key to overcoming the sinister lure of people pleasing!

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