5 People You Don’t Have to Try to Please Anymore

Charles Stone pegged me well with his book People-Pleasing Pastors, which I highly recommend. I have struggled with people-pleasing for most of my life. As a kid, I think I had a positive tendency to want to obey authorities in my life, but as an adult I managed to add to that dynamic a tendency to avoid any correction or conflict. And the only alternative is to keep everybody around me happy while bottling up my own feelings of frustration and disagreement. And whatever we keep stuffing inside … eventually leaks, or explodes, and I’ve been guilty of both.

As Charles points out, pastors are particularly prone to people-pleasing. We want people to like our sermons, to feel good after our counsel, to agree with our vision and leadership, and to feel better about themselves for having been around us. While some level of encouragement and affection toward others is healthy and biblical, if we’re not careful it can ultimately feed our ego, present itself as a false humility, and change the way we lead and live.

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way over 18 years of ministry, and I’m still learning it regularly. So for my fellow undershepherds and anybody else in leadership, here’s a list of people you have permission NOT to please anymore …

5. Your Critics

You’ll always have some. They’re not always wrong, but often convey their feedback in a rather wrong spirit. And sometimes, they’re really wrong. I was told once over a decade ago that I was “unapproachable” by someone who had visited our church in Kentucky. It stung. I was defensive. Me? Unapproachable? Who’s more approachable than me? It finally sunk in that I needed to change some things about the way I related to people. I grew and the church did too.

Far more common, however, is the empty chatter of the critic whose voice we need to simply ignore. Hear this big truth: It is only as we come to fully embrace our true identity as a child of God that we can deflect untrue and unloving criticism from others. Listen to the criticism of godly friends who seek your betterment and ignore the rest while finding your confidence in the truth God speaks about you as His child through His Word.

To put it another way, there are people who have permission to speak boldly into my life where I need correction. And then there are strangers and acquaintances with mere opinions about me who don’t know my heart. Value the former as “wounds from a friend” and throw away the latter. And live to please God alone.

4. The Power Players

For pastors these may be deacons or a board of elders, or that lady who controls the money, the thermostat and the unofficial coffee table business meetings about you. In the business world it is often boards, bosses or fellow employees seeking to climb the ladder even if your head makes a good rung to step on. You don’t have to please any of them. You may be called to serve them well as though you’re serving Jesus (Colossians 3:22-25, where the word please is used a little differently), but you aren’t called to keep them happy.

Every time you acquiesce to the voices of those who express disapproval with the way you’re leading them, you sacrifice a little bit of your God-given influence within the organization. Pastors, in particular, are called to oversee without becoming lords over people. In other words, God often calls you to lead forward even when everyone doesn’t agree. Just ask Moses. Or Peter. Or Jesus.

I sometimes reflect back over moments in my own pastoral life and wish that I’d had the guts to risk getting fired or at least criticized for sticking to what I believed God wanted me to do next. But what I find, sometimes, are moments that I yielded to the pressure in the name of patience and gave up an opportunity for growth, choosing to please power players rather than do whatever it takes to reach the next lost person. I wish I’d always led to please God alone.

3. Peers

We all want affirmation from our peers and colleagues. We want them to know that we’re like them and that they can like us with confidence. But I’ve had to embrace the fact, especially lately, that I’ll never be conservative enough for some of my peers, or liberal enough for others. I may never have the approval of the Reformed camp, the Charismatic camp or the Ecumenical camp. While one peer is calling me out on my soft stance on some issue, another is proclaiming that I’ve been too harsh and unbending.

In light of the fact that I can’t keep my peers happy and gain their approval of all of my opinions, I’ve decided to be who God has called me to be while respecting who God has called them to be. Because of this, I’ve felt released to love and encourage my peers who lean in all kinds of different directions from me. I have friends in every camp, and probably “frenemies” too (those are enemies who act friendly out of obligation but secretly don’t like you).

I won’t get to heaven and have God ask me, “Well Brandon, how did you do at impressing all of your friends?” It’s too easy to fall into the trap of saying things we don’t really hold as a conviction to garner an “amen” from people who didn’t call us to lead to begin with. So live to please God alone.