I have been a people pleaser for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until recently I realized how deeply ingrained this trait is in my life. My family relocated to the east coast for my husband’s job and we’ve been searching for a new place of worship. During this search I found myself trying to convince a pastor of who I am by telling him about what I can do. I felt compelled from somewhere deep within to share all of the ministries I have participated in, founded, led, single-handedly revived, blah blah blah. I don’t think I was bragging, but my insecurities surfaced and I felt I needed to “sell” the pastor on me. Except I am not what I do. I know this. I’ve told this to countless numbers of people during my time in ministry over the last 20 years, and my children. So…why?
My dad is a senior pastor and I grew up as a PK (pastors kid), the oldest of three. There are so many amazing benefits to being raised in the church, behind the scenes in the pastors house. But, there is one major downfall: you cannot be completely yourself. We always referred to it as living in a fishbowl. Ministers families are constantly under the microscope, and one wrong move could bring it all crashing down. My folks never once told me to be someone else. However, pastors, and their families, put up walls to protect themselves against ridicule. They often do not have close, personal friends. It’s estimated that 70% of pastors don’t have any close friends and more than half of their spouse’s do not have anyone they can call a close, personal friend. 94% of pastors feel under pressure to have a ‘perfect’ family. It’s a sad truth, but the reality we live in. The hardest thing about these numbers is they only tell half the story. The other half is congregations don’t know or understand the nature of pastoral stress. And when a pastor breaks down or has a moral failure, congregations, for lack of a better phrase, “kick the pastor to the curb.” So, it becomes easier to put up walls and keep people at bay. My family has lived under these types of pressures throughout my entire life.
One side effect of building walls is the tendency to overcompensate by becoming people pleasers. It’s unintentional. We try proving we are worthy by going the extra mile. We put our families and their needs to the side. We put our health issues on the back burner. We disregard red flags when it comes to our spiritual, mental and emotional well-being. We go above and beyond, and in many ways it is detrimental to ourselves and our families. We often feel the need to put our congregation first, so the job isn’t jeopardized. Think about it… What happens when a pastor loses their job? They often (almost always) lose their home (parsonage) within 30-60 days, sometimes sooner. They then have to move to take another church, many times out of state. They uproot their family, change schools, spouses have to change jobs, etc. The damage is deep, especially when the parting of ways isn’t amicable. Speaking from first-hand experience, it is stressful for the whole family and creates gaping wounds and insecurities in the pastor and the family members. People-pleasing is one way those insecurities manifest in our lives.
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 falls into that category. However, a desire to help others often makes us susceptible to the type of people-pleasing that becomes problematic. There is a fine line between being Christian and going the extra mile, Matthew 5:38-42, and being a people pleaser, or a doormat. You’ll find when it comes to ministry you are working directly with people and helping them during the some of the messiest times of their life. This is when the veil is dropped and it becomes blindingly clear that people can be unpredictable, even dangerous. I could write several articles about the many ways people have taken advantage of, manipulated, lied about our family. The abuse (emotional, mental, sexual) that took place. The acts of violence and death threats towards my family. All because of the position they hold in the church. Because of this my parents did their best to establish priorities: family first and the church second. Of course, God is first, but that was an unspoken value that we all hold dear. My dad knew we needed to hear he was trying to prioritize his children above the church. I believe they gave an honest effort to maintaining those priorities. However, there were many times my siblings and I didn’t feel like we were first priority. Now that I’m an adult I understand why; my dad’s job is to be a pastor, and if there is no job there is no shelter, food, etc. In speaking with my brother Theo about this topic he simply stated, “I felt like we were second to dad’s church people sometimes and it was psychologically damaging.” As adults we’ve come to a better understanding of his career as a pastor- the requirements, the pressures, the demands, and we now fully understand how ministering to people is incredibly difficult. The important note to take away from this is it affected my parents. It affected me. It has affected all of us. It influenced us to the core and as a result I have struggled with my identity outside of ministry.
A few months before our big move to the east coast I broke down crying in a ladies Bible study. I confessed to being terrified of having my “ministry mask” stripped from me. I felt like I might be revealed as some sort of fraud, because my whole identity is wrapped up in ministering to others. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to be the perfect example of Christianity, a real Jesus follower. So much so, that some of my closest friends haven’t been able to get close to me. Yes, I have friends. No, I’m not a fraud. However, those insecurities rooted deep in my childhood brought forth a sense of unease, and I found myself asking, “Who am I if I am not in ministry?”
In a recent conversation I told my youngest brother, Paton, “I never thought God calling me outside my comfort zone would mean I’m doing nothing.” His response was strangely revealing, “It’s in our genes. We’re workers.” The truth in those words resonated in my mind for days. He is absolutely right. We were raised in the church, to be in church, to work in the church. Our Christian/ministry lineage goes back 5 generations. Sometimes we laugh about it, but our family is known for three things: coffee, sarcasm and church. My dad used to tell us, “Even when I wasn’t saved I attended church. It’s just what we do.” Cultivating a personal relationship with Jesus has always been of great importance in our family, but the ministry aspect goes hand-in-hand. I’ve worked in the church since the age of 16, and now I feel unsettled in my new circumstances. We’re in a new town. We’re attending a new church. But I’m not actively involved in ministry, and I sort of feel like I’m floundering, a fish outside the proverbial fishbowl.
I began transitioning out of ministry roles in our last church a few months before our move, and during this time I’ve been contemplating the example I’m setting for people in my life. The fine lines between people-pleasing and pleasing God have become blurred. I spent so many years living a life built around ministering to others, trying to do God’s work, and in the midst of it all I lost myself behind the walls I put up around my heart. The walls, fortified and familiar, keep people from knowing the real me. The idea that anyone could gain access to my soft underbelly and know how to harm me causes me anxiety. Unfortunately, my experiences with a handful of church people in the past has robbed me and my family of real friendships and the support we desperately needed in the tough times. And just like a wounded animal, the moment I sense danger I zip my bubble back up and scamper into my comfort zone. Not anymore. The example I want to set for my children, and everyone in my life, is one of courage and faith.
I have no doubt I will be involved in ministry in the future, after all it’s my calling. But for now I will do my best to enjoy the stillness; striving for a better, more meaningful relationship with Jesus, and solidifying the line between pleasing God and pleasing people. Admittedly, this will be a hard habit to break. Counteracting the people-pleasing pattern is not easy. There are no quick fixes. Getting rid of the walls I’ve built won’t solve the internal heart issues, and passively ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. The answer lies in the transforming power of the gospel as the Lord helps me develop healthy relationships with Him, and those around me.