Post Author: Heidi Haverkamp
“That nice girl inside you? Who wants everyone to like her? You have to kill her.”
A seasoned woman priest gave this advice to a good friend of mine, when she asked for words of wisdom before her ordination. I was surprised by the viciousness of her advice but I respect this priest, so I’ve held onto her harsh words and pondered them.
In contrast, I’ve also held onto the words of another, fantastic, woman priest, who told my seminary class (with a vulnerability I’m grateful for) that she would lie awake at night sometimes, wondering: Does So-and-So like me? Is So-and-So angry with me?
What’s wrong with having a girl inside you who wants people to like her? In many ways, that girl helps me be a better priest: listening to the stories of people’s lives, making them laugh, reminding them God loves them, letting them be themselves. And I, too, lie awake sometimes, worrying that someone is mad at me, because I care a whole damn lot about my people and my work.
However, in my five years as a priest, wanting to be liked has also made me miserable. I’ve had to learn that being the leader of a community of faith isn’t the same as being liked by everybody. A pastor is responsible for a whole community’s well being, which means sometimes I have to make decisions not everyone is going to like or understand. Pastors are human, which means I’m going to make mistakes, say stupid things, and be careless. So, sometimes people are going to be mad at me, maybe even say things about me behind my back, maybe even leave the church. And very often, though not always, those things are the necessary, healthy, and appropriate outcomes of good pastoring and healthy leadership.
That girl inside you who wants everyone to like her? I hesitate to say you need to kill her, but sometimes she can be a major distraction. She may keep you from telling someone their unhealthy behavior is unacceptable. She may focus you on the needs of individuals in your church at the expense of the needs of the church community as a whole. She may keep you focused on the squeaky wheels in your community when it’s your unselfish, healthy leaders who need your time, attention, and investment, not the person or family determined to get your attention whenever and however they can, even though nothing you do for them ever seems to be enough.
I want to share with you some advice I’ve picked up along the way that’s helped me manage her influence on my ministry:
1. Let people get angry at you, but stay connected. Mrs. C is furious with you because you cancelled the Christmas Flea Market, which you did for very good reasons. It’s all right for her to be angry. One of my mentors used to say, “If they’re coming at you, at least that means they’re not walking away.” You can’t “fix” her anger or explain it away. Be compassionate, but stand by your decision. I love this “chart” of a healthy pastoral relationship, (Responsible for-Responsible-to) which you may have seen before. (Bear in mind, if Mrs. C is being verbally abusive or spreading negativity through the congregation, you’ll need to intervene. See #4, below.)
2. Be the adult in the room. Being a pastor is like being the adult or parent in the room. You set the tone for civility and maturity. You call out bad behavior. You set the bar for healthy communication and accountability (including your own). Your lay leaders will follow your example, and over time your church will develop its own healthy immune system, repelling and correcting bad behavior even while you’re on vacation. Unfortunately, churches are often places where people pull out their worst behavior, because too many pastors and lay people let it slide. You be the grown-up; because if you’re not, chances are no one else is going to be either.
3. It’s about you, but it’s not about you. The dean of my seminary used to point to his white clerical collar and say, “This is a little movie screen where people are going to project their ideas and assumptions about you.” A parishioner once came through the line after worship and asked him, “Father, what’s wrong? Why didn’t you smile at me when you gave me communion?” People imagine all kinds of things about us – what we’re thinking, who we remind them of, what our secret agenda is. Don’t take it personally. On the other hand, don’t underestimate the power of your greeting, smile, or reaction over your congregants. You’re their pastor, and how you treat them matters. A lot.
4. “All are welcome” does not mean, “Anything goes.” Welcoming people to your church doesn’t mean they’re welcome to do whatever they want. Yes, we should make room for difficult people in faith communities, but not for them to wreck havoc. Is someone spreading negativity or anxiety through your congregation? Acting out in ways that make you or others feel uncomfortable or unsafe? The nice girl gloves come off here – you’re going to need to have some difficult conversations with your leaders and the person/s in question about expectations for behavior in a Christian faith community. For a start, check out the 10 Rules for Respect. These terrific guidelines for communication are part of my Letter of Agreement, and I go over them with my leadership every year. My favorite: “I don’t read unsigned notes.”
5. “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim” (Nora Ephron). In my first few years of ministry, I felt unspeakably overwhelmed. I felt like a victim, in part because I was always measuring every inch of my behavior, wondering if it was enough, wondering whether my parishioners liked and respected me. I felt alone and abandoned by God, my bishop, my mentors, my parents – you name it. The disciples felt overwhelmed a lot of the time, too, and had every reason to feel abandoned – by Jesus, by their peers, even by each other. But the Resurrected Christ was too powerful a presence in their lives to allow them to stay locked in that upper room. The Gospel was too powerful to keep them stuck as victims. The Gospel is probably why most of us became pastors, too, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, my sisters, is more important and more powerful than being liked. The Gospel has been why I’ve been able to set aside my constant measuring and attempt to be a heroine – or in Christian terms, a disciple – and not a victim.
I pray I can continue to be brave enough to pastor and live from the Gospel, rather than being liked. (Or being smart. Or being right. Or being perfect.) Make no mistake: I’m no expert at this. I need to repeat all this stuff to myself every day. I intend to be a student of leadership and congregational dynamics (and prayer!) my whole career.
But there’s more out there… Do you have tips and strategies to share? I would love to hear them. Together, we are better disciples (and heroines) than we could ever be alone.