One of the great expectations is that everyone will like you, and if they don’t, they should. When this does not reflect reality, many pastors just redouble their efforts to please as many people as possible.
Many enter ministry with a secret need for approval and affirmation. That’s what made them pleasers to begin with. As a result, the goal is to have everyone happy, and even more, happy with you.
Get used to disappointment.
The reality is the 10-10-80 principle. Knowing about this principle, and working it to your advantage, is the key to sanity.
What is 10-10-80?
Ten percent of the people will instantly take to you. They liked you the minute they met you. They liked your face, your family, the story of your life, and your voice. And they will keep liking you. You could run buck naked through the vestibule and they would say, “Bless his heart, he’s just having a hard day.” Thank God for such people. You didn’t do much to earn their affection, and you don’t have to do much to keep it.
Then there are 10 percent who, well, don’t like you. They didn’t like you the minute they met you. They didn’t like your face or your voice. Your family may pass muster but you do not. No streaking in front of these people. They don’t even like the clothes you do wear.
Marshall Shelley, long-time editor of Leadership Journal, called them “well-intentioned dragons.” I’m not sure how well-intentioned they are. But it doesn’t matter what we call them, we have to deal with them. It’s part of the job.
And like the folk who instantly feel positively toward you, you didn’t do much to earn this dislike. It was just there. Your face may have reminded them of someone; something in your makeup threatens them. They liked the pastor before you, and you are the one who took their job. It could be anything or nothing. And there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.
That leaves the 80 percent. These are the people who are suspending judgment. They are open to liking you, but they are waiting to see whether you are true to your God, faithful and straightforward in your teaching, honest and caring in your dealings with them, and diligent in your duties. If so, they will happily join the 10 percent who granted you favor without your earning it.
But let’s go back to the 10 percent who are poorly disposed toward you and your personality. What do you do about them?
You must let them go.
Before howls of protest erupt about this lack of pastoral compassion, hear me out. Yes, you are to care for them and pastor them as they allow you, but you must not spend your life trying to cater to them and “win them over.” Because chances are, you never will. So serve them well, but stop catering to them.
And this instruction comes straight from Jesus. When he sent the party of seventy-two out to the surrounding towns and villages, He was quite clear in His instructions: if you do not find the town receptive, move on. Do not waste your time there. Go to a place where your ministry can take root.
Why would this not apply to individuals as well? If you consistently find your ministry is not “taking” with someone, then move on, and allow them to move on as well. Let them find a pastor and church they do like. Even more to the point, if you take the energy you are currently spending (or might spend) on the 10 percent who are unhappy with you all the time and spend it on the 80 percent who are suspending judgment, then you will soon have 90 percent of the people happy.
But what if the ten percent just stay – and stay unhappy?
Here’s the thing: a 90 percent majority will take care of even the most disgruntled and vocal 10 percent minority. But if you do not take that energy and spend it on the 80 percent who have yet to make up their minds, then that very same 80 percent will be highly vulnerable to the “noise in the system” created by the vocal minority. And soon, instead of 90 percent in your favor, you will be needing to run for cover.
One last thought: sometimes these numbers are off.
Sometimes you can find yourself with a very large percentage of people disaffected toward you. For example, if a board brought you in instead of a local favorite, say, the popular youth pastor. Or the church was traditional and the search team brought you in hoping you’d be a change agent. Or worse, both.
These are terribly unfortunate situations for a pastor. You can be set up to be unpopular. If, after a while, you sense that you don’t just have 10 percent aligned against you but far more, then forget everything you’ve just read. Stop reading and update your resume.
Translation: get out while there’s still time.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary: 25 Lessons for Successful Ministry in Your Church (Baker). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.