THE SKILL OF BEING UNLIKABLE—A Sunday reflection 7-9-17
A friend recently said that it was a good thing he did not have a professional career in the church because he was so diffident, so retiring, so eager to have people like him, that he would never have accomplished anything. I think he may be wrong about that, because he has so many of the other “gifts and graces” necessary to “the high calling.” As things happened, though, his professional church career after theological school was short, and he went on to a fulfilling career in another field.
Most people will tell you that they want to be liked, but they are lying, usually without knowing it. What they really want is power over others. They want to bend others to their will, either through strength or through weakness.
I recall a man who came to see me as a pastor because his wife had left him. His third wife. “I’ve had three wives, and I’ve gotten my way with every one of them,” he declared proudly. “Then why aren’t you happy?” I asked him. “Well, I’m lonely…’ He didn’t make the connection.
Most people want to be liked, but on their terms, getting their way.
Folks who are attracted to the ministry, though, while usually attributing that attraction to a “call” from God, are not interested primarily in power, even though a lot of power comes automatically with the office. We really want [need] to be liked. I’ve counseled a lot of young and new pastors through the years. They are always so disappointed and confused when people don’t like them, because they haven’t done anything to cause dislike. Our gladdest moments come when someone says, “We like our preacher.”
I purposely said “and new” pastors in the paragraph just above. It’s not just young and thus naive pastors who are surprised when they are not liked. In fact, there are not many young pastors anymore, folks who go to seminary right out of college and have ministry as a first career. Most new pastors are second or third career people, often from careers—like law and business—where likeability is not an assumption or asset. They are still disappointed when church people don’t like them. They got tired of being unliked as lawyers or business people. They assumed people in the church were different, that they would be liked as pastors. Too bad.
Of course, the “dislike” of a particular pastor is often misplaced, not about that pastor at all. I remember a woman who said, “I finally figured out why I dislike you; you remind me of my husband’s department chair who has treated him so badly.” Some people can like only every other pastor. Unconsciously, they think that liking the new pastor makes them unfaithful to the predecessor. A person can be mad at a husband or wife or boss and know that if they show that anger it will get them into trouble, so they displace it onto the pastor because s/he can’t retaliate but has to go on being kind to them.
So, even though we want to be liked--and are so likeable, because we never do anything unlikeable--people still dislike us. No wonder we are disappointed and confused.
Years ago, shortly after I had moved to a new congregation, I was having coffee with Dick Street, a member of that church. He was a contractor, a big rugged ugly guy. I liked him; he reminded me of me. I said, “Dick, I haven’t been here long, but long enough that I know I really don’t fit in here.” He replied, “That’s why you’re going to do us a lot of good. All the other preachers we’ve had fit in too well. We need somebody who doesn’t fit in to get us out of our ruts.”
It’s okay to be liked. It’s okay to want to be liked. It’s also okay to be an outsider, even an unlikeable one, if that is the way folks can hear the Good News. Sort of reminds me of a guy from Nazareth…
John Robert McFarland
I tweet as yooper1721.
Katie Kennedy is the rising star in YA lit. [She is also our daughter.] She is published by Bloomsbury, which also published lesser authors, like JK Rowling. Her new book, What Goes Up, comes out July 18. It’s published in paper, audio, and electronic, and available for pre-order even now, from B&N, Amazon, etc.