Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Recovering People-Pleaser Pastors a Church

Written by: on February 21, 2024

Hi. My name is Ryan and I’m a people pleaser. Its been less than one day since I tried to please someone else without evaluating my own values, needs or limits. I’ve been in recovery for some time now, constantly attempting to regulate my desire to help others (introducing me, a “2” on the enneagram) and remain a healthy, well-differentiated leader.

I was blessed with an incredible family of origin that cared deeply about one another. Both of my parents experienced loss of their nuclear families in the teenage years. My father’s father left him, his mother and two sisters while deployed overseas and married someone else. My father was left with being the only male presence in his family. My mother’s father suffered a stress induced heartache around the same time while stationed in Vietnam in the Airforce.

These devastating losses significantly shaped my parents and subsequently, the way they parented me and my younger brother and sister. Because of their deep faith and unyielding commitment to one another, they were extremely committed to a healthy and vibrant marriage and being active and present parents. Their desire for us to experience peace, support and unconditional love has forever impacted my love and the generations to follow. But what it also did was create an emotionally charged family where maintaining peace and practicing empathy and ‘people-pleasing’ at the expense of self-care or self-regulation shaped me into the recovering people-pleaser that I am today.

Of course, I cannot blame all of this on my family of origin (see Freidman’s take on ‘Blame Displacement) but instead, seek to recognize the emotional templating I was given that is my default in an anxious system. In a desire to love others and show them empathy, I would often reinforce systemic anxiety in over functioning to meet their perceived need, rather than encouraging each person in the system to take responsibility for their own emotions and actions. This type of emotional fusion, while bonding people together, does not cultivate healthy systems in families or in churches.

My journey of recovery began early on in my pastoral ministry when I originally came across Friedman’s book, Failure of Nerve, as well as a subsequent book, Leadership Labyrinth by Judson Edwards. I feel like people often discover Friedman’s work not by reading Friedman himself but by finally becoming aware of the endless references to his work and the basic premise that he discovered that has profoundly shifted the way that I have thought about leadership in my family and in the churches that I have served. Charles Stone and Pete Scazzero also unpack Friedman’s work (and Bowen’s Family Theory) in their books, People Pleasing Pastor and Emotionally Healthy Leadership respectively.

It is hard to overstate how influential Friedman’s concept of becoming a non-anxious presence has been in my life and ministry. Being invited to step into an intentional church transition nearly 12 years ago with an incredible long-term pastor was an anxious situation for me. I wanted to be a good leader and steward well the incredible heritage and legacy that the retiring pastor had cultivated for so many years at this church. Thankfully, the church leadership was healthy and resilient, even as we went through cultural change and transition and experienced moments of anxiety and conflict. While I am still working on becoming a less-anxious presence, I do think that the work I’ve done through counseling, coaching and prayer have enabled me to give the gift of a less-anxious presence to my congregation, and my family, in a way that is helping them thrive more than if I had succumb to anxious tendencies in my need for people-pleasing.

The ability for a leader to be a non-anxious presence is the probably the greatest gift they can give a system they are leading in. Differentiation is a journey of transformation into the likeness of Jesus. Being non-anxious is not easy. Anxiety is the world in which we swim in, but the power of a leader is determined by their ability to be transformed on the lifelong journey of differentiation.

I’m reminded of the scene early in Jesus’ ministry in Mark chapter One. After Jesus had spent the previous day teaching and healing, he got up early in the morning to pray. This act, I believe, was a practice in differentiation. Jesus withdrew for union with the Father and to remember who He was and what He was called to. This helped him tremendously when Peter and the other disciples found him that morning and told him that everyone was looking for him (presumably for him to continue to heal and teach in Capernaum). But instead, Jesus tells them no. He says, “Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” Jesus was able to differentiate himself from the urgent needs and desires of the people in Capernaum to instead focus on the mission that the Father had given Him to preach and spread the good news of the coming Kingdom of God. 

Reading Friedman again has reminded me of how far I’ve come on the journey of differentiation, where I need to continue to grow in becoming a less-anxious leader, and how much I need that time of solitude and silence in the presence of God to remember the mission He has given me.


About the Author


Ryan Thorson

Follower of Jesus. Husband. Father. Pastor. Coach. I am passionate about helping people discover the gift of Sabbath and slow down spirituality in the context of our busy world.

7 responses to “A Recovering People-Pleaser Pastors a Church”

  1. mm Kari says:

    Ryan, thank you for sharing more of your story! I too am a recovering people-pleaser . After discussing some challenges she was having, a friend gave me an amazing compliment, “Well, you don’t struggle with people-pleasing like I do.” If she only knew the battle I fought to get to that place!

    I’ve appreciated your emphasis and perspective on sabbath and re-centering your focus on the Lord. That has been one of the big ways that God has helped me combat my people-pleasing.

    You mentioned prayer, counseling and coaching as helpful on your journey (those have been huge for me, too). What are some practical ways have you have implemented that have helped during this journey?

  2. Adam Cheney says:

    As I read Friedman I thought that I had seen some of the information before. It must have been Scazzero. Thanks for the reminder. I imagine that Jesus also became pretty deferentiated in the desert getting tempted.
    How have you found this book intersecting with your NPO and developing sabbath routines? Friedman seems to take everything from the personal to the corporate. I wonder what differentiation looks like regarding sabbath for your congregation?

  3. mm Chris Blackman says:

    Your story about how your family history has influenced you is really touching. It’s great to see how you’ve recognized and are working to change people-pleasing patterns and emotions in your life. Love that you are working on a non-anxious presence, and you are right – its not easy. Your reflection on Jesus’ practice of staying true to his mission is powerful – I need to remember that. How do you plan to keep using these ideas in your life and work?

  4. Julie O'Hara says:

    Ryan, I appreciated your connection that we meet Friedman via the writings of others who are referencing his work – You’re right and I can think of several more! Your becoming a less-anxious presence is an incredible gift to your congregation. Can you describe any ways that you have been able to introduce the people to the work of becoming less-anxious?

  5. Daren Jaime says:

    Hey Ryan! Preach on! Your analogy to Mark’s writing of Jesus and his call to preach was spot on. I am always interested to hear about how fellow pastors fare between meeting the needs of the people as opposed to carrying out their primary assignment? How much have you found yourself engulfed in emotional triangles?

  6. Graham English says:

    Hi Ryan, Self-awareness of a desire to people please is a great gift. You have also done tremendous work to become a more self-differentiated leader.
    What are the “warning lights” in your life signalling that you’re tending toward people pleasing rather than maintaining a non-anxious and,
    sometimes threatening, presence?

  7. Chad Warren says:

    Ryan, great insight from Mark 1 identifying Jesus as well-differentiated. Very helpful for our context as pastors! Do you have an example from your own experience where you differentiated yourself from the urgent needs and desires of an anxious congregation to focus on the mission instead?

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