The Placebo Pastor: are you one?

In today’s vernacular, the word placebo refers to sugar pills given to patients for various illnesses. Although the pill has no medicinal value, the patient does not know that. The origin of the word I describe below, however, provides a memorable word picture for people pleasing,[1] the theme of my next book due late this year from Inter-Varsity Press. If you’d like advance notice before the book comes out, go to my web site and sign up to my email list. You’ll get a free e-book as well, Maximizing Ministry with your iPad.

In the 13th and 14th century the Catholic Church practiced a ritual called the Vespers of the Office of the Dead. As part of the service the priest would lead the people in prayers for the dead. In the first chant, the congregation would respond back to the priest by chanting the Latin translation of Psalm 116.9, I will please the Lord in the land of the living (the correct translation is actually, I will walk before the Lord in the Land of the Living). The Latin translation is Placebo Domino in regione vivorum. You’ll notice that ‘placebo’ is the first word in the chant. It means ‘to please.’

In France it was a custom for the mourning family to provide food to attenders immediately after such a service. Often people unrelated to the family would attend, claim to be a relative, and fake their grief so they could receive food after it was over. Over time these fakes were collectively labeled ‘placebo singers.’ Because they chanted the word ‘placebo’ they were also called ‘choral placaters,’ using their chant only to deceptively flatter in order to get something. They personified all things useless because they simulated grief. It wasn’t genuine. The word continued to convey a negative meaning and appeared as a character in Chaucer’s tales, Placebo, a flattering yes-man. It began to make its way into medicine and Hooper’s Medical Dictionary of 1811 defined a placebo as, “any medicine adapted more to please than benefit the patient.”

From the word’s history, you can see that ‘placebo’ is an apt metaphor and a good mental hook to remember the essence of people pleasing. Pleaser leaders, like placebos, may please others but they seldom truly benefit them.

From my research of over 2,200 pastors, I discovered that over 80% of pastors deal with unhealthy people pleasing at some level. My book address this pervasive problem.

Perhaps the best antidote to people pleasing comes from the Apostle Paul in Galatians 6.14.

For my part, I am going to boast about nothing but the Cross of our Master, Jesus Christ. Because of that Cross, I have been crucified in relation to the world, set free from the stifling atmosphere of pleasing others and fitting into the little patterns that they dictate. (The Message)

What has helped you avoid people pleasing in your ministry?


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[1] Lolette Kuby, Faith and the Placebo Effect (Origin Press, 2003), http://www.originpress.com/placeboeffect/placebo_ch3.htm, accessed 12/19/12.

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