Leadership Mentoring: The Perils of Performing

“You haven’t gotten over your performance issues. You’ve just gotten better at performing!” —Dr. Louis McBurney, Marble Retreat

“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.” —Matt. 6:1, The Message

My son is a pastor in another state. These Leadership Mentoring exercises are an attempt to impart on him—and other church leaders—what God has given me. They are designed to be discussed over coffee or FaceTime in order to stimulate thinking and wrestle with leadership themes, skills and perspectives. They are not easy fixes, 1-2-3 strategies or spoon-fed biblical remedies. Rather, they are intended to stimulate investigation and an internal wrestling match resulting in deeper learning and more thoughtfully held values and convictions. The wrestling match has a shaping effect on us. Wrestle away!

The Perils of Performing

Performing for the crowd is a temptation for many in public ministry and can easily pollute our motives and distort our character.

My Experience

I remember going to the carnival as a kid—the bright lights, crazy sounds and blaring music. The fire-breathing man, the sword-swallower and the incredible headless woman who waved back at me?! Creepy, but I was sold! I went home and dreamed of traveling with “the show.”

I like making people laugh. I like it when people are enthralled with a story I’m telling. Most of us do. If we’re honest, we like the attention we get when we are in front of people. If we perform well, we’re praised. If we tank, crickets.

Such are the perils of performing. On the outside, we are in ministry for God, but inside, we are really seeking attention from others. If we do not receive the praise we seek, we may get sullen or discouraged. If we get it, we are content … until the next time we perform. Then, the cycle resets. We are only as good as our last performance.

Many of us in ministry suffer from this neurosis. We stand in front of people and love the attention, but we suffer terribly when we do not receive the positive feedback we crave. We know our motive mix is immature and polluted, but we don’t know the way out.

I first heard of “performance orientation” from a John Sandford book in the early 1980s, and quickly realized how accurately it described me.

There are many reasons for this. Our parents (or significant influencers) may have withheld affirmation unless we performed up to their standards. They may have belittled or shamed us if we did not excel. We may not have received their blessing and approval (as John Trent describes in The Blessing) and are still trying to get it. Performing may have been the only way we could get attention from others or stand out from our siblings. It may also help us “get our way” with others.

If we are serving to meet our own approval needs, it will eventually expose itself in relational trouble, perfectionism, becoming territorial and/or depression.

Perhaps the best indicator of performance orientation is how we feel when we do not receive the praise or recognition we seek. If we get overly discouraged when we hear critique or criticism, or a lack of positive verbal feedback, we are likely exposed. On the other hand, if we receive the sought-after recognition (and, perhaps, a lot of it) and sense within ourselves a craving for more, it may also expose us. It is almost as if we enjoy it a little too much.

If we frequently compare ourselves with others, it may also expose performance issues and steal our joy at the same time.

In Ministry

What to do? The first step is being honest with God and yourself: “Lord, I have been playing for the crowd. I love the attention. Yikes! I see that now. Please forgive me and lead me out of this.” And, keep doing that. Then, tell a few trusted friends and invite them to keep you honest.

Second, you will need a truth encounter(s) where you entrust yourself to the Lord—and his affirmation of you—and accept that it is enough. This will involve some death to self and reorienting yourself to a different (heavenly) audience. The truth is, Jesus invites you to experience what he experienced at his baptism: “You are my dearly loved child. I am delighted with you” (see Luke 3:22). Over time, this will seep into your soul as you return to and marinate yourself in it.

You may also need to forgive those who withheld genuine affirmation from you, and made you jump through hoops to receive their approval. Forgiveness is key to dismantling the jail cell of performance.

This should get the ball rolling. A large part of moving into freedom is biblically informed self-awareness.

Using these principles, I worked hard on my “performing” issues, and thought I was substantially beyond them. Years later, my psychiatrist-friend Louis McBurney called me out: “You haven’t gotten over your performance issues. You’ve just gotten better at performing!” D’oh!

Rather than drinking in the Lord’s affirmation and being satisfied, I had subtly upped my game to get it from others. Instead of working hard and trusting God for the fruit, I was working harder so I could produce the fruit! Have you done this?

I continue to entrust myself—and what I think of myself—to Jesus. For me, this has been a lifelong struggle with notable victory, and subtle-but-detectable regression.


  • In the Bible, who seems to be playing for the crowd instead of the Lord? In the Old Testament and the New? Who does not seem to be playing for the crowd? Why?
  • After you’ve led something, or taught or preached, how do you feel when you don’t get the response you were hoping for? What was the response you were hoping for?
  • Have you ever been criticized after your led or taught? What was your response/reaction?
  • Have you ever been praised or affirmed for a job well done? How did this make you feel? Did you want to do it again so you could receive more accolades or attaboys?
  • Did you receive “the blessing” from your parent(s)? How is that affecting your need or desire for affirmation?
  • In what ways are you ministering to get your affirmation needs met? What will you do about it?
  • As I write this, I’m hoping for 2,000 “likes”! I’m tempted to check this page 20 times a day. I’m still a work in progress. What can you learn from that?

Read more in the Leadership Mentoring series »

Bob Branch is the husband of Becky; father of Daniel, Hannah, Charis and Becca; father-in-law to Amelia and Nate, and the founder and pastor of The Springs Community Church in Temecula, California. Besides connecting with his family, he enjoys traveling, guitars, watches, football, baseball, Clive Cussler books, good coffee, sushi and almost all kinds of food.