Warning: being nice in ministry can be a problem


Are you too nice? Being “nice” has its place – it can smooth over awkward situations. Nice people are easier to be around, and other people like them. But nice won’t take you through a whole career in ministry, and it won’t help you help your church reach its potential.

Remember, “nice” is not a New Testament word. Jesus was compassionate, which is not the same as nice.

Here are three problems with being nice:

  1. You can find yourself working far more than is good for you or your family, not to reach your own goals, but to accommodate the needs and desires of others. You can say “yes” because you’re too nice to say “no.”
  2.  You can avoid taking a stand with a difficult person that leads to bigger problems later. Whether it’s a staff person or a lay leader, niceness can cause you to let too many things go, because it’s easier. Too late, you realize that you have to take a much bigger stand for the sake of the church.
  3. You avoid moving forward with key initiatives because you don’t want to upset anyone. Or you back off on something new, whether a new worship approach or an outreach ministry, when people don’t like what is happening. Edwin Friedman called this “valuing peace over progress.”

Sometimes being “nice” is more about being anxious when people get upset with us. I’m preaching to myself as much as to anyone else: I was socialized to be nice, and I hate it when people get mad at me. Yet mature leadership mean taking stands, which can result in others getting upset with us.

For many in ministry, feeling guilty, feeling mean (or being called mean) is actually a sign you are on the right track. Taking a stand is a key part of ministry leadership.

Are you too nice for your own (and your church’s) good?


14 replies on “Warning: being nice in ministry can be a problem

  • Dan Belgum-Blad

    This is something I’ve been sorting out along the way, a long time… Relevent stuff! I appreciate that being nice isn’t synonymous with compassion. It can be reactive avoidance of conflict (speaking from experience). The more I work on ‘differentiated togetherness’, I believe (and have seen) the better off I am. Thanks for this column.

  • Anne Andert

    Thanks for another good article. I once saw an acronym for NICE = Nothing Is Critically Evaluated. Before ordination I was a critical care nurse. Sometimes people think of critical as mean-spirited, but I see it as being very important. Critical words, actions, and thinking are all important. We don’t get to critical if we stay with “nice”.

  • Dinah

    Still learning and re-learning this one. I’m finding my motives are mixed as I serve. Sometimes it’s difficult to sort out what’s done out of love, going the extra mile versus what’s done out of fear, a desire to be liked, and a lack of courage.

    • Margaret Marcuson

      Dinah, I’m still learning it, too. I do think if we try to discern instead of acting automatically, over time we’ll make better choices.

  • Joe Kutter

    Too too true. Too frequently we think that the word love is a synonym for nice and they are not the same at all. Love, agape, has a very tough core, not mean but tough, while nice is nearly completely directly by the whims and issues of others — no core. Nicely done!

  • Joel Alvis

    “Nice” may be in the New Testament – but we have the “Nicene” Creed. Isn’t that the same thing? No wait – maybe there was some stand taking as well as anxiety displacement there as well…..

  • Israel Galindo

    Good one, Margaret. Nothing wrong with being kind, but anxiety-motivated “nice” tends to lead to ineffective leadership. I sometimes quip, “Nice can get you killed under the wrong circumstance.”

  • Phineas Marr

    This is a great column. I’ve had to learn these lessons the hard way. I think this is a clarifying statement in regards to the rest of your work. Maintaining non-anxious presence does not mean being nice all the time. It is possible to be both non-anxious and confrontational when needed. It’s a skill to be learned for most of us, but worth the trouble of learning.


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