June 17, 2013
The Fishbowl, My Friend
Why living on display isn't the worst thing ever.
As a young pastor I hated the “fishbowl effect” of ministry. You know—that feeling that everyone's watching you, and that your mistakes count more. It seemed unfair to my young mind that my personal shortcomings (which would never be an issue in terms of most people’s employment) could lose me my job, my reputation, and my community.
Maybe the reason it bothered me so much was that I had such a surplus of those shortcomings.
But through years of living in the unfailing eye of critics and cranks (along with cheerleaders and encouragers!) I’ve come to see the fishbowl in a slightly different light.
Now the fishbowl is my friend.
Think not to lie hid
Richard Baxter, a Puritan pastor who lived in the 1600’s spoke of pastoral life this way:
“While you are as lights set upon a hill, think not to lie hid. Take heed therefore to yourselves, and do your work as those that remember that the world looks on them, and that with the quick-sighted eye of malice, ready to make the worst of all, to find the smallest fault where it is, to aggravate it where they find it, to divulge it and to take advantage of it to their own designs, and to make faults where they cannot find them. How cautiously, then, should we walk before so many ill-minded observers!”
Baxter understood that those who call others to live like Jesus would necessarily be faulted when failing to live so themselves. He understood that the fishbowl's a perennial dynamic in ministry. And so he encouraged us to live as though the world was watching. Because they are. There are those in our lives ready to shout “hypocrite” at the slightest provocation, to call us out for human failings which they themselves share and even, as Baxter says, to make faults where they cannot find them.
But Baxter took it further. He said we ought to be glad for this.
“As you take yourselves for the lights of the churches, you may expect that men's eyes will be upon you. If other men may sin without observation, so cannot you. And you should thankfully consider how great a mercy this is, that you have so many eyes to watch over you, and so many ready to tell you of your faults; and thus have greater helps than others, at least for restraining you from sin. Though they may do it with a malicious mind, yet you have the advantage of it.”That’s right. The fact that you have more eyes on you, more people examining how you live means that you have greater helps in living rightly than others. What they might mean for evil, God means for your good.
Walls of glass and a change of heart
Practically speaking, the fishbowl pushes us to do what we know we ought to do. So often just knowing that others are watching how we live our lives keeps us living consistently with our beliefs.
Let’s be clear though—it’s not enough. We all know what we are after is internal. Character change, heart change. But the structure provided by knowing we are living as people observed can help us form rhythms of holiness.
As we walk through life, trying to find the life of Christ and His character formed ever more within us, we know that there are many eyes around us to (ahem) “encourage” us to keep to the straight and narrow. This is an advantage. Those who embrace this find that over time, what starts as external becomes more and more internal—that slowly, what we choose to do or not do becomes, through habit, a matter of true character.
Because I know others are watching, I think twice about what I say on Facebook. What I look at in the checkout line of the supermarket. How I speak to my kids out on the street in front of my neighbors. Those choices (once made mostly because others were watching) become a part of who I am, especially when I choose to see those moments of choice as “kairos moments,” moments when God is breaking in, using my awareness of observation to communicate the character He wants to see formed in me.
But what if we fail to embrace this? What of those who are shipwrecked in ministry by moral failure, character deficiencies, private sin made public?
Those who chafe at the idea of the fishbowl of ministry and Christian life often find themselves living one way in public and another in private. It’s as though their anger at the fishbowl of their lives leads them to a divided life, one where they are willing to play by the rules in public, but insist on their own rules in private. Their frustration with the audience around them, so eager to find fault leads them to ignore the true Audience of One before whom they live. And as we know from watching so many ministers flame out in spectacular crash-and-burns, the impact is often horrendous. Families, churches and the reputation of the Church as a whole are damaged.
So make peace with the fishbowl. It will be there whether you accept it or not. But by embracing the walls of glass that leaders often live in, you might find yourself spurred on to the kind of “love and good deeds” you aspire to, and avoiding the kinds of sins which have brought down so many in ministry and the Christian life before you. “You should thankfully consider how great a mercy this is, that you have so many eyes to watch over you.” May the Holy Spirit—and those watching eyes—shape and form us.
Bob Hyatt helps pastor The Evergreen Community in Portland, Or. He also coaches and provides spiritual direction for Pastors and church planters. He’s currently finishing a DMin in Spiritual Formation from George Fox as well as an upcoming book on Eldership in the Missional Church. He blogs at BobHyatt.Me.