January 18, 2021

“What About Bob?” and Christian Ministry

By Guest Blogger Daniel Jepsen

Note from Chaplain Mike: Dan has been a good friend for nearly 25 years, and a great partner in ministry. He is pastor of Franklin Community Church in Franklin, IN. He will be one of our new Liturgical Gangstas, who should reappear here at IM in August. Welcome, Daniel!

Is it a bad thing, I wonder, that lately I have learned more about ministry by a silly movie than any of the books weighing down the shelves in my office?

The movie is “What About Bob?,” a minor classic of the early nineties.  Richard Dreyfus plays Dr. Leo Marvin, a highly successful psychologist. As he is about to leave on a four week vacation at a lake cottage, Leo relishes in the fact that the only thing interrupting that time will be a crew from “Good Morning America” sent to interview him on his new book.

Right before he leaves, however, he is introduced to a new patient, Bob Wiley (played brilliantly by Bill Murray).  Bob is a man paralyzed by fear.  He fears germs. He fears crowds.  He even fears his bladder will explode.  In their first interview, Leo offers some words that seem to help Bob cope a little.

The tension in the story begins here: Leo has one agenda in mind. He desires the fame and status that the television interview will confer, but other than that he wants to leave his profession, and his patients, far behind.  Bob has his own agenda: to find help for his problems in Bob’s words and presence.  Eventually he is able to not only to find Leo’s vacation hide-away, but to enmesh himself into the family. Leo’s increasingly desperate attempts to get rid of Bob, always frustrated, provide the backbone of the comedy.

The first time I watched this movie, I remember thinking that this is every pastor’s worst nightmare:  a very needy individual who won’t leave you alone and sucks up huge amounts of time and emotional energy.  Bob, I felt, was exhibit “A” in the need to set boundaries in the ministry.

The last time I saw the movie, however, I was convicted of something else.  I saw more clearly that while Bob is definitely a problem, the real problem is Leo.  It is the healer who needed to be healed more than the patient.

Leo, you see, is a man with a façade.  Outwardly, he usually says and does the right thing, but inwardly he is rotting away from the disease of self.  His greatest goal is to become more famous as a psychologist with the least amount of messy, needy individuals getting in the way.  To Leo, Bob is at first a pawn, to fund his lifestyle, and then a barrier, as Bob breaks the boundaries. Leo relates to Bob completely in terms of Bob’s effects on Leo’s life.  As we see this, it also becomes clear that Leo relates to everyone in terms of their effect on his own happiness.  He shows little concern for his sweet wife, and his children are frustrated and bitter that they don’t measure up to his standards.

What a warning to all of us, and not least to those of us in any kind of ministry. As a pastor, I know how easily one can slip into the mindset of valuing the church over the people of the church, and relating every event and every person to the desire to build a bigger, or at least better, church.  I suppose those in other ministries have their own temptations and issues in this area.

“What About Bob?” shows how warped that mindset is, how selfish it is.  The movie reminds me that ministry divorced from actual, loving concern for people is a foolish, comical thing (at best).

It also reminds me of one other thing.  In the movie, we find that Bob, not Leo, is actually the one who helps other people with their issues.  This is especially clear regarding Leo’s son Sigmund, who is afraid to dive in the water.  Bob identifies with this boy, since he has so many of his own fears.  As Bob articulates these fears, yet slowly tries to overcome them, Sigmund is inspired enough to overcome his own.  Bob ministers out of weakness, not strength, through shared struggles, not professional detachment and advice giving.

What a beautiful picture of the New Testament theme that God uses us more in spite of weaknesses, or even through our weaknesses, rather than because of our strengths.  Leo seems to be everything Bob is not: educated, successful, and put-together.  He is strong in every area where Bob is weak. In fact, Bob has only one thing that Leo lacks: a genuine concern for the other people that are brought into his life. But that one thing, of course, makes all the difference.

Now, obviously some boundaries are necessary and helpful.  But my concern here is the many times I seem to be content with the external trappings of ministry, rather than really helping people in love.  My concern is for the many times I and other ministers and leaders want to play Dr. Leo Marvin, rather than Bob Wiley.  May God open our eyes.

Maybe you should skip that next book on leadership, and rent “What About Bob?” instead.


  1. Good insight into Leo and Bob in such a great movie. You are right in that we tend to focus on Bob and yet the genius of the movie is how Bob exposes something that already exists in Leo. And yet like Leo, we tend to blame the “Bobs” in our world for our frustrations and reactions. At best we tend to point to Leo’s “neuroses”, part of which is about pre-occupation with one’s self but you expose a deeper self-agenda in Leo. And yet, so often us “Leo’s” in life and ministry can be unaware of our own self-centeredness beause it is cloaked (even to ourselves) in doing good, helping others, serving the Lord, etc.

  2. I love that you’re using What About Bob as a ministry illustration. It’s always been one of my favorite movies. There are quite a few movies out there that illustrate the same point of those seen as weak and needy end up being the ones who have the needed insights and moral center to bring healing. I’ll mention it again, even though I said this here before, that Black Snake Moan has a fundamentally similar moral center that speaks of healing coming about through deep brokenness. And I would dare say that it’s much more explicitly Christian in its message. The only reason most Christians won’t watch it is because it’s also explicit in every other way too. Movies that deal directly with psychological as well as moral brokenness always speak more poignantly to me, since both run so strong in my own family, and I’ve worked professionally with both over the years. Ultimately, the question is never are we in the same boat. We all are coming into this world. The question is whether we’ll own up to it and move forward knowing that we are just as needy as any beggar on the street.

    • First time I saw “What About Bob?” was over 15 years ago at a friend’s house, with a bunch of the guys (all fellow members of the same congregation). Near the end I commented on how it was an excellent allegory on pride and humility, and the eventual results of those mindsets.

      Dead silence for ten seconds, followed by my host saying, “you’re deep, man.”

      Anyway, glad to find that I’m not the only one. 😀

  3. I HATE this movie! I just can’t stand it. It’s like a train wreck: It’s so horrible for it to happen, but you just can’t stop watching out of morbid curiosity. I’m not referring to the film itself; it’s well done enough. I’m talking about the plot. I just can’t help but empathize with Dr. Marvin.

    What does that say about me and my ministry? I probably don’t love people as I should. And I’m certainly no genius at setting boundaries. But at much of the humor I have somewhat of a hard time laughing until the end where…. ok I’m not gonna spoil it if you haven’t seen it, but the further it progresses, it goes a little more off the reality rails on the slapstick train, making it far enough from home to find humorous.

    My wife loves this movie. It’s like her favorite. But for those of us who are reclusive hermits and struggle with relational ministry, who may just have a few “Bob’s” in the real world, it was challenging for me to watch.

    Overall, I agree that it’s a great movie. I probably just have to grow up a little before I can really enjoy it.

    • I didn’t care for it either, but largely because I’m not a big comedy fan (I, ah, didn’t think it was that funny; and I found Bob and Leo both…maddening). However, I do agree it’s got some great themes in it. I don’t think you have to like the movie to appreciate its point. Know?

  4. “I want some peace and quiet!”

    “I’ll be quiet.”

    “I’ll be peace.”

    What a great summer movie! I may just have to pull it out and watch it again this weekend.

  5. Okay who has tried death therapy lately? 😉

  6. I like the movie, and I’m a little surprised that this is the first time it made an appearance on iMonk.

    I can see both sides. I really feel sorry for pastors who are expected to make everyone happy and solve all their problems. I feel sorry for congregations where the pastor is too busy building an empire to notice that his flock is dying from starvation in a drought of despair. The church growth movement drives both: the self-centered demand for self-actualization and the reduction of the congregation to a corporate machine.

    I know many times that “give them Jesus” doesn’t seem like enough, that one needs that immediate touch of human compassion. But compassion that does not lead people to the cross is no compassion at all.

  7. Dan Crawford says

    I can certainly detect human sin in both Leo and Bob. Leo is ambitious and somewhat self-absorbed and too disregarding of his family’s need for him to listen to them. As for Bob, there is something despicable in his disregard for boundaries when it comes to his doctor. Leo is a possibly burnt-out psychologist that needs that vacation. Bob may be able to identify with and help other fear-obsessed people but he has so cast Leo in the role of his doctor that he cannot for an instant grasp what Leo needs. Why is that?

  8. Rick Ro. says

    I remember detesting this movie the one and only time I saw it. When I begin my “Film and Theology” thing, I’ll have to get a copy and watch it again, with a spiritual mindset. Thanks for the recommendation!

  9. Is this some sort of radical new therapy?

  10. “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” – Charles Shulz

  11. Awaiting the return of the Gangstas!!!

  12. Quixotequest says

    And a reminder to relish the good little details of life, like fresh, hand-shucked corn.

  13. Ugh. That movie makes me so uncomfortable. And now the timing of this post is a little too interesting in that we are smack dab in the middle of dealing with our most recent Bob. So this is a good reminder for me to be grace-filled toward Bob. We also are trying to find the balance in setting appropriate boundaries.

Speak Your Mind