The emotionally healthy leader

by Eddie Thompson, BSCNC Pastoral Ministries

Monday, October 8, 2018

This year I have been speaking at pastors’ conferences around the state primarily on one topic: “emotionally healthy spirituality.” The reactions that I have received from pastors have been nothing short of stunning.

Recently, one pastor said to me afterward, “If I would’ve known you were going to talk about this, I wouldn’t have come. But I’m so glad I did! I saw myself in almost everything you talked about.”

When we talk about emotionally unhealthy leaders, someone always comes to mind —  a boss, a leader, a family member, a dad, a staff member, a deacon or a pastor. We remember what they said, but especially how they acted.

Unfortunately, even pastors struggle to connect their emotional health to their spiritual health. Peter Scazzero, author of The Emotionally Healthy Leader, says, “You can’t be spiritually healthy while remaining emotionally unhealthy.”

So many churches seem locked into never-ending tension. But when attempting to mediate, what I often see is an emotionally unhealthy pastor trying to be the spiritual leader. He preaches well, goes to the hospital to visit the sick, seems to have a good family life, but in private meetings, he acts like a completely different person. He’s angry, hurt and at a loss as to what to do next. He either avoids specific people at church or worse still, he lashes out at them and has no idea why.

When underlying issues surface, many pastors blame it on the church. Yes, congregations do act poorly from time to time. So in order to help them, they need an emotionally and spiritually mature pastor.

However, if he’s emotionally immature and finds himself in a group of dysfunctional people, he may reflect that same dysfunction. They will blame him for their lack of growth and his immaturity. He’ll respond in anger or passive-aggressive behavior. And on goes the vicious cycle.

So many pastorates end over an inability to truly connect with people. Emotional IQs run low, and when intense pressure rises, his real self surfaces.

We must become aware of what’s going on underneath the surface of our lives. A lack of emotional health can easily pinpoint a lack of spiritual health. Ask yourself, “What do I feel that’s making me act this way? Do I feel angry, selfish, disrespected, misunderstood, hurt, in pain, left out, alone?”

When you can name it, it’s amazing how just doing that allows you to take it to Jesus. Then you can be more honest in talking to Christ about it. Confession is not hard if you know what to confess. Confess it, repent of it, and He is sure to cleanse your heart and draw you closer to Himself.

Scazzero says, “The emotionally unhealthy leader is someone who operates in a continuous state of emotional and spiritual deficit, lacking emotional maturity and a ‘being with God’ sufficient to sustain their ‘doing for God.’”

Emotional deficits are manifested primarily by a pervasive lack of awareness. We can lack awareness of our feelings, our weaknesses, our limits and how our past impacts our present. We can also lack the skill to empathize with others. These deficits, immaturities and blind spots can seep into our workplace, home and every other place we touch.

Here are four characteristics of an emotionally unhealthy leader:

  1. They have low self-awareness.
  2. They prioritize ministry over their marriage.
    Pastors invest their time in church activities, church people and in becoming a better leader, but they fail to see the long-lasting impact of this on their family. They have exchanged lovers.
  3. They mistakenly equate activity with faithfulness to ministry.
    Emotionally unhealthy leaders are chronically overextended. They routinely have too much to do in too little time. So they’ll give a knee-jerk “yes” to just about anything before prayerfully and carefully considering God’s will.
  4. They lack a work — Sabbath rhythm.
    Sabbath is a deliberate and sacrificial time in which one ceases all work in order to rest, delight in God’s work and enjoy life with Him. Without Sabbath, burnout, or worse — depression, is often nearby. 

If you see yourself in this article, please take the time to learn and grow before you become just another ministry washout. Being a good pastor means a lot more than preaching, teaching and pastoral care. It means being a healthy pastor, spiritually and emotionally.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Eddie Thompson serves as the senior consultant for pastoral ministries at the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.