Emotional health is essential to church leaders because we have seen the damage of the lack of emotional health. When people do not mature optimally, when we drag some of the baggage of our growing-up years into leadership bad things happen. We don’t make decisions based on the true work of the Holy Spirit in the moment.
We decide based on past hurts or excesses of one kind or the other. We came to a time in our own church where we saw the consequences of unhealthy emotional living. So as a staff we said, “Let’s pay whatever cost we have to pay to leave the past behind us and let God do a fresh work and a sustainable work in our lives.” This value of emotional health in our leadership became one of the primary values we hold up high. The work of ministry includes that internal work of God. Just as recently as the last thirty days of my life I have gone through some losses, the loss of my mother and some other less dramatic ones, but I’ve had conversations with close friends on how those circumstances affect how I’m leading others right now. The pain can affect how I preach, how I relate to family and friends, and to my congregation. Something happens beneath the veneer of our lives that touches everything above that line, and we have to pay attention to that pain.
I don’t meet that many other pastors that admitted they have visited a counselor. But in my own life it was in the early nineties that I visited a counselor for the first time. It took such courage to say the four-letter-word, “Help!” I remember sitting in that waiting room wondering why I couldn’t figure this out. Because I am the kind of person that usually can figure stuff out. I was stumped as to how to figure out the complexities of my inner world. I experienced a mixture of shame and fear and anger. The counselor said to me, “Tell me three times your mother touched your soul.” My initial reaction to this was “this process is going to be very expensive.” I didn’t understand the question, and certainly not why he was going to look at that area of my life.
I thought at that moment that there was a whole world inside of me that I had not paid attention to. I realized we were going on an exploration of that whole universe. I was frightened to death. My journey opened up the Scriptures for me-like the Psalms. I never understood the psalms, the poet was suicidal, why he was depressed, why Jeremiah cursed the day he was born, why Jesus was on His face in the Garden of Gethsemane. There is a whole theology of grief and loss. The whole book of Lamentations is a study of grieving. I’m a pastor, not a therapist, but it opened up a number of truths to me that I never understood before. I was so busy building the church and making it happen. It took me on a theological journey that was tremendous. So my passion became “How do we mentor and disciple the whole person?” My challenge was “What does it mean to impact this whole emotional component?” We started doing genograms with people so they would understand the complexity of family relationships. It was frightening, looking at one’s family three or four generations back and how it’s impacted who I am in the present. I would tell my wife, “We don’t need to talk about the past. I am a new creation in Jesus.” She said, “No, you’re not. I live with you.” “You’re not a new creation.”
Being in ministry can exacerbate these issues in a unique way. Many pastors have had to let go staff because of the economy and do more ministry with less people. Then when you add ministry to your home life. You can struggle with pace of life so much. So what does the pace of life have to do with a leader’s emotional and spiritual health?
Picture this. When your velocity line goes up and to the right, it’s pretty difficult to pay attention to matters of the soul at that same increase. At some point, speed wins. You can feel it happening. You can drive in the driveway at night just hoping that your wife or your kids don’t have a problem, because you don’t have the margin to deal with it. If you are meeting with God, you are impatient with that meeting. You want it to go fast. If there is a sin to be confessed in your life, you don’t ponder it slowly, you go “oops” and motor on. Rich thoughts, deep thoughts. You only have time for “reflects.” No contemplation is possible. Preaching, those of you who preach, you grab the first idea that comes into your mind, instead of living in a text and ruminating upon its truths. You don’t have time to wonder a little bit and get underneath the first thoughts. You don’t feel your own emotions because you don’t have time to deal with them. Slow conversations with friends don’t happen anymore.
When I run too fast, I get brittle. Little things upset me more than they should. Little delays seem outrageous to me. I start putting pressure on other people because my pace is too fast. I don’t allow anyone around me to relax and enjoy life. I have struggled with this my whole life. This isn’t so much about overt sins, but about a life that is being lived too fast. The consequences are often worse than if you went out a intentionally did a sin here and there because it actually undermines the whole of your life. It undermines your relationship with God, spouse, kids, friends, church, preaching, everything! It’s more insidious and consequential than an old-fashioned “screw up.” It’s often more tolerated in the Christian community than any overt sin.
Ask yourself: “Am I getting wobbly?” In evaluating where I am spiritually, I always ask myself, “Would I wish the interior life I am experiencing right now, would I wish this on a close friend?” If the answer to that question is no, then something is out of whack here. Then there are other times when I feel like I am “congruent” and I reflect and say, I wish all my friends could feel in their inner world, today, like I feel in mine. I feel relaxed in God, I feel He’s in control of my life, I’m not given to anxiety today, I feel liberated from competitiveness or stress or whatever. That principle has given me a great measuring stick.
Is my life right now the life that I would wish upon my friends? Is my life fulfilled, surrendered and filled by the Holy Spirit? We need to grow and serve from the inside out.