Emotionally Healthy Pastoring

Staying emotionally healthy in the ministry starts by stepping into the messy, painful truth of confronting how you are doing in three major areas of life and ministry.

by Pete Scazzero

See Also:

Staying emotionally healthy in the ministry starts by stepping into the messy, painful truth of confronting how we are doing in three major areas of life and ministry. 

After 20 years as senior pastor, I finally admitted I had been skimming in my leadership. Skimming is the way many of us cope with multiple demands, constant pressure, and overloaded schedules. We cover a lot of ground superficially, but we do not fully engage with our surroundings. Like skimming a book, this can produce an impression that we have everything covered; but, in reality, you are not completely there.

How do you know you are skimming?

  • When you go from meeting to meeting without an awareness of God.
  • When you say yes to new commitments and expansions without properly following through on what you are already doing.
  • When you realize you do not have enough time to allow the truth of what you are preaching to transform your own walk with Christ.
  • When you avoid difficult decisions and truth because it will upset someone.
  • When you engage in a pastoral phone call or visit — resentfully.
  • When you cannot stop thinking about the unfinished work at church when you are with your family.
  • When you are too busy to reflect on your own heart or cultivate your personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
  • When you are not investing in your own personal growth and marriage.
  • When you measure your success based on what other people say rather than your own internal values before God.

Many times skimming is a defensive mechanism of denial that blocks us from growing up spiritually and emotionally. It is a way of avoiding aspects of ministry that stir up our anxiety or suggest pain. It can work for a while, but eventually it catches up with us, and there is a price to pay. Here is how it caught up with me and forced me to confront my skimming.

For years our church board, in their annual review of my role, asked how I enjoyed my position as senior pastor.

“I love preaching, teaching, casting vision, and discipling people,” I replied. “But God just did not gift me to do administration or run the organization. Administration is frustrating.”

For years I, along with our board, attempted to find ways to provide administrative leadership alongside my role as pastor. Each time we hit a wall. Nothing seemed to work long-term. This was a problem when the church was 1 year old and 20 years old. The issue was not size. It was inside me.

Yet I continued to avoid making difficult decisions, managing key volunteers, taking time to plan for meetings, or following through on project details.

I clearly saw things that we needed to do, but I wanted someone else to do it. That’s all administration, I told myself. That’s something someone else should do. It’s just not me.

In hindsight I can see two factors that hindered me.

I didn’t trust myself. Throughout my ministry I had plenty of administrative failures, and I had mixed emotions about trying again. Plus, other pastors, even my wife told me: “You don’t have those gifts, so play to your strengths and find others to fill in your weaknesses. Spend your time in the Word and prayer. Let others run the church.” This reinforced my mental block that I could not do it.

I was a coward. Each time I saw what needed to be done, I realized I feared getting into the nitty-gritty. We needed to make changes in leadership. We had not properly slotted a few key people. Others were not doing their roles well. This was now having an increasing impact on the church.

I had made difficult decisions prior to this, but now I was skimming, trying to stay above the fray, safely above the administrative issues that were bogging us down. Truth be told, I was afraid people would misunderstand me, I would lose friendships, and people would leave the church, halting our momentum.

I complained. I got angry. I blamed. I sulked. But I did nothing.

Finding My Personal Integrity — Finally

A number of events finally converged to break me out of this gridlock.

First, I reached a point of utter frustration. The inner workings of our church leadership did not reflect the message I was preaching. I could no longer preach a way of life that we were not living.

Around this time, my wife, Geri, spoke up: “Pete, I think the issue is courage, your courage. I am not blaming you. It is hard to make the kind of changes needed. All I know is that you are in the position to do it, but you are not doing it. You are not enforcing our values of emotionally healthy spirituality with the staff to the degree that is needed. You are angry and resentful. We have a great church but, …”

She paused and then dropped the bombshell.

“This is about you. You may not have what it takes to do what needs to be done. Maybe your time is up and someone else needs to step in and lead.”

She exposed me. While her words hurt, I knew there was truth in them. I spent the next day alone with God and my journal.

Yes, I wanted someone else to come in and get the house in order, to lead the church through the painful changes before us. But it was now clear. I admitted the truth: The greatest deterrent to New Life Fellowship Church becoming what God meant it to be was me, not any other person or factor.

Over the next year I learned that the skills for doing the executive work of an organization are not hard to learn. The real difficulty was making the time, thinking carefully before the Lord, summoning the courage to have difficult conversations, and following all the way through. I was now stepping into the messy, painful truth that would set both me and New Life free.

Emotional Health in the Church

As not skimming in my leadership became a major learning curve for me, I pondered how much skimming was happening in other areas of my life.

You can skim on your Christmas shopping and cleaning your car. You can skim on your social life, your e-mail, and your reading list. But do not skim on what is most important.

I became aware of my temptation to skim in three major areas of my life. Each had profound and far-reaching implications, for myself and the people I serve. These same three areas apply if your church is 30, 50, 100, or 1,000 people. Leading yourself always is the greatest challenge.

Your relationship with God

Cultivating a life with Jesus requires large amounts of focused time. Days alone with God, hours of meditation on Scripture, and time for reading are indispensable. Endless distractions and voices that call us away from sitting at the feet of Jesus, like Mary did in Luke 10:38–42, surround us.

Throughout church history, one of the seven deadly sins is sloth (acedia, “not caring”), which describes not just laziness, but busyness with the wrong things. We are busy, the spiritual guides argued, because we cannot bear the effort demanded by a life of recollection and solitude with God. There was no patience for activism, even godly activity, unless they nourished it by a rich interior life with God.

The Desert Fathers repeatedly warned about being engaged in activity for God before the time is ripe. They offer a timely warning to us.

So, to stop skimming on my relationship with God, I started building monastic rhythms into my life. For example, I began practicing daily trips to the office as a way to structure my days. I began planning my day around three to four small blocks of time to stop, center, read Scripture, and be still. I also became ruthless about days of silence as indispensable elements of my vocation as a pastor.

It is an illusion to imagine that we can lead our people on a spiritual journey we ourselves have not taken. No program can substitute for the superficiality and self-will that inevitably permeates our ministry when we skim in our relationship with God. Imagine if the Twelve had allowed themselves to be distracted from the Word of God and prayer in Acts 6.

Your relationship with yourself

Most of us are overscheduled and preoccupied. We are starved for time and exhausted from the endless needs around us. Who has time to enjoy Jesus, our spouses, our children, life itself?

We assume we will catch up on our sleep some other time. We assume that the space we need for replenishing our soul and relaxing can happen later. Few of us have time for fun and hobbies. There is simply too much work we need to do for God.

Jesus models for us healthy self-care. With the weight of the world on His shoulders, we observe Him resting and enjoying what others bring to Him before going to the cross (John 12:1–8).

Bernard of Clairvaux, like Augustine before him, recognized that mature love does not exist without a basis of self-love. Unless we know what it is to care for ourselves, we cannot love others well. Only in light of the love of God can we love ourselves rightly. Bernard even argued that love of self for God’s sake is the highest form of loving God. Unrelenting duty can destroy the joy of the Lord, which is our strength.

A key to our freedom is a rediscovery of Sabbath-keeping, a radical, countercultural spiritual formation practice. I accept God’s invitation to stop, rest, delight, and contemplate Him for a 24-hour period. For me, this means stopping from Friday night at 7 p.m. to Saturday night at 7 p.m. — even if I have not finished my sermon. I stop all “have tos” and “shoulds.” I avoid the computer, e-mails, and church-related work. I spend Saturdays doing other work, such as cleaning the house, repairing the car, doing laundry, and paying bills.

The Sabbath calls us to build the doing of nothing into our schedules each week. We accomplish nothing that is measurable. It is, by the world’s standards, inefficient, unproductive, and useless. Yet it is one of the most fundamental elements God has given us that we might take care of ourselves.

You and your marriage (if applicable)

Few are willing to admit the sad state of many pastors’ marriages. Admitting this would potentially disrupt, at least in the short term, some of our fastest-growing churches.

The best leadership and denominational conferences, along with our seminaries and schools, do not train us how to have marriages that last and point to heaven. We ignore the unique pressures of the ministry, mistakenly assuming that a great marriage will happen naturally if we work for God.

We forget the biblical principle: as goes the leader’s marriage, so goes the church. If we are skimming at home, we are not going to be able to lead a healthy church family (1 Timothy 3:5).

If you are married, your vocation is your spouse first, and any children God has given you. This covenant takes priority over your church and people.

Paul refers to the one flesh union of husband and wife as a foreshadowing of Christ’s union with His bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:31,32). For this reason God intends our marriage and sexuality to proclaim and reflect our union with Christ. Our marital union is to be a picture, and experience, of receiving and giving the love of God.

Who has time to invest in such a learning, growth journey?

Some pastors will say, “Pete, this will require I change the entire way I do ministry?” Yes.

Geri and I made a commitment 19 years ago that investing in our marriage was the highest priority of our lives after Christ. Our calendar began to reflect that change. We carved out exclusive, uninterrupted time each day and week to be fully present with one another. And we began regular overnights to nearby bed and breakfasts for getaways.

Of course, the temptation to skim on our marriage remains. But as our theology of marriage as a vocation, as a specific call and mission from God, has deepened over the years, this has weakened our temptation to skim.

You and your leadership

Part of the reason I skimmed on my leadership is that I divided the secular and sacred, treating the executive, planning functions of pastoral leadership as less meaningful and holy than prayer and Bible study.

For years I preferred to do the easy things, not the necessary things. I do not enjoy conflict and tension. Who does?

When I stopped skimming, I began to see how much external validation drove my life. I wanted people to tell me I was okay. I discovered that people did not move toward me after difficult conversations; instead, they distanced themselves from me.

I sometimes avoided meetings I knew would be hard. I skimmed on truth when it was uncomfortable. I preferred to not ask difficult questions or speak up when something was clearly wrong.

It is easier to rush into a meeting without planning. It is hard to spend the time needed to get clear on our goals and agenda.

It is easier to be reactive than to be thoughtful and prayerful. I had based more of my decisions than I care to admit on feelings and impulse. When I did this, it was hard to provide prudent leadership.

It is easy to say one thing and do another. It is hard to remain centered and follow through on my commitments.

It is easy to gloss over inconsistencies. It is hard to examine painful data that things may not be going well.

It is easy to engage in false peace by appeasing people. It is hard to speak truth when they may become angry.

It is easy to justify our spin and exaggeration as vision. It is hard to combine faith and hard facts.

We need to remember our goal — people’s transformation into the likeness of Christ. Loving people does not mean keeping them happy. Jesus models for us that hurting people is often part of helping them mature.

And remember: leadership that does not skim sets us and our people free — even if it is painful at first.