Church leadership in today’s world requires a combination of spiritual and organisational strengths, with the strategy, logistics and people skills often associated with business CEOs and the care and empathy of those in welfare professions.The role can be burdensome and expectations placed on pastors (or the expectations that pastors place on themselves!) can be debilitating. They can often be under so much stress that they find themselves hanging on by a thread, about to burnout from exhaustion, or blow out morally. In a recent Schaeffer Institute study of 1,050 Reformed and Evangelical pastors, every pastor said they had a colleague or seminary friend who had left the ministry because of burnout, church conflict, or moral failure. (1) This isn’t right. John writes to his friend Gaius in 3 John: “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul.” This should be the prayer of church leaders and congregation alike. But it also requires some practical considerations.
What is emotional health?
Emotional health “is the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.” (2) When emotional health is good, emotional energy flows and you experience excitement, enthusiasm and passion. When emotional energy is low, passion wanes, enthusiasm is lost and slowly you dry up.
Your intelligence quotient (IQ) is important. But your emotional quotient (EQ) is just as important. Yet developing and maintaining emotional health is not given the same priority as developing and maintaining IQ. This can be disastrous and result in emotional distress, exhaustion, burnout and depression, to name just a few potential problems.
Emotional resilience is your ability to respond well to stressors and this flows out of your emotional health. This is not only important – it is a necessity for sustainable, healthy leadership.
Warnings of emotional distress
Let’s take a look at some of the possible warning signs that your emotional health may need attention.
- Significant cognitive dissonance
Your head and heart are going in different directions. For example, on the one hand you may feel a calling to a role, but on the other hand, you don’t feel you have the resources to cope. The “double minded" man, as James 1: 8 puts it, is "unstable in every way,” and this loyalty to two opposing beliefs can result in taking too much ownership to serve the idealised role, without the passion needed to sustain it.
- Outcome focus
The demands of the role and the expectations from self or others causes your focus to move from inner nurture to external outcome- based activities such as budget or congregation size, to the neglect of emotional health.
- Poor responses to others
Your increasing resentment at expectations and demands are channelled into poor responses to those around you.
You start to avoid people or gatherings, because it feels like it’s going to take more from you when you actually need to be topped up. You might start reaching for the old false comforters – TV, food, shopping – just so that you’re getting something for yourself.
- Spiritual painting over
You are unable to see your need for input from mentors or counsellors. Instead you gloss over issues with a spiritual paintbrush. Maybe you use verses to paint over the top of pain, or you pray harder, telling yourself that you just need more faith: that you are fine when you are not.
Fellow pastors start to become competition rather than a source of support making you reluctant to share your journey with them.
Keys to emotional health
If you can identify yourself or someone else in these descriptions, there are some practical and simple steps that can make a difference.
- Listen to your body
What is it telling you? If your body is tired, can you exercise the mind? If your mind is tired, can you exercise the body? If both are tired, go to bed!
- What truly replenishes you?
‘Me-time’ is not selfish: it is essential to be replenished to love and serve well. But distinguish between entertainment and re-creating. Entertainment causes us to zone-out and makes our minds passive (for example, watching TV, which is not replenishing). Re-creating is when we partake in an activity that refreshes, restores and energises us, such as a walk in nature, or connecting with a loved one or those who inspire us.
- Rehumanise your role
Idealised expectations, from yourself or others, may be unrealistic. Hear others out and be gently honest in communicating what you believe you can and should do.
- Do not feel the need to adhere to idealised expectations
Becoming enmeshed in an idealised role will require the ongoing exertion of emotional energy to maintain the appearance of congruence with that role. The risk is exhaustion and burnout.
- Operate from ownership rather than obligation
Obligation can masquerade as faithfulness, but it is draining. Choose to do whatever you do whole-heartedly or re-negotiate so that you are able to commit in a sustainable way. Ask: “What would need to happen for me to be ok with saying ‘yes’ to this?”
- Recognise the gap between vision and reality
Where you would like to see your role and church may be different from the current reality. Do not overfunction to try and fill the gap.
- Identify your support networks
When faced with stressors, church leaders tend to rely on intra-personal forms of coping: faith-based activities such as prayer, Bible reading, contemplation and retreats. These have a vital role, but so does external support for your own emotional well-being. Find people who will ask you the pertinent questions and then be honest with them.
- Stick with your own DNA
Comparing yourself with others (or other churches) may not be wise.
There are no prizes for being a frenetic and frazzled pastor who struggles to find joy in their work. Do not confuse poor emotional health with committed, sacrificial service. Be honest about your emotional health and seek help when needed. If you are concerned about your pastor, talk to them. They will so appreciate the care!
Story: Jenny Purkis
Jenny Purkis is a counsellor and speaker with Strength2Strength Counselling & Training. This article draws on aspects of Richard Black’s research article Emotional Health in the Role of a Church Leader (unpublished).
You can check out a further article about Emotional Resilience in Children here.
1. R. J. Krejcir. 2007. Statistics on Pastors. churchleadership.org/apps/articles/default.asp? articleid=42347&columnid=4545&contentonly=true
2. Daniel Goleman. 1998. Working with Emotional Intelligence. New York. Bantam.
1. Do you recognise any of the warning signs of emotional distress in yourself or someone you know?
2. If it is in yourself, which of the keys to emotional health would be helpful for you to explore?
3. If it is in someone else, how could you talk with them about this and what could you do to support them?
Photo Credit: zimmytws/shutterstock.com
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.