4 Ways to Be an Emotionally Healthy Leader

Pete Scazzero: "Biblically, It's not possible for a Christian to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature."

I was—by all external measures—a successful senior pastor of a large, growing, multiethnic church in Queens, New York City. I was also emotionally immature, a workaholic for God and failing at home as a husband and father. God had been trying to get my attention for several years. Finally, he sent an earthquake.

“Pete, I’m leaving the church,” my wife, Geri, muttered quietly.

I sat still, too stunned to respond.

“I can’t take anymore of this stress—the constant crisis,” she continued.

Geri had been more than patient. Year after year, I had brought home constant pressure and tension from church. We had experienced eight unrelenting years of stress. Now the woman I had promised to love just as Christ loved the church was exhausted.

“I’m not doing it anymore,” she concluded. “This church is no longer life for me. It is death.”

I remember the day well. When a church member says, “I’m leaving the church,” most pastors don’t feel very good. But when your wife of nine years says it, your world is turned upside down.

“Pete, I love you, but I’m leaving the church,” she summarized very calmly. “I no longer respect your leadership.”

I was visibly shaken and didn’t know what to say or do. I felt ashamed, alone and angry. I tried raising my voice to intimidate her. “That is out of the question,” I bellowed. “All right, so I’ve made a few mistakes.”

But she calmly continued, “It’s not that simple. You don’t have the guts to lead—to confront the people who need to be confronted. You don’t lead. You’re too afraid that people will leave the church. You’re too afraid of what they’ll think about you.”

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I was outraged. “I’m getting to it!” I yelled defensively. “I’m working on it.” (For the previous two years, I really had been trying but somehow still wasn’t up to it.)

“Good for you, but I can’t wait anymore,” she replied.

There was a long pause of silence. Then she uttered the words that changed the balance of power in our marriage permanently: “Pete, I quit.” She was calm and resolute in her decision.

I was enraged. I understood at that moment how a husband could fly into a rage and hurt the wife he loves. A “good” Christian wife, married to a Christian (and a pastor, might I add) does not do this. This finally led me to a Christian counselor’s office. My initial hope was that he would straighten Geri out. I was dead wrong. Despite my initial blindness, over the next few months Jesus Christ radically transformed my life, marriage and leadership.

In fact, God met me in such an extraordinary way that I often refer to it as my second conversion. I finally grasped that emotional health and spiritual maturity are inseparable. Biblically, it is not possible for a Christian to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature. It soon became apparent why so many Christian leaders, like me, make such lousy human beings, why so many of us are exhausted, and why the gap between our role as leaders and the inner health of our souls is so wide.

This launched me into a radical journey that continues to this day. These last 17 years have been the best years of my life as a human being, a Christian, a husband, a father and a leader in God’s church. It has been a wonderful journey. I have learned that great joy is possible while serving as a leader in his church.

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The following are four things I wish a wise mentor had pressed me to integrate into my life and leadership 26 years ago when I planted New Life Fellowship Church. I, along with our church, would have avoided a great deal of unnecessary pain.

1. Slow Down for Sabbath

It was only 10 years ago that I cemented Sabbath-keeping into my life. I have never been the same since. I was like most pastors and leaders—too busy, working too many hours, emotionally and physically tired and expecting things to slow down once I could get over “one more hill.” The core issue is not whether you are working a 60- to 75-hour week. The real question is, are you practicing and enjoying Sabbath as a core spiritual formation discipline?

I have yet to meet a Christian leader who is unhurried and relaxed in Jesus and who is not practicing Sabbath. Why? Sabbath-keeping (or not) cuts to the core of our spirituality, the core of our convictions, the core of our leadership, the core of our lifestyles. Can we really trust God to build the church and care for the urgent needs around us?

The following are the four foundational qualities of biblical Sabbaths that have served me well in distinguishing a “day off” from a biblical Sabbath.

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Pete Scazzero

Pete Scazzero, after leading New Life Fellowship Church for 26 years, co-founded Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, a groundbreaking ministry that moves the church forward by slowing the church down in order to multiply deeply changed leaders and disciples. Pete hosts the top-ranked Emotionally Healthy Leader podcast and is the author of a number of bestselling books, including The Emotionally Healthy Leader and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Pete and his wife Geri also developed The Emotionally Healthy Discipleship Course (Part 1 and 2), a powerful resource that moves people from a shallow to a deep relationship with Jesus.