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."

First, I stop. Sabbath is first and foremost a day of “stopping.” “To stop” is built into the literal meaning of the Hebrew word Sabbath. I stop all paid and unpaid work.

Second, I rest. Once we stop, Sabbath calls us to rest. What do we do to replace all we are now stopping during our Sabbath time? The answer is simply whatever delights and replenishes you. I purposely engage in ideas and people who get my mind off even the thought of work! That includes napping, working out, going for long walks, reading a novel, watching a good movie, going out for dinner. I avoid the computer and cell phone.

For example, in my case, work relates to my vocation as pastor of New Life Fellowship Church, along with writing and speaking. For this reason, Friday night at 6 p.m. to Saturday night at 6 p.m. is my Sabbath.

Third, I delight. Very few of us as pastors have much play or delight in our lives. Sabbath revolves around delighting in what we have been given. God delighted over his creation on the first Sabbath (Gen. 1:31). We are to do the same. We are to take the time to see the beauty of a tree, a leaf, a flower. We are to pay attention to the things that give us delight. For me that includes reading, hiking, nature, the beach, music, traveling and spending time with extended family.

Finally, I contemplate. Sabbath is a day to focus, particularly, on seeing the invisible (God) in the visible and the physical. In other words, I slow down to acknowledge God in all of the creation around me—from nature to food to people to beauty to music. Our short earthly time as church leaders is put in perspective as we look forward to our eternal Sabbath rest when God’s kingdom will fully come. Trust me: learning to practice Sabbath in today’s world is not optional spiritual formation discipline. It is the anchor out of which we invite our people to slow down to be with Jesus, themselves and others.

2. Pay Attention to Your Triggers

According to Robert Hogan, an industrial psychologist and professor, two-thirds of the people currently in leadership will fail; they will be fired, demoted or “kicked upstairs.” The most common reason will be their inability to build or maintain a team. Why? Certain dysfunctional tendencies, which lie outside their awareness, only reveal themselves when people are under significant stress or lack rest. These deeply ingrained personality traits cause gifted leaders to act in illogical ways—making poor decisions, alienating key people, missing opportunities and overlooking obvious trends around them.

I have seen many church leaders rise and fall over the last three decades.

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Every leader has significant vulnerabilities and “derailers.” Emotionally healthy leaders are acutely aware of them and manage them well. Invest the time to surround yourself with key people who can speak into your life—whether they be mentors, coaches, spiritual directors or therapists. Everyone around you will be glad you did.

3. Lead Out of Your Marriage (If Applicable)

Contemporary expectations for the marriage of Christian leaders go something like this: “Be sure your marriage and family are stable and solid so you can build the church.” Our understanding is that we lead and we are married. This is very different than leading out of the vow of our marriage. That involves a marital love so full and overflowing that it gives birth to life in others. In doing so, it reflects the love of the Trinity that overflows in the creation of humanity.

God’s intention is that our marriages be our greatest gift to the church and the world. Our marriages are to be our loudest sermon, proclaiming that the ultimate destiny of human beings is to be married eternally to Jesus.

I never heard this in seminary or at leadership conferences.

Yet, the oneness of love of a married couple is unlike anything on earth. It is an incredible revelation that is meant to point to the very purpose of life—marriage and union to Jesus. Married love is the prime example of how Jesus loves the world. It is to be filled with passion, devotion and generosity, uniquely reflecting Christ’s love. People are to look at our marriages and say, “Wow. Now that is a taste of heaven!” Few of us learned that from our families growing up or from mentors.

Simply put, if you are married, you cannot live as if you are single. The marriage vow, along with any children that may have flowed from that vow, is meant to inform your entire life. Your number one job description, after loving Jesus, is to convince your spouse that they are loved and lovable. Very few Christian leaders invest time, energy or money in getting equipped to have such a great marriage. Yet this is one of the greatest gifts we can offer our church. Paul wrote, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32).

As goes the leader’s marriage, so goes the church. This biblical vision is a Copernican revolution that is meant to transform you, your marriage, your church and the world.

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4. Embrace Limits

One of the greatest temptations for leaders today is to ignore God’s gift of limits and do work for him that he never asked us to do. I spent a large part of my years as a senior pastor trying to be someone I was not. I tried to be like other “successful” leaders.

The problem was that God has not given me the abilities and capacities he had given those other leaders. I brought other strengths to leading a local church. My unwillingness to accept the reality of my God-given limits led me down paths of overcommitment He never intended. As a result, pastoring slowly grew into a burden and a weight.

King David accepted God’s “no” to build a great temple with humility and brokenness (2 Sam. 7). John the Baptist embraced his limits as crowds that formerly followed him began leaving to follow Jesus (John 3:22–30). For a long time I wondered, why do so few of us joyfully embrace our God-given limits? Over the past few years, I have discovered answers that lie deep beneath the surface of our lives.

The first is related to our sense of self. If our identity comes from our work or accomplishments, then stopping and surrendering to limits can be quite terrifying. We will discover that we don’t know who we are apart from our “doing” and activity.

The second root relates to shame. Shame is an intensely painful feeling or experience of being flawed. We feel defective, that we are behind, that something is wrong with us as leaders. Marjorie Thompson notes that guilt is about what we have done (“I did something bad”) while shame is about who we are (“I am bad”). The church is never big or good enough. So we keep going. We rebel and violate God’s gift of limits. This cruel, hidden taskmaster of shame is much more pervasive among us than we care to admit, driving us unconsciously to overachieve and overwork.

What, then, is the antidote to heal these two roots so deep beneath the surface of our lives? The love of God. God alone has the power to heal us from shame and ground our sense of who we are in him. He alone offers the grace to move us from feelings of being defective to enjoy a new identity as a deeply loved son or daughter (see Luke 15:11–24).

My invitation to you is to walk through a door and slowly move toward becoming an emotionally healthy leader who does four things:

Slows down for Sabbath

Pays attention to your triggers

Leads out of your marriage; and 

Embraces your limits.

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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.