Peter Scazzero: Emotionally Healthy Leadership (Part 1 of 2)

PART 1 of 2 parts

If you’ve heard anything of Peter Scazzero’s personal journey, you know the pivotal moment and the two words that catalyzed a transformation of his life and ministry.

“I quit!”

They were a decade into the planting of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, N.Y., when Scazzero’s wife Geri had finally had enough. She knew something was desperately wrong with how they were doing life and ministry. Something had to change, and the change was triggered Jan. 2, 1996, when she told him, “I quit,” and left the church.

That decision, and the hope that in time grew out of it, was the subject of her 2010 book, co-authored by her husband, I Quit! Stop Pretending Everything Is Fine and Change Your Life.

Out of the pain and promise of their experience—and the 19-year journey since that January night—Peter and Geri Scazzero have invested their energy in the integration of life skills and discipleship they call Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. It has played out in the church they still serve together, in their writing and speaking ministry, in their personal faith and, significantly, in their marriage.

With the release of his latest book, we explore the challenges and the possibilities of The Emotionally Healthy Leader.

Define an emotionally healthy leader. What does emotional health look like?

They’re operating emotionally and spiritually “full.” Their cup’s overflowing and they have a life with God that is sufficient to sustain their “doing” for God. They have a significant emotional awareness—they have faced their shadow. They know their good sides and their ugly sides, and how they impact their leadership. They have slowed down their lives to have a deep walk with God out of which they lead. And they’ve got some rhythms in their life—how they work and how they Sabbath—so that their life isn’t all work but has a biblical rhythm to it.

You’ve written a lot about emotional health as something that has not always characterized you.

In my first 17 years as a Christian, most of it was spent in leadership. I would say my discipleship was very much focused on biblical knowledge and how to lead. I brought those gifts to bear on planting the church. But what was lacking was an integration of emotional maturity and spiritual maturity. So in 1996, after 17 years as a Christian and eight years pastoring New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, I hit a wall and I didn’t have any theological framework for it—no biblical framework to integrate a healthy emotional component to my spiritual formation. There wasn’t a “slow-down” spiritual component either. Everything was doing—getting it done, building the church. There wasn’t a serious focus on the inner life and how that intersected with the outer life.

When I looked around me for healthy models, I found two extremes. On one extreme you had make-it-happen leaders—they were building big ministries, but were not very reflective. Then you had folks who were reflective, but they weren’t building organizations or churches either. I couldn’t point to and learn from folks who had a deep inner life and were building a ministry, organization or church, like I was trying to do.

I didn’t understand it at the time, but it was that integration that was lacking. So I would learn from people like Henry Cloud, Henri Nouwen and Dallas Willard, but they weren’t building organizations or churches. I was in inner city New York and very much committed to reaching people for Christ and building a healthy church that would multiply itself. In seminaries or leaders’ conferences we didn’t talk about these things—not in any kind of depth.

Oh, and one other thing about an emotionally healthy leader: They also lead out of their marriage or singleness. They’ve got a real integration spiritually of their vocation and whether they’re married or single that’s spiritually and theologically integrated. And that’s not a secondary issue. I didn’t understand the implications of that starting out.

James P. Long
James P. Long

James P. Long is the editor of Outreach magazine and is the author of a number of books, including Why Is God Silent When We Need Him the Most?