The Emotionally Unhealthy Leader
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What first comes to mind when you think of an emotionally unhealthy leader? Or perhaps a better question might be, Who first comes to mind? Is it a boss, a staff member, a colleague? Or perhaps you? How would you describe this person? Is it someone who is chronically angry, controlling, aggressive? Or perhaps someone who is avoidant, inauthentic, passive? While emotionally unhealthy leadership expresses itself in all these ways and many more, the foundational definition of an emotionally unhealthy leader is perhaps both simpler and more multifaceted than you might expect:
The emotionally unhealthy leader is someone who operates in a continuous state of emotional and spiritual deficit, lacking emotional maturity and a "being with God" sufficient to sustain their "doing for God."
When we talk about emotionally unhealthy Christian leaders, we are referring to the emotional and spiritual deficits that impact every aspect of their lives. Emotional deficits are manifested primarily by a pervasive lack of awareness. Unhealthy leaders lack, for example, awareness of their feelings, their weaknesses and limits, how their past impacts their present, and how others experience them. They also lack the capacity and skill to enter deeply into the feelings and perspectives of others. They carry these immaturities with them into their teams and everything they do.
Spiritual deficits typically reveal themselves in too much activity. Unhealthy leaders engage in more activities than their combined spiritual, physical, and emotional reserves can sustain. They give out for God more than they receive from him. They serve others in order to share the joy of Christ, but that joy remains elusive to themselves. The demands and pressures of leadership make it nearly impossible for them to establish a consistent and sustainable rhythm of life. In their more honest moments, they admit that their cup with God is empty or, at best, half full, hardly overflowing with the divine joy and love they proclaim to others.
As a result, emotionally unhealthy leaders skim when building their ministries. Rather than following the apostle Paul's example of building with materials that will last—gold, silver, and costly stones (1 Corinthians 3:10–15)—they settle for something like wood, straw, and mud. They build with inferior materials that will not stand the test of a generation, let alone the fire of final judgment. In the process, they obscure the beauty of Christ they say they want the whole world to see. No well-intentioned leader would set out to lead this way, but it happens all the time.
Consider a few examples from the everyday lives of leaders you may recognize.
Sara is an overwhelmed youth pastor who needs help, but she always finds a reason to avoid enlisting a team of adult volunteers who could come alongside her and expand the ministry. It's not because she lacks leadership gifts, but because she is defensive and easily offended when others disagree with her. The youth group stagnates and slowly declines.
Joseph is a dynamic worship leader who nevertheless keeps losing key volunteers because of his lateness and spontaneity. He doesn't see how his "style" alienates people who have different temperaments. Thinking he is just being "authentic" and true to who he is, he's not willing to make changes or accommodate other styles and temperaments. The quality of music and effectiveness leading people to the presence of Jesus at weekend services diminish as volunteers with gifts in music and programming drop out of the worship team.
Jake is the volunteer director of the small group ministry at his church. Under his leadership, the ministry has begun to flourish—four new groups have formed in the last three months! Twenty-five people, previously unconnected, now meet every other week to share their lives as they grow in Christ together. Beneath the excitement, however, cracks are beginning to show. The group leader in the fastest-growing group is new to the church and appears to be taking the group in a different direction than the larger church. Jake is worried, but he avoids talking to him, fearful the conversation may not go well. Another small group leader has mentioned in passing that things aren't going well at home. In yet another group, one troublesome member is talking way too much, and the group is rapidly losing people. The group leader has asked Jake for help, but he is trying to avoid getting involved. While greatly loved by most, Jake is conflict averse. He secretly hopes the issue will somehow resolve itself without involving him. Over the next six months, three of the four new small groups close.
The list of examples could go on and on, but I think you get the point. When we devote ourselves to reaching the world for Christ while ignoring our own emotional and spiritual health, our leadership is shortsighted at best. At worst, we are negligent, needlessly hurting others and undermining God's desire to expand his kingdom through us. Leadership is hard. It involves suffering. But there is a big difference between suffering for the gospel as Paul describes (2 Timothy 2:8) and needless suffering that is a result of our unwillingness to honestly engage difficult and challenging leadership tasks.
Four Characteristics of the Emotionally Unhealthy Leader
The deficits of emotionally unhealthy leaders impact virtually every area of their lives and leadership. However, the damage is especially evident in four characteristics: low self-awareness, prioritizing ministry over marriage/singleness, doing too much for God, and failing to practice a Sabbath rhythm.
They Have Low Self-Awareness
Emotionally unhealthy leaders tend to be unaware of what is going on inside them. And even when they recognize a strong emotion such as anger, they fail to process or express it honestly and appropriately. They ignore emotion-related messages their body may send—fatigue, stress-induced illness, weight gain, ulcers, headaches, or depression. They avoid reflecting on their fears, sadness, or anger. They fail to consider how God might be trying to communicate with them through these "difficult" emotions. They struggle to articulate the reasons for their emotional triggers, their overreactions in the present rooted in difficult experiences from their past.
While these leaders may have benefited from personal and leadership inventories such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, StrengthsFinder, or the DiSC profile, they remain unaware of how issues from their family of origin have impacted who they are today. This lack of emotional awareness also extends to their personal and professional relationships in their inability to read and resonate with the emotional world of others. In fact, they are often blind to the emotional impact they have on others, especially in their leadership role. Perhaps you'll recognize this dynamic in Sam's story.
Sam, age forty-seven, is senior pastor of a church whose attendance has plateaued. It's Tuesday morning and he's sitting in his usual place at the head of the table for the weekly staff meeting. Also around the table are Sam's ministry assistant, the assistant pastor, the youth director, the children's pastor, the worship leader, and the church administrator. After opening in prayer, Sam updates the team on the attendance figures and finances for the past nine months. It's a topic that's been on the agenda before, but this time there's a sharpness in Sam's demeanor, and everyone in the room knows he's not happy.
"How are we going to buy a new building so we can reach more people for Christ if we aren't growing now?" he asks. Everyone is suddenly quiet as a painfully tense atmosphere fills the room. "We've added only twenty people since January, not nearly enough to meet our goal of seventy-five adults by the end of the year."
Sam's frustration and anxiety are palpable. Sam's assistant tries to ease the tension by mentioning how the bad weather this past winter almost shut down the church on two Sundays. Surely, that had an impact on the numbers. But Sam quickly dismisses her comment, noting the issues are much deeper than that. Though he hasn't come right out and said it, it's clear Sam blames the staff for the shortfall.
Sam feels justified in forcing the difficult questions and confronting the hard data. I'm just trying to help us be good stewards of God's resources, he tells himself. We are paid with the tithes of people. We all need to work hard and smart to earn our salaries. Hey, there are volunteers around here who give ten to fifteen hours a week for no pay at all! But even he is a little surprised by how angry he feels and the harshness in his tone.
Still, it hasn't occurred to him that his heightened frustration might have anything to do with an e-mail he got the day before. Someone from out of town sent him a link to a news article about the rapid growth of a church plant just ten miles away and asked if Sam knew the new pastor. Sam's stomach immediately knotted and his shoulders tightened when he read it. He knew better than to compare and be competitive when it comes to ministry, but he couldn't help but resent the new pastor and his success. Though he can't admit it even to himself, he also felt insecure—afraid some of the younger families might leave to be part of a more exciting church.
After giving everyone around the table a week to identify three ways to improve programs and performance, Sam dispenses with the rest of the agenda and abruptly ends the meeting. He has no clue how his lack of self-awareness is negatively impacting him, his staff, and the church.
They Prioritize Ministry over Marriage or Singleness
Whether married or single, most emotionally unhealthy leaders affirm the importance of a healthy intimacy in relationships and lifestyle, but few, if any, have a vision for their marriage or singleness as the greatest gift they offer. Instead, they view their marriage or singleness as an essential and stable foundation for something more important—building an effective ministry, which is their first priority. As a result, they invest the best of their time and energy in becoming better equipped as a leader, and invest very little in cultivating a great marriage or single life that reveals Jesus' love to the world.
Emotionally unhealthy leaders tend to compartmentalize their married or single life, separating it from both their leadership and their relationship with Jesus. For example, they might make significant leadership decisions without thinking through the long-term impact those decisions could have on the quality and integrity of their single or married life. They dedicate their best energy, thought, and creative efforts to leading others, and they fail to invest in a rich and full married or single life. Consider the story of Luis.
Luis, a twenty-seven-year-old youth pastor, serves on staff at a small but fast-growing church—in the last three years, attendance has grown from 150 to almost 250 people. It's past 10:00 p.m. on a Thursday night and Luis is working late—again. The weeknight student Bible study he teaches wrapped up almost an hour ago, but he's still at his desk sending e-mails and catching up. On top of his regular job, he's taken on the responsibility for launching a number of new community outreach initiatives as a follow-up to their record-setting Easter attendance. When Luis first started working at the church three years ago, he thought the intense pace would eventually settle down, but it hasn't. If anything, it's only gotten faster.
Luis loves his job, and he doesn't mind taking on the extra projects, but his hours are starting to become an issue at home. Throughout their four-year marriage, his wife, Sofia, has always been his biggest cheerleader, affirming his gifts and encouraging him to follow God's call into ministry. But lately she's been less supportive. She even admitted she sometimes feels jealous of his job and wonders if he loves the church more than he loves her. He reasons that maybe she's just tired. Their first baby is due in six months, and it's been a difficult pregnancy. Maybe that's the reason she's lost sight of how important this work is.
Luis wonders, How can I give less than my best to the church when people's lives and eternities are at stake? She has to understand that. As he finally closes his laptop and turns off the lights, Luis breathes a prayer: God, please ignite Sofia with a new vision for what you are doing in the church. He doesn't realize he is hurting his spouse and that his prayer for her isn't going to change that.
They Do More Activity for God than Their Relationship with God Can Sustain
Emotionally unhealthy leaders are chronically overextended. Although they routinely have too much to do in too little time, they persist in saying a knee-jerk yes to new opportunities before prayerfully and carefully discerning God's will. The notion of a slowed-down spirituality—or slowed-down leadership—in which their doing for Jesus flows out of their being with Jesus is a foreign concept.
If they think of it at all, spending time in solitude and silence is viewed as a luxury or something best suited for a different kind of leader, not part of their core spiritual practices or essential for effective leadership. Their first priority is leading their organization, team, or ministry as a means of impacting the world for Christ. If you were to ask them to list their top three priorities for how they spend their time as a leader, it's unlikely that cultivating a deep, transformative relationship with Jesus would make the list. As a result, fragmentation and depletion constitute the "normal" condition for their lives and their leadership. You may recognize yourself or someone you know in Carly's story.
Carly is a thirty-four-year-old worship leader at an 800-person church. She grew into this role beginning as a volunteer musician ten years ago when attendance was less than 100 people. In addition to leading a volunteer worship team and planning weekend services, Carly oversees the programming team. It's a huge job involving dozens of volunteers as well as four paid staff, but somehow she makes it look easy. In fact, she's so good at what she does that every year Barry, the assistant pastor and her supervisor, challenges her to take on more responsibilities.
Lately, however, Carly hasn't been keeping up. She's showed up late for meetings, missed a couple minor deadlines, and neglected to return important phone calls. Even with these recent misses, she trusts that things must be okay because her work at church is flourishing. But in her more honest moments, she has doubts. How can things be going so well on the outside when I feel like I'm dying on the inside?
Between morning meetings, the semi-regular crises of people on her team, and things to do at home, she doesn't have much time for herself or a lot of energy left over to spend time with God in prayer or Scripture. Every week it's a battle just to get to the grocery store, cook some semi-healthy meals, exercise, and do a few loads of laundry. The speeding ticket she got last week is an accurate reflection of her life—she's going way too fast. "I feel like I'm so swamped building the church and creating environments for others to meet God," she told Barry recently, "that I wonder if I lost Jesus somewhere along the way. I need something to help me feel connected to God again."
Barry was sympathetic and understanding. He suggested a few books that had been helpful to him and offered to pay for Carly to attend an upcoming training conference for worship leaders. But no book or conference will address the underlying issues in Carly's life or give her what she really needs—time to slow down for God, for others, and, most importantly, herself.
They Lack a Work/Sabbath Rhythm
Emotionally unhealthy leaders do not practice Sabbath—a weekly, twenty-four-hour period in which they cease all work and rest, delight in God's gifts, and enjoy life with him. They might view Sabbath observance as irrelevant, optional, or even a burdensome legalism that belongs to an ancient past. Or they may make no distinction between the biblical practice of Sabbath and a day off, using "Sabbath" time for the unpaid work of life, such as paying bills, grocery shopping, and errands. If they practice Sabbath at all, they do so inconsistently, believing they need to first finish all their work or work hard enough to "earn" the right to rest. Notice this dynamic in John's story.
John is a fifty-six-year-old denominational leader responsible for overseeing more than sixty churches. He hasn't had a real vacation—the kind where you don't check e-mail or write anything—for several years, let alone practiced a weekly Sabbath. It's early Saturday morning and he's having coffee with Craig, a longtime pastor friend, before heading to the office to catch up on e-mails and write a monthly report that was due last week.
"John, you look beat," Craig says. "When was the last time you took a day off and really rested?"