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 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.
Images of Unhealthy Leadership
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 or temperaments. The quality of music and effectiveness leading people to the presence of Jesus as 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.
This 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.
How Healthy Is Your Leadership?
Being an emotionally unhealthy leader is not an all-or-nothing condition; it operates on a continuum that ranges from mild to severe, and may change from one season of life and ministry to the next. Use the list of statements that follow to get an idea of where you're at right now. Next to each statement, write down the number that best describes your response. Use the following scale:
5 = Always true of me
4 = Frequently true of me
3 = Occasionally true of me
2 = Rarely true of me
1 = Never true of me
1. I take sufficient time to experience and process difficult emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness.
2. I am able to identify how issues from my family of origin impact my relationships and leadership—both negatively and positively.
3. (If married): The way I spend my time and energy reflects the value that my marriage—not leadership—is my first priority.
3. (If single): The way I spend my time and energy reflects the value that living out a healthy singleness—not leadership—is my first priority.
4. (If married): I experience a direct connection between my oneness with Jesus and oneness with my spouse.
4. (If single): I experience a direct connection between my oneness with Jesus and closeness with my friends and family.
5. No matter how busy I am, I consistently practice the spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence.
6. I regularly read Scripture and pray in order to enjoy communion with God and not just in service of leading others.
7. I practice Sabbath—a weekly 24-hour period in which I stop my work, rest, and delight in God's many gifts.
8. I view Sabbath as a spiritual discipline that is essential for both my personal life and my leadership.
9. I take time to practice prayerful discernment when making plans and decisions.
10. I measure the success of planning and decision-making primarily in terms of discerning and doing God's will (rather than exclusively by measures such as attendance growth, excellence in programming, or expanded impact in the world).
11. With those who report to me, I consistently devote a portion of my supervision time to help them in their inner life with God.
12. I do not avoid difficult conversations with team members about their performance or behavior.
13. I feel comfortable talk about the use of power in connection with my role and that of others.
14. I have articulated and established healthy boundaries in relationships that have overlapping roles (for example, with friends and family who are also employees or key volunteers, etc.)
15. Instead of avoiding endings and losses, I embrace them and see them as a fundamental part of the way God works.
16. I am able to prayerfully and thoughtfully let go of initiatives, volunteers, or programs when they aren't working well, doing so clearly and with compassion.
Peter Scazzero is the Founder of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, NYC, a large, multiracial, international church with 73 countries represented. After serving as Senior Pastor for 26 years, Pete now serves as a Teaching Pastor/Pastor at Large. Taken from The Emotionally Healthy Leader by Peter Scazzero. Copyright 2015 by Peter Scazzero. Used by permission of Zondervan.