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.