The Emotional, Relational, and Spiritual Health of the Small Group Leader

The Emotional, Relational, and Spiritual Health of the Small Group Leader

Mindy Caliguire is an author and co-founder of Soul Care

With a long history in ministry, Mindy Caliguire is a leading voice in the realm of soul care. In our busy, checklist, live-on-mission culture—for far too many people—breathing deeply, slowing down, and living as a whole person of faith is a misty dream. In 1998, Mindy and her husband, Jeff, founded Soul Care as a ministry “dedicated to helping people to restore health to their souls.” Since that time, she has written, trained, coached, and modeled a new (and yet ancient) way to live. Even if you are a leader far from the edge of burning out or breaking down this is for you! So, grab a cup of coffee, find a comfortable chair, and for the next several moments let Mindy care for your soul.

Mindy, the care of the soul has been your passion for over twenty years. What first motivated you to focus your life and ministry on this important topic?

It all started with my own recovery from severe soul neglect. As I got healthy, I began to realize how many faithful followers of Jesus, and often leaders, were also suffering from toxic and unsustainable ways of doing life and ministry. So, it all came from that season and God’s delightful invitation to life.

Who are some of the key voices who have influenced you as you journey in this ministry?

There have been so many! Henry Cloud, Lynne Hybels, Gerald May, Thomas Kelly, John Ortberg, and Dallas Willard. More recently, Jim Wilder, Ellen Duffield, Janet Hagburg—so many amazing people.

The word “health,” when it’s connected to other terms like emotional, relational, and spiritual, can mean different things to different people. It’s important that we start here. How do you define “health?”

When we speak of healthy economy or a healthy “dose” of something, we usually mean it is operating well or in an abundant state. One dictionary defines health in terms of what it is not, “the state of being free from illness or injury,” but they don’t exactly say what it is.

I tend to think in very simple terms, so here’s a definition: health is the state of a thing operating as it should; optimal vibrancy and functioning as intended.

Unhealth would reflect a diminished state; something that is “not the way it’s supposed to be” (Cornelius Plantinga). Illness or injury is not the way it’s supposed to be.

A healthy kitten, child, or plant calls to mind a certain image. An unhealthy one, well it could be unhealthy in a myriad of ways. But whatever the root cause, whatever the resulting symptom, it is not functioning in the ideal way for that thing.

Health is the state of intended, right, or optimal functioning.

I’ve asked you to tackle a massive topic in a short space. But given that constraint would you give a few indicators for each of the three areas that help a leader recognize when they are operating from an unhealthy place?

The soul integrates and sustains all the dimensions of our personhood, including the mind, relationships, etc. So, we can’t quite isolate these categories from one another, but I’ll give it a go!

Indicators of Emotional Unhealth:
Healthy emotions serve us really well, even the painful ones. For example, when we feel pain, we recognize something isn’t right and needs to be addressed. With fear, we can see trouble ahead and move forward with wisdom. Health means we feel the full range of human emotions—excitement and sorrow and anticipation and dread and on and on. Dallas Willard said, our emotions are terrific servants, but terrible masters. And so that’s where emotional unhealth can come in.

When we are ruled by fear or anger or pride, we experience emotional unhealth. So denial, projection, or repression of emotions (usually painful ones) are all symptoms of unhealth.

This can show up when we routinely blame others for whatever is going on in our life or when we numb the pain of our emotions in self-destructive ways with alcohol, self-harm, or even procrastination. Another way that leaders can exhibit emotional unhealth is by simply refusing to reflect on their own interior worlds.

Indicators of Relational Unhealth:
Similarly, healthy relationships are marked by open communication, general harmony, kindness, and humility. They seek to protect the “other”.

When we are operating from relational unhealth, we are defensive, self-aggrandizing, and unaware and/or unconcerned for the wellbeing of others around us.

Lately, I’ve been learning more about attachment styles: how they form, how they can be malformed, and how they can be transformed. This is a huge area for future healing and growth! Relational unhealth ultimately leads to an inability to form strong attachments to others.

I’m learning more about some of these indicators published through Dr. Wilder’s (and others’) work, but these are six symptoms that one’s relationship center in the brain has been switched “off” and significantly diminishes our ability to function well in all dimensions.

See how many of these might be true for you today?

The Life Model Works Checklist:

  1. I just want to make a problem, person, or feeling go away.
  2. I don’t want to listen to what others feel or say.
  3. My mind is “locked on” something upsetting.
  4. I don’t want to be connected to _______ (someone I usually like).
  5. I just want to get away, fight, or I freeze.
  6. I more aggressively interrogate, judge, and fix others.

Indicators of Spiritual Unhealth:
The areas above are all rooted in spiritual realities. Yet it can be helpful to explore this dimension as well.

The essence of spiritual health is our connected, rooted, loving, lavish, and current connection with God. The essence of unhealth is disconnection from our Source; our Life. “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

Meister Eckhart wrote, “God is at home, it is we who have gone for a walk” And even then, where exactly could we walk away that God is not also there?

I recall that one of my younger brothers would sometimes shut his eyes tightly when he knew he’d done something wrong. Clearly mom was still there, usually cracking up at whatever had spilled or whichever toy had been swiped from a sibling. But for him, in that moment, he could make her go away.

I think that’s what we do in our relationship with God. Our ever-present, ever-loving, ever- leaning-towards-us-God is yet nearer than our very breath; and yet we turn away. Sometimes for a moment and sometimes it’s been a very long time since we just opened our eyes.

Our self-imposed blindness could be provoked by shame (deserved or undeserved) or simple distractions.

But nonetheless, we have lost contact.

Is it possible to flip that around and look at the healthy indicators?

This should be much easier… and more fun!

Indicators of Emotional Health:
The dominant experience in emotional health is Shalom. Peace. An integrated, stable, fundamentally well disposition. Emotional health means we are self-aware, others-aware, self-controlled, and capable of empathy.

Indicators of Relational Health:
In relational health, we have an absence of fear as a driver of our behavior towards others. Whether fear of rejection or fear of abandonment or fear of abuse or neglect, we have a settled spirit. We can form strong bonds with safe people. We feel safe in the context of being known deeply and cared for sincerely.

Indicators of Spiritual Health:
I think a simple indicator of spiritual health is one’s capacity for a genuine conversational relationship with God—intimacy, the way a friendship would be. You and God going through this life together. I know when I’ve lost this, I begin to feel “untethered”. The discomfort draws me back. Various practices help create space in my life for this ongoing connection with God.

Within a conversational relationship with God, the stuff of life can get sorted out. Or at least met with One in whom the pressures of the day, or the moment, find their right place.

Need direction for a decision? Need help facing a chronic temptation? Feeling thankful for many gifts in your life? Feeling concerned about the future? Feeling regret? Strike up that conversation. And even if you don’t sense God’s presence, if God chooses to be silent or hidden (Luke 24), you can just continue to be present with God in silence. This too is good for your mind, and for your soul.

How are leaders more stretched and challenged than the “normal” member of a group?

Given all the important things that people might bring to a small group, I don’t think leaders are more stretched than group members, but rather stretched in unique ways. Leaders rightly feel a distinct concern for the wellbeing and growth of those in their group. Hopefully, they are praying for those in their group. This is huge! Leaders may also be stretched to go first—especially when it comes to sharing their authentic wrestling with God on the journey.

Let’s talk about preventative measures. Just like preventative physical health measures, what are some spiritual habits or disciplines that leaders should incorporate into their lives?

Lately, I’m challenging leaders with a simple premise: you need a page, a person, and a plan. These could take many forms.

But ultimately, you need a blank page as a non-directive invitation to self-reflection, and a plan for the many dimensions of your life: marriage, physical health, sabbath/rest, etc.

You need a person outside your leadership structure with whom you can be COMPLETELY HONEST

And you need a plan to address the interconnected dimensions of your whole self: fitness, nutrition, sleep, play and creativity, learning, vocation, family and friends, etc.

At we are working to help leaders on all three of these important fronts. We have resources for journaling and for professional leadership coaches and spiritual directors to walk with leaders towards health in as little as 90 days. And we are working on tools to help leaders shape and live into a multi-faceted plan. Join our mailing list to keep up with our latest developments.

We’ve all interacted with leaders who are exhausted and ready to throw in the towel (sometimes we are that leader). When you coach such a person how do you encourage them?

Not to sound like a broken record, but first, I’d ask who close to them is aware of how they are actually doing—knowing the answer may likely be “no one”, then I’d first recommend they find a safe person with whom to process what’s going on.

Then I always ask about their real-time, in the moment, connection with God. What is helping that? Sometimes leaders are bound up with rules of what has “worked” in the past to help them experience God’s presence.

Is journaling a bore? Stop.

Is your “quiet time” a chore? Stop.

You’re not doing God any favors. Instead, embark on a new journey! What makes you feel alive to God? Rediscover that.

You might just really need a nap. You might need to know you have options; that you’re not trapped in your circumstances.

Some reading this are leaders of the ministry while others lead a small group. Would you address each of those contexts? First, how does a small group director develop a genuinely healthy ministry? And what words of advice would you offer the small group leader to foster a healthy small group?

Before caring about a healthy ministry, I truly hope leaders will prioritize the health of their own souls and the health of their leaders’ souls.

Beyond that foundation, small group ministry leaders can cast vision for what genuine life with God can be, and how people at varying stages of development can take appropriate next steps to develop that conversational relationship with God rather than just going through the motions of church culture.

For group leaders themselves, you guys are the HEARTBEAT of DISCIPLE-MAKING!!! You are showing up for actual people with actual love and actual presence and genuine concern. That is the entire game!! As you get healthier and healthier, you will find God’s spirit moving in you and through you into the lives of others. The life of God in you will spill over into other’s lives.

I wrote two books directly focused on these topics, perhaps they would be helpful for leaders here. Spiritual Friendship is a great book for leaders and can even be used as curriculum for a group if you want to really open up the conversations to the real stuff. And for ministry leaders, STIR: Spiritual Transformation in Relationship walks through stages of spiritual development and practical ways to support growth in each stage.

I think many of us are tempted by the quick lists, the easy answers, and the silver bullets. When we hit a wall or are running on fumes it’s common to look to surface solutions. How do you encourage people in such situations to go deeper?

I find that people actually don’t want those surface solutions. They’ve been burned by that false hope far too many times, but the problem is they don’t see an alternative. Usually, they’re excited to think that there may truly be a way forward.

I’ve honestly only known a few leaders who were so addicted to their image and to performance that they couldn’t learn to relax and just be—in their own skin, with someone in authentic relationship, and in an unagenda-ed way with God.

One friend recently texted me, “You know what’s weird? Feeling like I might have been tremendously wrong about assuming that I had to do everything on my own.”

I think it’s kind of like that. Whatever effort helps us once again open our eyes to the God who is near, helps us take a deep breath, relax our shoulders, and ask for help. We quickly find it’s a much better way to live. And to lead.

What didn’t I ask you that I should have?

You didn’t ask what my hope is for the future and I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit lately.

I believe the events of this last year have exposed many unfortunate realities in our world, and particularly in the church. Yet at the same time, we have been slowed. We have been quieted. We have been isolated and afraid. We ate meals at home; perhaps we read and rested more.
My hope coming out of 2020 is that we come to a collective deep refusal to return to driven, toxic, unproductive ways of doing life and ministry. How many more headline failures and losses need to happen? For how much longer will we be addicted to our drivenness in God’s name, that invariably yanks us away from God? When do we get to say a collective “good riddance” to the former things? When do we get to say, ENOUGH OF THIS? I think the time is now.

That is my great hope for the beginning of whatever threshold we stand on here in January 2021. That we can courageously walk a new path, even if we don’t yet fully know what that path will be. But I hope we have enough collective awareness to stop the madness and carve, if not demand a new way in our leadership systems and structures.

OK, that’s my rant. And my great prayer and my full confidence of what courageous decisions lie before us.

Mindy, I can’t thank you enough for sharing with us. If this generates deeper questions, how can someone best reach out to you?

Happy to talk with your readers.

You can reach me at I occasionally consult with organizations to develop soul health in their context. The Soul Care Spiritual Directors and Leadership Coaches can be reached through and the books I mentioned are these:


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