By Ben Mandrell
COVID-19 has created an alternate universe, it seems.
If you have kids living under your roof, solitude and silence have seen a steep decline. No matter how extroverted you might be, having time to yourself is essential to your emotional health.
Even Jesus needed to refuel for the challenges ahead: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he got up, went out, and made his way to a deserted place; and there he was praying” (Mark 1:35 CSB).
In the midst of this pandemic, how would you score your emotional health?
Pete Scazzero, founder of Emotionally Healthy Discipleship and author of The Emotionally Healthy Leader, defines emotional health this way: “Leading and serving out of an overflow of your life in Jesus—not giving something you don’t possess. It’s a look at the whole person.”
I recently talked with Pete about the emotional health of pastors. At one point the discussion veered toward people who get hurt when pastors stop taking care of themselves emotionally and spiritually.
Pete touched on the impact of a pastor’s emotional unhealth on a spouse. This caused me to ponder some other people in a pastor’s life—and how these relationships suffer when you aren’t “leading and serving out of an overflow.”
Here are five relationships to put under the microscope.
1. Your relationship with your spouse
While planting a church in Denver, my wife, Lynley, and I noticed church business was taking over our entire life together and consuming most of our energy.
Even on date nights, we found ourselves discussing the church’s problems, and we stopped brainstorming the fun topics—like the next trip to take with the kids or the next movie we hoped to see together. Our friendship, once vibrant and full, was beginning to starve.
Sometimes the greatest problem for church leader matrimony is the constant pressure pastors place on themselves to grow the ministry, to be “successful.”
Kent Hughes, who pastored for decades in Chicago, wrote a book called Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome.
In it, he admits the hurdles he faced mentally as a rookie: “I had bought into the idea that success meant increased numbers. To me, success in the ministry meant growth in attendance. Ultimate success meant a big, growing church.”
It was that unholy expectation that turned his mood sour and created weight inside his marriage.
Once he realized the self-imposed pressure, Hughes was able to shift his thinking to more biblical goals. And he felt liberated by the change.
Are you and your spouse building your friendship and making new memories, or is growing the church in the headwind of a pandemic the all-consuming topic? Has marriage been reduced to a mere ministry partnership?
2. Your relationship with your kids
Leading at home is often more difficult than leading at the church. You’re human—you carry church burdens home with you, and your kids sense it. What you choose to do with the burden is what makes or breaks them.
Years ago, at a retreat with fellow pastors, a wise, retired pastor had been invited to speak into our lives for two consecutive days. He shared lessons he learned through struggle.
He described the crushing guilt he carried because his son had left the faith:
“Over the years, my wife and I would stand in the kitchen, downloading the day, and I’d recount the mean things church people had said to me. I formed a habit of speaking ill of the saints. My son was usually listening close by as I spilled the poison, and we began to notice his hardness of heart growing toward the people we sat beside on Sunday.”
That pastor challenged us to seek out private study for these kinds of conversations. Pay attention to the “life or death” contained in the tongue.
The people inside your homes see the person behind the mask, and what they see at home is far more impactful than what they hear in the pulpit.
3. Your relationship with your staff/volunteers
When you’re emotionally unhealthy, you’re impatient with the leaders God has placed around you. It’s unlikely they’re all high-performing or that they have equal talent and giftedness. Yet they’re yours to love.
How would they describe you in an anonymous survey? Would they say you’re short-tempered? Do they feel used? Do they walk on eggshells around you?
While the people who serve on our paid staff or volunteer team are there to serve the Lord and the congregation, they’re also there to be served (by you) through discipleship and development in their gifts.
If you mainly see the people who serve under your leadership as commodities to prop you up, help you build a following, or cater to your whims, it’s likely you have an unhealthy posture on growing your church instead of growing people.
Take a moment and think about where you stand with them; pray for a change in attitude toward them if you’ve been less than loving and affirming of their efforts.
4. Your relationship with the people in your church
At one point in our conversation Pete said, “We’ve allowed ourselves to build churches without really knowing what’s going on inside people’s lives.”
When pastors are emotionally full, they allow themselves to be closely connected with their flock.
When pastors are emotionally unhealthy, they isolate themselves from their flock, not leaving space for relationships with those they lead. Pastors in this emotional condition may be so focused on the future version their church they overlook the present version.
And sometimes this “overlooking” can happen in the literal sense.
It’s not uncommon for pastors, out of worldly ambition, to look around the room for someone who seems more critical to their ministry success (however they define that) than the person who’s actually engaged with them in conversation.
Take a moment and think of the last three meandering conversations you had with a church member—particularly one who wasn’t being recruited for a leadership role.
Taking care of the sheep means spending time with them.
5. Your relationship with the Lord
This is obviously the linchpin of it all. Are you taking time to delight in the Lord? To sabbath?
You can do all the course corrections you want, but none of it matters if you’re not abiding in Jesus. Leaders who truly abide in Christ will have what they need to cultivate healthy relationships with everyone in their circles.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, when solitude disappears, our relationship with the Lord can feel shallow.
Like David, we all inwardly say, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul longeth after thee.” To remain fruitful, we must stay attached to that vine.
Is your walk with the Lord on cruise control? Perhaps it’s time to sit down and create a fresh list of ideas for your pursuit.
A new reading plan? A habit of prayer walking? A weekly accountability meeting over coffee with a friend?
Before we engage in any of these human relationships in a healthy way, we must first become emotionally healthy.
And in order to become emotionally healthy, we must tap into the True Vine—the one who gave us the gifts of ministry and the people in our lives.
BEN MANDRELL (@BenMandrell) is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.