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Blog / The Emotionally Healthy Leader: An Interview with Peter Scazzero

The Emotionally Healthy Leader: An Interview with Peter Scazzero

Peter ScazzeroHave you ever felt stuck, powerless to change your environment? Do you feel too overwhelmed to enjoy life, unable to sort out the demands on your time? Are you doing your best work as a leader, yet you think you’re not making an impact? Perhaps you need to integrate who you are with what you do by developing a deep, inner life with Christ.

Bible Gateway interviewed Peter Scazzero (@petescazzero) about his book, The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your Inner Life Will Deeply Transform Your Church, Team, and the World (Zondervan, 2015).Click to buy your copy of The Emotionally Healthy Leader in the Bible Gateway Store

Explain why any leader of people needs to be emotionally healthy to be effective.

Peter Scazzero: Emotionally healthy leaders possess a significant level of self-awareness and, as a result, love well.

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 relationships and everything they do.

Emotionally unhealthy leaders also 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. 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. I like to say it this way: Their “being with God” is not sufficient to sustain their “doing for God.”

How did you diagnose your own emotional unhealthiness as a leader?

Peter Scazzero: My journey to integrate emotional health and spiritual maturity began in 1996 when I hit a wall. I was tired and stressed as a Christian, losing my soul as I was gaining the world (Mark 8:26). I experienced the ugliness of a church split and saw how easy it was for people to know their Bible well and appear spiritual but still be defensive, arrogant, mean-spirited, and unloving. Finally, my marriage wasn’t going well. The lack of any spiritual formation in emotional health was evident all around me and in me as well. There was no running away from it.

What are the characteristics of an emotionally unhealthy leader?

Peter Scazzero: The deficits of emotionally unhealthy leaders are especially evident in four areas:

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.

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.

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 single-ness 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.

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.

What are the unhealthy commandments of church leadership you write about?

Peter Scazzero: There are four large ones that keep Christian leaders up at night.

The first is that it’s not a success unless it’s “bigger and better.” Numbers aren’t all bad. In fact, quantifying ministry impact with numbers is actually biblical. When it comes to the church and numbers, the problem isn’t that we count, it’s that we have so fully embraced the world’s dictum that bigger is better that numbers have become the only thing we count. When something isn’t bigger and better, we consider it—and often ourselves—a failure. What we miss in all this counting is the value Scripture places on internal markers.

The second big, unhealthy commandment is that what we do is more important than who we are. Who you are is more important than what you do. Why? Because the love of Jesus in you is the greatest gift you have to give to others. Who you are as a person—and specifically how well you love—will always have a larger and longer impact on those around you than what you do. Your being with God (or lack of being with God) will trump, eventually, your doing for God every time. We cannot give what we do not possess. We cannot help but give what we do possess.

The third deadly commandment is that superficial spirituality is okay. Just because we have the gifts and skills to build a crowd and create lots of activity does not mean we are building a church or ministry that connects people intimately to Jesus. I love the Lord’s instruction to Samuel, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (see 1 Samuel 16:7).

The final is: don’t rock the boat as long as the work gets done. Too much of contemporary church culture is characterized by a false niceness and superficiality. We view conflict as a sign that something is wrong, so we do whatever we can to avoid it. We prefer to ignore difficult issues and settle for a false peace, hoping our difficulties will somehow disappear on their own. They don’t.

What role does reading the Bible play in building emotional healthiness in leaders?

Peter Scazzero: Without being immersed in Scripture on a daily basis, I don’t believe it is possible to lead others for Jesus and to Jesus. How can we unless we are listening to him?

How should leaders be intentional about creating an emotionally healthy culture in their leadership team?

This takes great intentionality and is something I have learned over time and through a lot of mistakes. Emotionally healthy culture and team building is quite distinct in at least four ways. First, we’re deeply concerned for people’s personal spiritual formation and not simply their work performance. We’re asking questions about people’s inner lives with Christ and resourcing them regularly.

Secondly, we confront what I like to call, “elephants in the room.” This refers to inappropriate or immature behavior that happens on all teams. Only now we address it and treat it as a mentoring/discipling moment.

Thirdly, time, energy and money is invested in your team’s personal development. In other words, we’re not simply talking about the work itself, but them.

And finally, we ask questions about people’s marriages and singleness, knowing this is foundational to any long-term, significant work for God that will stand the test of time.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Peter Scazzero: A great way to get started on this journey is to take the free personal or church assessment found on our website at—either by yourself or with your team. In it you’ll be able to identify if you’re an emotional infant, child, adolescent or adult. And, of course, read through and discuss with your team the The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your Inner Life Will Deeply Transform Your Church, Team, and the World.

Bio: Peter Scazzero is the founder of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York City; a large, multiracial church with more than 73 countries represented. After serving as senior pastor for 26 years, Pete now serves as a teaching pastor/pastor at large. He’s the author of two best-selling books: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and The Emotionally Healthy Church. He’s also the author of the Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Church Campaign Kit and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Day by Day. Pete and his wife, Geri, are the founders of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, a groundbreaking ministry that equips churches in a deep, beneath-the-surface spiritual formation paradigm that integrates emotional health and contemplative spirituality. They have four lovely daughters.

Filed under Books, Interviews, Leadership