The Emotionally Intelligent Church Leader
We can all grow in our people skills by following these steps
I work stress-free when I’m with my team,” Pastor Michael (name changed) confided in me. “I trust them, and I trust myself, but I feel high stress working with the church board. I don’t trust some who have small thinking. I am extremely anxious about the budget. This time of year, while preparing and presenting the budget to the board, I am so anxious that even my wife says she’s not sure she likes me.”
As Michael’s church grew in attendance, the budget and staff grew as well. The one thing that wasn’t growing was Michael’s emotional intelligence (EI), the ability to identify, manage and harness his emotions and respond appropriately to the emotions of others.
Michael was emotionally self-aware enough to pinpoint his anxiety, fear and stress, but he needed to grow his EI if he hoped to grow his influence. The negative messages Michael was giving himself and receiving from others deeply affected him, clouding his outlook with a pessimism that sapped his energy, shook his confidence and stole his peace.
Emotional intelligence allows people to alter their emotional state when needed. Emotionally intelligent leaders are also sensitive to what those around them are feeling, and can help them navigate and change their moods — calming them or lifting their spirits, for example. Every church leader needs these skills, but not every church leader has them. Thankfully, we can all grow in emotional intelligence.
Emotions move us and motivate us. They can sustain us through our struggles and crown us in our victories. If we’re not careful, they can also derail us. Everything we do involves emotions. At times, we tap into them to help us reach our goals. At other times, we must overcome them and press on in spite of them.
Emotional intelligence is the synthesis of the heart, mind and soul. It helps us bring our thoughts and feelings into alignment with God’s Word and will, so that we can “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Throughout Scripture, we see that this is God’s desire for His people. Proverbs 16:32 says, “Patience is better than power, and controlling one’s emotions, than capturing a city” (CSB).
Michael needed to shift from his head to his heart — from negative thought patterns to the truths of God. His head was focusing on childhood memories of the financial uncertainty that attended the ministry home in which he grew up. Michael’s thoughts left him feeling helpless and insufficient.
When he realized what was happening, Michael was able to make positive changes. He began to define himself from the inside out, in light of God’s truth. Michael relied on the God-given wisdom in his heart and not the words in his head. Growing the EI skills of emotional self-awareness allowed him to shift from head words to heart wisdom, from pessimism to optimism, from fear and insecurities to the assurance of God’s promises. Rather than leaning on his own understanding, he was learning to trust in the Lord with all his heart (Proverbs 3:5).
Growing his emotional intelligence gave Michael the capacity to see things objectively, the way they were, rather than the way he feared them to be. This is the emotional intelligence skill of reality testing. For Christians, it takes on a new level of meaning as we consider spiritual realities. We can ask God to open our eyes as He did for Elisha’s servant, so we can see Him working on our behalf (2 Kings 6:15-17).
Michael released his fears to the Lord, reminding himself that, by God’s grace, the church had always ended the year with a surplus. Like the Psalmist, Michael steered his emotions toward the reality of God’s goodness: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:11). Pairing his faith with his developing emotional intelligence helped Michael face the challenges of ministry with wisdom and calm assurance.
Michael’s relationships began to improve as well. Where his anxiety had previously caused issues with key people in his work and home life, he now kept his emotions in check and put others at ease.
Robert Bolton, author of People Skills, discovered that 80 percent of workers fail to remain in organizations for one reason: poor relationships with other people. People skills — that is, the ability to interact well with others — are crucial for ministry. Emotionally intelligent leaders assess the emotions of those around them and respond with wisdom rather than recklessness (Proverbs 12:18).
Self-assess your emotional intelligence by answering the following questions:
- How easy is it for me to shift my emotions?
- Can I step back and see difficult situations in perspective?
- When I experience negative emotions during conflict situations, do I retain my ability to reflect realistically on what’s happening?
- How am I using internal self-talk to take myself from a negative emotional state to a positive one?
- What situations trigger negative emotions in me, and how do I manage those feelings when it happens?
Assess the emotional intelligence of your ministry leadership with these questions:
- How much laughter or conflict is there within our team?
- Is there a spirit of cooperation or competition among our ministries?
- Do staff members speak up in meetings or keep their mouths shut for fear of facing criticism?
- Are team members inspiring one another, or are they self-absorbed, with little knowledge of what those around them are feeling?
- Do I enjoy coming to work each day, or do I dread entering an environment that feels harsh and unpleasant?
Emotionally intelligent leaders assess the emotions of those around them and respond with wisdom rather than recklessness.
Your answers reveal where you need to grow into a more emotionally intelligent leader. In addition to this self-assessment, ask God to point out any negative thought patterns that you need to turn over to Him. Like David, pray, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
Reuven Bar-On, a psychologist and pioneer of emotional intelligence theory, wondered why some people maintain better emotional well-being and achieve greater success than others, despite the challenges and setbacks they may face. He concluded that what sets apart certain resilient individuals is their ability to manage emotions.
Emotional intelligence contributes to the harmony of individuals and the organizations they serve. For church leaders, that can mean healthier interpersonal relationships, happier volunteers and staff members, better decision-making and problem-solving skills, improved conflict resolution, stronger teams — and, ultimately, higher ministry impact.
You can grow your emotional intelligence. As a follower of Christ, the first step is recognizing the power of emotions and asking God to help you manage your inner life for His glory. Notice and acknowledge what you’re feeling, but don’t let these feelings define you. Seek the Spirit’s guidance in processing your emotions. Find healthy outlets for working through negative feelings, whether it’s talking with a friend or writing in a journal.
Most importantly, spend time in God’s presence. Give these feelings to Him before they become a foothold for the enemy. “‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Ask God to transform you by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:2).
Pay attention to how your past experiences color your perceptions and impact your emotions today. Identify the people, words or situations that trigger negative thoughts. Invite the Holy Spirit to search your heart for any areas of hurt, unforgiveness or bitterness that need to come under the authority of Jesus.
Seek feedback from others on how they perceive your emotional state. Do they see you as uptight, aloof, angry or insecure? Wearing your emotions on your sleeve affects how people feel in your presence. Growing in self-awareness and emotional health will make it easier to build relationships and lead people.
Practice empathy. Give people your full attention when you talk with them. Notice their expressions and body language, and consider what those cues say about what they may be feeling. Resist the urge to react defensively when people are harsh or critical toward you. Remember that hurting people hurt people. Ask God to help you see the pain behind the pain response, and to grow your love for others (1 Thessalonians 3:12).
Christ followers must be able to feel what others on the arduous climb of life are feeling. Can you feel the danger, the excitement, the exhaustion, the determination, the pain of those around you? When you perceive the hearts of others, it will revolutionize your leadership — at home, on the mission field of your community, in the church auditorium, in team meetings, and anywhere people are interacting.
Manage, Modify, Change
Barbara Kerr, professor of counseling psychology at the University of Kansas, created a three-step model for enhancing competency and awareness of emotions.
The first step is managing emotions. Self-regulate negative moods by developing the following habits:
- Identify the feeling to bring it to your awareness.
- Acknowledge the feeling, even if you’re not proud of it. Write it down, or talk to someone about it.
- If the feeling is intense, consider taking action to reduce stress. Breathe deeply, go for a walk, exercise, play soothing music, sip water, write, look for humor, change the way you talk to yourself, count backwards from 50, step outside, etc.
- When you are calmer and can take time for reflection, ask yourself: What is the price I pay for feeling this way? What can I do to feel differently?
Michael was talking to himself from the fears in his head and needed to shift to the wisdom of God that was in his heart.
The second step is modifying your assumptions. When we let our emotions lead in relationships, we may jump to conclusions about other people and their motives. We write a false narrative that heightens our insecurities. Rather than taking the time to understand other people’s perspectives, we label them as evil, selfish, ignorant or incompetent — and then we react according to that false narrative.
Jesus provides the ultimate example of how we should think about and interact with others. He looked past appearances, reputations, stereotypes and biases to see the heart of the individual. Consider His treatment of Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman, the thief on the cross, and others. Jesus viewed people with empathy and compassion. He took the time to consider the story behind the person. And He extended grace, forgiveness, healing, restoration and friendship.
We should strive to do the same. It will take compassion, curiosity and discernment from the Holy Spirit. But when we take time to learn the stories and understand the perspectives of others — especially those who push our buttons and try our patience — it’s easier to respond as Scripture teaches, “bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).
Michael realized his insecurities were leading him to false assumptions. Identifying the source of his emotional stress allowed him to open his heart to the people he had been shutting out.
The third step is changing your behavior. Practice new behaviors until they become habits. The goal is to develop healthy habits that help you manage your emotions, express a range of feelings appropriately, and promote a sense of optimism.
Michael started praying and spending time in Scripture every morning — before facing the demands of leadership. This practice helped him hear the wisdom in his heart above the doubts and fears in his head. The words of Philippians 4:6-7 came alive to him: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
For More Information
An assessment, such as the Bar-On EQ-i and EQ-360, can help you discover your emotional intelligence. A certified coach can assist you with creating and practicing an EI growth plan. To find a certified Assemblies of God coach, visit AGCoaching.org.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of Influence magazine.