The Emotionally Intelligent Pastor

Our emotions can become a force for our own transformation as well as a tool to help others.

Jeannie Clarkson PhD is a Christian psychologist and researcher behind a landmark study linking emotional intelligence (EI) and performance-based self-esteem with burnout among pastors. She is the founder of Christian Care Connection, a multi-site counseling service in the greater Toledo, OH area, and author of the new book, The Emotionally Intelligent Pastor: A Guide for Clergy and Other Church Leaders (Wesleyan Publishing House). In this Q&A, Clarkson discusses some of her book’s applications to pastors and ministry.

Why do pastors need to invest in emotional intelligence?

My goal is to show you some startling research and help you understand a few very powerful leadership skills. These practices—if cultivated and practices—can help you avoid some ministry frustrations altogether. Used in response to existing problems, these skills are remarkable correctives. I have seen them make happy leaders even healthier and more effective. I’ve also seen them help weary leaders recover a sense of balance and joy. Almost like a vaccine, these practices have been shown to protect pastors against burnout and pave the way to transformational leadership. 

So, what is emotional intelligence?

In simplest terms, emotional intelligence can be defined as the ability (1) to understand the ways people (including you!) feel and react, and (2) to use this knowledge to wisely avoid or smartly solve relational problems. 

I don’t remember seeing the terms “emotional” or “emotional intelligence” in the Bible.

The Gospels consistently depict Jesus being completely tuned in to others. Repeatedly He is said to be keenly aware of others—their thoughts, feelings, and barely perceptible actions (e.g., Matthew 12:15, 16:8, and 26:10, Mark 5:30 and 8:17, and John 6:61).

As our maker, Jesus is the expert on the human heart. The Bible says He came, in part, to lift up the weary, exhausted, downtrodden, and oppressed. One cannot read God’s Word without coming to this conclusion: The Lord desires for His people to be emotionally healthy and whole and to enjoy great relationships with one another.

I believe it’s time for pastors to listen to the teachings of scripture, to utilize the latest scientific and psychological research, and to pursue greater emotional health and strength for themselves and their people. 

How do highly emotionally intelligent pastors excel?

My research shows they excel in four significant and substantive ways.

1. Personal Insight: Highly emotionally intelligent (EI) pastors possess a better understanding of their own emotions than do others.

2. Personal Mastery: High EI pastors control and regulate their own emotions and reactions better than others.

3. Relational Insight: EI-savvy pastors read, understand, and empathize with the emotions and reactions of other people better than most.

4. Relational Mastery: Pastors with high emotional intelligence are better at emotional reasoning and more skilled at effective, persuasive communication than others. 

Unpack that for us.

The five “clergy killers” are criticism, conflict, unrealistic expectations, resistance to change, and high stress. Any can kill a leader’s health and enthusiasm. Worse? They’re the primary causes of pastoral burnout, which in this country has become epidemic.

The best strategy for negating the debilitating effects of these leadership challenges is to develop one’s emotional intelligence (EI) to the highest degree possible. EI is a great asset in dealing with the pressures and pitfalls of ministry. Used proactively, it boosts one’s ability to engage, inspire, and transform others.

What does this require?

Navigating the complexities of congregational life and pastoral leadership will take all of the wisdom and relational skill you can possibly acquire. By developing and sharpening your emotional intelligence (EI) you can avoid many of the common pitfalls of ministry. Poorly managed stress and congregational conflict have kept many good pastors from their best work—and even led to burnout. That doesn’t have to be your story too. 

I hope you will decide to make this trip—all the way to the end. I hope you’ll be willing to look into your own heart and ask yourself some potentially unsettling questions.

  • Could I benefit from more insight into what makes me tick?
  • Could I use more skill in interacting with others?
  • If I don’t change anything about my leadership style and relational habits, what are the chances I will find ministry fulfilling in five years? What are the chances I might end up another burnout statistic? 
  • Am I okay with being a so-so leader, or do I want to max my leadership potential—becoming someone who powerfully and positively engages, inspires, and helps shape those with whom I interact? 
  • Would I like to be healthier emotionally?

Where is God in all of this?

God created us as emotional beings, and when we embrace—rather than deny—that truth, our emotions can become a force for our own transformation as well as a tool to help others.

Again, this is a major reason emotional intelligence (EI) is so critical. It paves the way for us to enjoy greater influence with people. When we are stable, sensitive, and self-aware, others are drawn to us.

It’s often said that hurt people tend to hurt people. The flip side of that is that secure people—leaders who are secure in their identity—create secure environments. When a pastor is truly secure in the love of Jesus Christ, he or she presides over a staff, board, or church culture in which almost everyone feels safe, instead of living in fear and walking on eggshells.

I love the fact that EI gives pastors the tools they need to address all the most stressful ministry problems they face: criticism, conflict, wrong expectations, and resistance to change.

But you have no idea how much conflict I have in my church.

Conflict can be managed, leveraged for growth, and sometimes prevented. Emotionally intelligent (EI) pastors who learn to manage conflict will reduce their overall stress, enjoy their ministry more, and develop more overall effectiveness and influence.

If I embrace EI, how else will I benefit?

Pastors with higher EI understand the danger of isolation and the wisdom of being in community. They make self-care a high priority—engaging in important spiritual disciplines like solitude and Sabbath. They find hobbies that replenish them. They set healthy boundaries in relationships and with regard to work. They work at resolving conflict in healthy and biblical ways. All of these things together contribute to their emotional (and yes, physical) well-being.

What’s the bottom line?

The Emotionally Intelligent Pastor enjoys greatly reduced stress and greatly increased influence.

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