4 Characteristics of an 'Emotionally Healthy' Leader


For years I believed that if I could simply identify the right planning and decision-making process, we would then make good decisions at the church I pastor. That, it turned out, was both naïve and misguided. In a 20-year period, however, the dramatic difference between our standard process and emotionally healthy planning and decision-making became crystal clear.

The first is the foundation from which the other three follow:

1. We define success as radically doing God's will. From the time I became a Christian, I believed intellectually that listening for God's will was vitally important. But it wasn't until a four-month contemplative sabbatical in 2003-2004 that my approach to planning and decision-making was utterly transformed. As a result, my definition of success so broadened and deepened that my leadership and my approach to discerning God's will experienced an extreme makeover.

What happened? I slowed down my life so I could spend much more time being with God. Listening for and surrendering to God's will became the focus of my life—both personally and in leadership. I realized that our congregation, New Life Fellowship Church, had one objective: to become what God had called us to become and to do what God had called us to do. That would be the sole marker of our success. It meant that all the previous markers—increased attendance, bigger and better programs—had to take a backseat to this one. I was no longer willing to "succeed" at the expense of hearing and listening to the will of God.

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Embracing God's definition of success for New Life through the years was initially difficult for me to accept. It slowed me down, and I suddenly felt like I didn't look as good as the leaders of other more successful ministries to which I compared myself. But as time went on and we leaned into God's leadership and wisdom for our context, a new freedom and joy emerged.

2) We create a space for heart preparation. In emotionally healthy planning and decision-making, we don't simply open meetings with prayer and then leap headlong into our agenda. We begin by creating a space for heart preparation. We intentionally step back from the distractions and pressures that surround us so we can discern and follow God's will. This preparation takes place on two levels—personal heart preparation and team heart preparation.

Personal heart preparation: Before entering a meeting room, our first priority as leaders is to prepare our heart with God. How much time is needed? That depends on the level of the decision or plans being made and how much internal noise might be cluttering your inner life at the moment. The simple principle we follow at New Life is the weightier the decision, the more time is required for preparation.

Team heart preparation: In order to make good decisions, we begin our meetings—whether it be a weekly team meeting or an full-day planning meeting—by creating the necessary space for the team to center their hearts before God.

If I am leading the meeting, I'll begin with two to three minutes of silence. The purpose of these opening moments is to create an environment free of striving or manipulating outcomes so we can seek God's will together.

When our staff team goes off site for one of our planning retreats in the year, we may devote up to half the retreat time to allow team members to meet God personally before we gather to make plans. We like to begin every important planning retreat with a "being" experience before tackling the "doing" component of these meetings.

3) We pray for prudence. Prudence is one of the most important character qualities or virtues for effective leaders. Without prudence, it is impossible to make good plans and decisions. The word "prudence" is used to characterize people who have the foresight to take everything into account. Prudent people think ahead, giving careful thought to the long-term implications of their decisions.

Prudence has been called the "executive virtue," meaning it enables us to think clearly for now and the future and not be swept up by our impulses or emotions. Perhaps most importantly, prudence refuses to rush—it is willing to wait on God for as long as it takes and to give the decision-making process the time it needs.

The Bible often contrasts those who are prudent with the simple or foolish. They don't want to do hard work of thinking things through and asking hard questions. So, call me simple and foolish because all of these things characterized my decisions in the early years of ministry. How many times did I appoint volunteers and staff too quickly without asking hard questions? How often did I add a new ministry without thinking through the support it would need? Asking God for prudence was not even on my prayer list. Now asking God for prudence has become a constant refrain as I seek to do God's will in leadership.

There remains one final characteristic of emotionally healthy planning and decision-making that we must talk about—finding God in our limits.

4) We look for God in our limits. Our limits may well be the last place we look for God. We want to conquer limits, plan around limits, deny limits and break through limits. In standard leadership practice, we might even consider it a mark of courage to rebel against limits. But when we fail to look for God in our limits, we simply bypass God.

New Life, like every church, is constrained by limits. Our small building, our under-resourced neighborhood and our humble people—are just a few. But if I look for God in these limitations instead of trying to get around them, I begin to see something different. Our very limitations might well be transformed to become our greatest means of introducing others to Jesus. Remember the words of the apostle Paul? God's power is made perfect in our weakness, not our strengths (2 Cor. 12:7).

Limits are often simply God's gifts in disguise, which makes them one of the most counterintuitive, difficult truths in Scripture to embrace. It flies in the face of our natural tendency to want to play god and run the world.

Take a few minutes to reflect on these four characteristics. If you are willing to take the risks and live with some temporary disorientation, I can promise you that God is waiting for you there.  

Peter Scazzero is the author of The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your Inner Life Will Deeply Transform Your Church, Team, and the World (Zondervan). Find out more at ehleader.com. Scazzero is founder of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York, a multiracial international church with more than 73 countries represented. After serving New Life as senior pastor for 26 years, he is now the teaching pastor/pastor-at-large. Follow him on Twitter (@petescazzero).

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