Emotional Health Should Be Required for Leaders
It’s one way to avoid toxic situations in your church
Because of a lifetime battling depression, Johanna’s mom had difficulty coping with the challenges of raising a child. Spending hours in bed, she became detached from her daughter. The depression began a chain reaction in the family—Johanna’s dad worked long hours so he didn’t have to engage the painful situation at home. Consequently, Johanna grew up with parents who were emotionally unavailable for her.
With no encouragement and little interest from her parents in her day-to-day activities, Johanna felt invisible. Her self-worth plummeted and she began acting out, mostly for attention. Unable to verbalize her feelings to her family, classmates, or teachers, she began having angry outbursts in elementary school. The attention she received—though from negative behaviors—fed a hole in her soul, and she persisted in negative attention-seeking behaviors.
Finally in high school she found socially acceptable outlets for her emotions: drawing and writing. She found success and positive attention from the performing arts. If she received A’s on her artistic assignments, she felt proud and felt she was worth something, but if she didn’t hit her self-imposed mark of high A’s, she felt defeated and worthless. Perfectionism had set into her soul.
Relationships were difficult for Johanna. After all, she had no role model for healthy relationships. The two people put into her life to teach her about healthy relationships didn’t fulfill their God-given opportunity to develop their daughter’s potential by intentionally loving and caring for her. She developed early maladaptive thought processes birthed out of rejection, detachment, and lack of predictable care from her parents. The maladaptive thought patterns resulted in mistrust of others, an absence of ability to listen and mutually share feelings and thoughts, a sense of defectiveness, perfectionism, an inability to develop healthy relationships, defensiveness, hypersensitivity to criticism, and performance-based behavior rooted in an unhealthy need to gain attention.
For friendships to work for Johanna, her friends had to serve her goals and become consumed with her; otherwise she didn’t know how to function. Her lack of self-awareness kept her focused on herself. Asking others about themselves was not a social skill she learned or valued. She became consumed with achieving her goals, and her world did not hold room for others. When she reached adulthood, romantic relationships involving both physical and emotional intimacy were unsuccessful, resulting in two failed marriages. She chose emotionally distant men because she didn’t know how to have emotionally healthy relationships. Johanna had become narcissistic and self-serving.
She found her way to Christ and had a significant conversion, finding the unconditional love she had always craved from her parents. She got plugged into a local church, and because of her ability to focus and execute goals she quickly rose to the position of women’s ministry leader. In the limelight, she received the adulation from others that she had longed for since childhood. Unfortunately, the church leaders did not understand her history and her inability to have healthy relationships.
After she served in her position for several months, the holes in her emotional development began to show and people began to notice her superficial charm and perfectionist tendencies. Her own agenda rather than the church’s overall vision became her constant quest. Conflicts ensued with her ministry colleagues and the people she led—these included irrational outbursts of anger. Without the emotional resources or skills to work through challenging relational issues, she dropped relationships that were uncomfortable for her. Eventually the lead pastor felt the collateral damage to the overall ministry and she was released from her position.
If you want to avoid the kind of the turmoil caused by the leadership of someone like Johanna—not to mention the heartbreak she felt from underperformance—it is of utmost importance to screen potential leaders for emotional health. If I had to choose, I personally would rather have an emotionally healthy new Christian in a leadership position than a seasoned Christian with emotionally debilitating issues. But how can church leaders determine someone’s emotional and relational health prior to placing that person in leadership?
Here are a few basic steps to take to ensure healthy leadership.
1. Provide volunteer opportunities—If you see leadership potential in a person, give her time in the saddle to prove herself. Give her a project or event to execute. Observe how she interacts with others. How do people respond to her? Is she having healthy interactions with her ministry peers? Several months of volunteering will give you time to see her through a variety of situations.
2. Inspect what you expect—Let your potential leader know that you will be checking on her progress by speaking with her peers, with intention to determine if she is a fit for your ministry. Doing due diligence with help you set her up for success and protect the health of the ministry. The last thing you want is to place her in a position of leadership if she is not ready or able to lead.
3. Meet one-on-one—Set up regular meetings with her so you can get to know her heart and her character. Here are some key questions that will help you determine her emotional health: “Do you feel you are worthy to be loved?” “Are you competent to get the love you need?” “Are others reliable and trustworthy?” “Are others accessible and willing to respond when you need them?” If she answers yes to each question and you have observed healthy interactions with others, move forward in placing her in leadership.
If you still have reservations, perhaps leadership is not the next step in her journey to become a more fully devoted follower of Christ. Certainly she could continue serving others through outreach to the community, such as feeding the homeless, or through a role like greeting others before and after service. After a reasonable amount of time and growth, you certainly could revisit the opportunity for her to lead. Remember, Jesus never gave up on anyone and neither should the church. She needs to know that church is a safe and loving place for her but leadership may not be her next step in ministry.