Your Relational Abilities Matter More Than Your Preaching.
Even the best skill sets can’t compensate.
by Jennifer M. Kvamme
What if there were one thing that frequently defeated pastors or crippled their ministries—no matter how skilled they were at preaching and teaching and no matter how upright they remained morally?
And what if, most of the time, these pastors remained oblivious to this subtle but deadly chink in their armor and therefore failed to protect themselves or their flock from its damaging effects?
Daryl Thompson, superintendent of the EFCA Northern Plains District, has seen this happen time after time. Gifted pastors, with no moral failings, have been asked to step down from ministries or have left their churches in discouragement because of one thing: low emotional intelligence (EQ).
“Over time, EQ issues will eventually trump every other issue in ministry.” — Daryl Thompson
EQ involves an awareness of one’s emotions and the ability to manage them, as well as an awareness of the emotions of those around you and the ability to respond to them in helpful ways. A low EQ can lead to those around a leader feeling unheard, undervalued or “run over” in the process of trying to achieve a vision.
“Over time,” Daryl firmly believes, “EQ issues will eventually trump every other issue in ministry.” In his experience, a lack of emotional awareness and the people skills that go with it—rather than moral failure—have been the underlying factors in most cases where pastors were asked to leave or chose to leave in discouragement or conflict.
However, a low EQ doesn’t have to cripple ministry and wound the church. There are practical and effective steps pastors can take to improve their emotional skills and protect their ministries.
Social and emotional abilities are four times more important than IQ in determining professional success.
What are your vulnerabilities?
The importance of EQ has been gaining attention in both business and ministry realms in recent decades. A study of 80 science Ph.D.s that began in the 1950s revealed, 40 years later, that social and emotional abilities were four times more important than IQ in determining professional success.
Peter Scazzero, pastor and prolific author on the topic, declares low EQ to be a significant problem for church leaders. In “4 Ways to Be an Emotionally Healthy Leader,” he refers to research predicting that two-thirds of people currently in leadership will fail, and the most common reason will be their inability to build or maintain a team.
Scazzero believes that this failure is due to dysfunctional tendencies (of which these leaders are unaware) that cause them to make poor decisions and alienate people. “Every leader has significant vulnerabilities and ‘derailers,’” Scazerro notes. “Emotionally healthy leaders are acutely aware of them and manage them well.”
Matt Brent is a worship pastor at GracePoint Church (EFCA) in Bismarck, North Dakota, who has learned this from experience. In his former church, he became lead pastor after four years as worship pastor. A new pastor and a fresh, new voice helped build momentum, and the church grew from 280 to 400 in less than two years.
But new leadership also brought changes in the vision and direction. And as they executed the vision, Matt began noticing a disturbing trend: a steady stream of people leaving the church, including key leaders and close friends. Each person leaving seemed to voice only a small issue with children’s ministry or worship preferences—there was no real pattern.
For six frustrating years, Matt witnessed this downward spiral, finding himself unable to stop it and eventually burning out from trying. He finally resigned and moved to Bismarck to work alongside a senior pastor with more than four decades of experience. By watching this pastor handle some similar situations, Matt says, “I started getting an inkling of some of the mistakes I’d made.”
“It’s simply not possible to become spiritually mature while you remain emotionally immature.” — Author Peter Scazzero
Matt still believes that the vision changes were the right ones, yet he began to identify how he and the other leaders had made some mistakes in how they “moved the changes forward into body life.”
Then at a district conference, he attended Daryl Thompson’s workshop on EQ. And the lights began to go on. Wow, he’s talking about me a lot, Matt thought.
As Matt processed the information and looked back on his former pastorate, his new understanding of emotional intelligence gave him a framework for understanding what had happened.
“I started to remember all the conversations I’d had with people where I basically ran over them,” he admits. “I impugned their faith, their motives, everything—not validating and listening to what they were trying to tell me.”
Much of it, he realizes now, boiled down to his own inability to deal with dissent. He took questions and concerns as personal attacks because of how much he’d invested into the decisions, and so he wasn’t able to hear the heart behind the concerns.
Matt had already planned to visit his former hometown shortly after the district conference. Now, though, he took the opportunity to call up a few people on his former church board and meet with them to apologize and share what he’d learned. “There was release on my part, release on theirs and real reconciliation,” he says.
It doesn’t matter how “anointed” you are …
While the tendencies Matt displayed are indisputably common, leading to division and broken relationships, one thing sets Matt’s story apart: He recognized the problem.
“It doesn’t matter how much Bible knowledge you have. Love is that indispensable mark of maturity.” — Author Peter Scazzero
If someone wants to improve, Daryl points out, he or she likely has fairly healthy emotional intelligence—enough to work on those relational issues. (True examples of low EQ are actually difficult to remedy, simply because those who most need help are least likely to recognize their need or allow others to speak into their lives.)
Working on relational skills is uniformly crucial for those in ministry. “It’s simply not possible to become spiritually mature while you remain emotionally immature,” writes Scazzero in “The Spiritual Importance of Becoming an Emotionally Healthy Preacher,” published at preachingtoday.com.
“If you’re critical, defensive, touchy, unapproachable, insecure—telltale signs of emotional immaturity—you can’t be spiritually mature. It doesn’t matter how ‘anointed’ you are or how much Bible knowledge you have. Love is that indispensable mark of maturity.”
The bottom line: Because all ministry has relational roots, even the best skill sets cannot sustain a pastor’s ministry if he doesn’t learn to navigate the messiness of relationships. Unfortunately, as Daryl points out, this is not usually at the top of what churches look for in a pastor. They are often impressed with a candidate’s preaching and teaching skills, which can lead them to overlook relational or emotional problems that may seem minor, if they surface at all.
“But eventually,” Daryl warns, “if that relational base is not healthy enough, ministry will break down. You simply cannot compensate for relationally engaging with people by being a good teacher.”
When the ministry breaks down, it leaves not only a discouraged pastor but also a hurting church in his wake.
Build in safeguards
Everyone experiences strained relationships, imperfectly manages emotions and feels defensive in response to criticism. But leaders can take practical steps to safeguard themselves and their churches from the effects of these relational weaknesses.
Learning to listen makes us more likely to sustain healthy relationships in the midst of disagreement.
Become aware. Awareness is an important first step and was life-changing for Matt Brent. Fortunately, many resources address the topic of emotional intelligence.1 Emotionally Healthy Spirituality offers a free, brief assessment of your emotional maturity as a starting point.
Invite others in. Terri Miller, resource team leader for SERVEurope (part of EFCA ReachGlobal), has witnessed the aftermath of poor communication and relational skills in ministries. For some, she believes, emotional intelligence comes naturally. “For the rest of us,” she adds, “we can grow in our abilities. We can also benefit greatly from partnering with people who are more intuitive in terms of this kind of intelligence.”
This might mean including people who are good at “reading others” into important meetings, to help gauge emotional levels and buy-in; but it also means inviting close friends and coworkers to point out areas of weakness.
Learn active listening skills. Matt encourages pastors to learn how to listen better, to understand nonverbal communication and to hear without making assumptions about motives. Anyone who can do that is much more likely to sustain healthy relationships even in the midst of disagreement.
Seek professional help. Because so many emotional and relational tensions spring from insecurity and unhealed emotional wounds, pastors and Christian leaders would do well to seek out a counselor or recovery group if unresolved issues may be contributing to insecurity or emotional needs. When a pastor’s sense of identity is found solidly in Christ, he will not need others’ approval for his sense of worth.
A lack of emotional awareness and relational maturity may be taking down far too many ministries, but if pastors work to combat their weaknesses and grow their relational skills, they will not only safeguard their ministries but also allow God to mature their faith so that they reap the fruit of richer, healthier, more resilient relationships.
How Strong Is Your EQ? Consider these red flags.
- People often inform you that they were offended or hurt by your words or actions.
- You have a hard time receiving feedback and tend to be defensive.
- People who come for counseling don’t return.
- You would describe more relationships as stressful or draining than healthy and happy; and …
- You’re unable to identify and resolve the issues that have caused those strained relationships.
- You have a hard time keeping support staff and associate pastors for long or getting them on board with your vision or ideas.
- You tend to blame others and portray yourself as a victim.
If these red flags are hitting home, consider asking another trusted leader for ways you might improve your emotional awareness and communication skills.
If, however, these red flags seem to be pointing to a colleague, ask God to do the hard work of preparing that person to hear feedback—whether from you or another source.
1 Emotional Intelligence 2.0, by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves; Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and The Emotionally Healthy Leader, by Peter Scazzero; Changes That Heal, by Henry Cloud; Generation to Generation, by Edwin H. Friedman; Living Life at Its Best: Where faith and emotional intelligence intersect, by Allan G. Hedberg. ↩
Jennifer M. Kvamme is student ministries coordinator at Centennial EFC (Forest Lake, MN), where she has served for 13 years. She is also a writer, wife, and mom of two beautiful and energetic preschool girls, and is daily learning how to live out healthy relationships in all of those contexts.