Managing Transitions from the Inside Out

For Baptists Today
December 2010

Emotionally Intelligent Ministry: Managing Transitions from the Inside Out
By Chris Gambill

Few like change. It creates anxiety and discomfort and it is just plain hard. Yet change is necessary for any faith community seeking to remain healthy and relevant. Intelligent ministry seeks effective ways to lead a congregation through constructive transition. Emotionally intelligent ministry recognizes and welcomes emotion as an integral part of any change scenario.

After all, the majority of ministry is set within an emotional context. Any change – large or small – within a congregational setting can stir up emotion. Knowing how to perceive and use emotion is a key to effective ministry. Emotional intelligence has a huge impact on an individual’s ability to form and maintain effective relationships. It also plays a vital role in how we respond to and manage any sort of change or conflict. The good news is that with proper assessment and coaching emotional intelligence can be improved.

So just what is emotional intelligence? According to John Mayer and Peter Salovey, who defined it in 1997, emotional intelligence is “the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth.” This concept was further refined by psychologist David Caruso for use in business management, and it works equally well in a congregational setting.

To put it simply, emotional intelligence is using emotion to help us cope with our environment successfully. The goal is to let emotion motivate and inspire us to constructive action.

The Flip Side of Conventional Leadership

In many ways emotionally intelligent ministry turns upside down conventional wisdom about good leadership. Conventional wisdom has encouraged leaders to focus on facts and to assume that emotional undercurrents are at best unhelpful and at worst dangerous and to be avoided. This cold and logical approach seeks to weigh the facts for sober evaluation of possible alternatives and choose the one with the most benefits and least liabilities. This approach, though sensible, often falls short.

The alternative, emotionally intelligent approach – a warm approach – rather than being avoidant of emotions takes them seriously and receives them as vital information to be included in the decision making and transition processes. This warm approach combines both cold data and emotional realities. Ministry leaders who consider rational and emotional channels of information together are best able to manage successful transitions inside and out.

We have all witnessed failures of congregational leaders’ cold approach to change. One that comes to mind is that of a church that built a modern sanctuary – a lovely facility that won architectural awards. The old, decaying sanctuary – insufficient and located too close to a major roadway – was expensive to maintain. Despite leadership efforts, emotional ties prevented the congregation from mustering the votes to tear it down. That church is now saddled with an eyesore and money pit.

Congregations often use a cold approach to the revisioning process. Leaders design a congregational survey, but receive fewer responses than expected. Too late, they realize that the survey does not provide information needed, or that it contains mountains of unusable data. The next step in the cold approach usually involves an ad-hoc visioning team of twelve of the smartest people in the congregation going on a retreat to create a new vision for the church. They come back excited and present the plan to a congregation that responds with a big, collective yawn.

What has happened in each of these change processes? The critical role of emotion was downplayed or ignored. The best transition efforts will fail unless the action plan not only addresses surface needs for change, but also considers how those affected by change will respond emotionally.

Exercising Emotionally Intelligent Ministry

The first step toward exercising emotionally intelligent ministry is developing the emotional self-awareness that allows one to ask questions such as:

1. What is my own emotional response or investment in this decision?

2. What are my natural strengths and tendencies, and are they helpful in this situation?

3. What are my defense mechanisms when there is opposition to my leadership?

4. What are my stress responses? How do I exhibit stress and anxiety?

The other aspect of emotional intelligence is an awareness of the emotional response of others. After ministry leaders identify their own feelings about upcoming changes, they must identify the feelings of the people involved in the transition. Emotional awareness requires empathy toward others and imagining how they might respond to a proposed change, then trying to recognize those who will become angry, those who will become anxious, and the people who might not be happy but who will take a wait and see attitude. Leaders who take a warm, emotionally intelligent approach to transition consider the various points of view and emotions of the faith community. Then they work to utilize and manage emotions to support the change process knowing that change will result in some discomfort but, ultimately, in a stronger ministry.

Competence in Four Areas

Emotionally intelligent ministry involves competence in four areas:

1. Perceiving Emotion

Perceiving emotion depends upon our ability to be observant. It begins with asking, “What emotions am I experiencing?” That leads to questions about what others are feeling and tests our ability to read facial expressions, voice tone, pitch and speed, and body language. A word of caution: a primary tool that congregations use to manage transition is the written word. It is important to read emotional communication in writing, but it is difficult. Never assume the emotional content of a written message. Ask.

2. Using Emotion

If we know how to perceive and then use emotions, we can more effectively accomplish a task. It is worth asking, “Are the emotions present helping or hindering decision-making and thought processes?” Or “What emotional climate do we need to do this work right now?” For example, if you need creativity and spontaneity, a positive, energized climate is best. If you need to spot errors or analyze a plan, a subdued energy level is best.

3. Understanding Emotion

Understanding emotion enables us to foresee what might happen during a transition. Emotions develop along a predictable progression. It is important to know if a current emotional movement is helpful or detrimental. For example, one that can happen during a period of change is this negative slide: someone starts out skeptical, something happens and he becomes anxious, then distrustful. The situation escalates and he becomes alienated, angry and finally enraged. If we recognize the sequence, we may be able to head things off at the skeptical or anxious stage and avoid the rage. Conversely, there are patterns in positive emotional chains, such as the progression from calm and content to happy and joyful. These are worth knowing and utilizing.

4. Managing Emotion

Managing emotions does not mean suppressing them. It means recognizing emotional states and deciding how best to utilize or adjust them in order to support the leadership needs of the moment. This involves realizing our own emotional state and deciding whether we need to do some self-coaching to change to a more helpful one. It also involves knowing ways to manage the emotional state of the larger group in order to help in decision-making and transition.

Though some people are naturally more emotionally intelligent than others, it can be improved with self-awareness, practice and coaching. There are a number of good tools to develop self-awareness around emotional intelligence, such as the WorkPlace Big Five Profile, emotional intelligence tests, and 360 feedback assessments. These tools, combined with personal coaching can help to increase emotionally intelligent ministry.

Chris Gambill is senior consultant and manager of congregational health services for the Center for Congregational Health ( based in Winston-Salem, N.C.


Please site Chris Gambill, Baptists Today and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.


One Comment on “Managing Transitions from the Inside Out”

  1. I personally found this specific article , “Managing Transitions from the Inside
    Out The Center for Congregational Health”, incredibly entertaining not to
    mention the blog post was a very good read. Thanks for the post-Velda

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