Linking Emotional Health and Spiritual Maturity

For Baptists Today
July 23, 2010

Linking Emotional Health and Spiritual Maturity
By Steve Scoggin

“What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been!”

Thus says Parker Palmer in his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, which explores the quest we are all on to find our true calling. For twenty-five years, my call as a pastoral counselor has been to be a faithful companion who walks alongside those who have found the courage to search for their “birthright gift of self.” Educated as a theologian and clinician, my ministry has stood at the intersection of emotional pain and spiritual confusion. The interdependent relationship between the emotions and spirit, where improvement in one area informs improvement in the other, is much like the dilemma of the chicken and the egg. Yet, the paradox is that many times, in the midst of our darkest emotional episodes, our spiritual sensitivities pave the way towards wholeness.

Life is an experiment with truth. We begin our lives unable to hide the truth of who we are as children, but over time, we discover ways to cover this truth with protective masks, lies, power, ego, and deception. The voice of our childhood succumbs to the many voices we hear in adulthood, and the noise prompts us to lose touch with our uniqueness. Failure to awaken to this conundrum that the life we are living is not ours but someone else’s can set us forth on a path of imbalance and ultimately pain and despair. We are disabused of our original giftedness in the first half of our lives, and if awakened to our loss, can spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed. The way back home is simple but profoundly difficult in a world that is loud and calls us towards activity rather than receptivity. We seek out guidance everywhere from without, and the therapist’s office becomes the modern day confessional. The link that bridges the gulf between our false and our true self resides in the practice and discipline of listening. We listen everywhere for guidance except from within.

In this quest for truth and wholeness is an often ignored dimension we are invited to embrace, which is holding what we dislike and find shameful about ourselves, as well as what we are confident and proud of. The link between mind and soul, emotional health and spiritual maturity, is found only under quiet conditions where the soul can speak its truth. There is a Hasidic tale that reveals, with amazing brevity, both the universal tendency to want to be someone else and the ultimate importance of becoming one’s self: Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

So, as a pastoral counselor, one way I invite persons to begin to reconnect with their spiritual self is to seek clues in stories from their younger years, when they lived closer to their true self. It is through our stories that we find those “thin narratives” that have shaped who we are and the faces we have tried to put on as our own. We find our calling by claiming our story and becoming the author. By being whom God has created us to be, we dwell in the world as Zusya rather than straining to be Moses.

This quest towards spiritual maturity is arrived at only after a long journey through alien lands. It is most akin to the ancient idea of pilgrimage -“a transformative journey to a sacred center” full of hardships, darkness, and peril. It is a journey where we are invited not to distance ourselves from the shameful, fearful, and embarrassing chapters of our story, but to find the grace to embrace, listen, and learn that these truths are important for our moving forward in reclaiming that which has been lost.

It continues to be my experience that the way to God is not up but down. When the way we have been living becomes closed, I invite people to look down and within before looking up and out. Let me illustrate this by the example of depression. The underground is a potentially life-giving place to which depression takes us; a place where we come to understand that the self is not set apart or special or superior, but is a common mix of good and evil and a place we share in common with others. To embrace this holistic view of life is to accept a more demanding life because once you embrace this you must live your whole life from the mountain to the valley. Life becomes a mysterious soup of joy and sorrow, both of which are critical ingredients for a whole life. Theologically, it is to embrace a cross – a symbol of death and ultimate disconnection with an empty tomb, a symbol of new life and reconnection.

Depression is the ultimate experience in being disconnected. It deprives one of relatedness, which is the lifeline of existence. Like Job’s visitors, we often offer sympathy, explanations, and solutions to the despondent out of our own discomfort and feelings of helplessness. Many times our sincere efforts to help the depressed only compound the weight of their darkness. What we can offer the depressed is not so much our words as our authentic presence. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke says, “Love…consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” This is the kind of love that does not invade the inward awfulness with false comfort or advice, but simply stands on its boundaries, modeling respect of the other and their journey and the courage to let it be. Rilke describes a love that neither invades nor avoids the soul’s suffering. It is a love in which we represent God’s love to a suffering person – a God who does not fix us, but gives us strength by suffering with us. By standing respectfully and faithfully at the borders of another’s solitude, we may mediate the love of God to a person who needs something deeper than any human being can give.

As I learned from one of my clinical supervisors along the way, Dr. Bill Oglesby, depression is not the enemy trying to crush you, but can be the hand of a friend, pressing you down to the ground on which it is safe to stand. Parker Palmer reminds us of this by commenting on his own depression. He states that sometimes we can live our lives so ungrounded and at such an altitude that it becomes unsafe. The problem with living at such altitudes is that when we slip, as we always do, we have a long way to fall and the landings can literally kill us. The grace of being pressed down to the ground is also simple; when we slip and fall, it is usually not fatal, and we can get up. So, in the case of depression, it can be the hand of a friend pressing us down to the ground on which it is safe to stand – the ground of our truth and nature, with its complex mix of limits and gifts, liabilities and assets, darkness and light.

This delicate interplay between the life of our emotions and our spirit is a relationship where what is underground/unseen informs the shape of what is seen. This “hidden wholeness” that Parker Palmer describes transcends shoring up the emotions to grounding our mind in the vitality of the spirit. This deeper reality was the call I responded to thirty-three years ago as a young seminarian. It was the call to walk alongside those who had lost their way with the hopes of pointing them towards the “truth that can set us free.”

– Steve Scoggin, Psy.D, LPC, is president of CareNet, Inc., a subsidiary of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, NC.


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

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.