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Emotional health issues can affect pastors too

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)–Family problems, juggling schedules, constant moving from one church to another, inadequate financial resources and contending with strong-willed personalities will always test the emotional wellness of ministers, according to a national consultant.

Managing the personal side of life and accepting responsibility for one’s actions are as important for the health of professional ministers as for the laypeople who sit in the pews, Norris Smith told church recreation ministers during Rec Lab ’97, Feb. 21-26 at Glorieta (N.M.) Baptist Conference Center. Smith, formerly a pastor for 33 years, is a LeaderCare personal development consultant at the Baptist Sunday School Board.

“When we have ministers dropping out of churches and getting sick in large numbers because of stress, they probably aren’t handling stress properly,” Smith observed. “Emotionally healthy ministers model dealing with stress in a healthy way for church members. When pastors and other church staff ministers become defensive about their own emotions, they may be touching situations early in their lives that have not been dealt with.

“A lot of them are gifted, but their emotions may not have matured. They are prepared theologically for ministry, but they may not have been helped to prepare emotionally.

“We don’t just back into emotional health; we have to work at it,” Smith said. Like everyone else, the minister’s “emotional IQ” is related to the ability to control emotions, to delay gratification, to be content with oneself, to read other’s nonverbal signals and to be a team player. Deficits in any of these areas can become evident to church members and, over time, may seriously damage ministry effectiveness, he said.

Enemies to good emotional health include unresolved guilt, uncontrolled anger, unreleased grief, an unforgiving spirit and unaccepted responsibility, Smith said.

Unresolved guilt, he said, “will fester and become
malignant. Guilt is the guardian of conscience and moral goodness. Confession and forgiveness take care of guilt.”

Anger is an emotion that can create damage if it becomes volatile and ballistic or if it goes underground and becomes silent, Smith continued, and suppressed anger results in depression.

“Any form of significant loss will be followed by the emotional pain of grief,” he said, “and the intensity of grief will be in proportion to the significance of the loss.”

Since grief has no sense of time, it can find release years after the loss, if it is not faced immediately, he said.

Criticism and bitterness result from an unforgiving spirit, Smith said, and refusal to accept legitimate responsibility for one’s actions results in emotional sickness.

People should be decisive about nurturing their own emotional health, alert to possible physical causes of emotions and realistic in expectations for emotional growth, Smith said.

Other qualities needed for good emotional health, he said, are the ability to be positive, accurate in self-assessment, “big” in admitting mistakes, humorous, authentic, vulnerable to others, persistent in the face of setbacks and teachable, exchanging old habits for new ones.

“Let God feed you spiritually,” Smith said. “Let him nurture you. Climb up in his lap and let him put his arms around you.”

Emotionally healthy people, Smith said, are excited about life, make decisions without constant worry, like to be with people, have perspective and balance, possess a sense of humor and separate a specific failure from being a failure. They also are content and optimistic, can live with and handle problems, can evaluate and explain their own behavior, have trustworthy friends, feel they have worthwhile projects or satisfying work and possess a vital, living faith in God.

“All of us have pockets of need,” Smith said. Knowing the truth about oneself, he said, is a good beginning point in nurturing good emotional health.

Rec Lab was sponsored by the Baptist Sunday School Board’s church recreation program.

    About the Author

  • Charles Willis