The Road to Emotional Health

In September 1987, forty-five people attended the first worship service of New Life Fellowship Church. God moved powerfully in those early years, and it wasn’t long before the congregation had grown to 160 people. After three years, we launched a Spanish-speaking congregation. By the end of our sixth year, attendance at the English service had reached 400, and 250 were attending the Spanish service.

It was an exciting and rewarding experience for a young pastor. People were coming to Christ. The poor were being served in new, creative ways. We were developing leaders, multiplying small groups, feeding the homeless, and planting new churches. But all was not well beneath the surface, especially in my own life.

My soul was shrinking.

We always seemed to have too much to do and too little time to do it. While the church was an exciting place to be, there was no longer any joy in ministry leadership, just an endless, plodding duty of thankless responsibilities. After work, I had little energy left over to parent our daughters or to enjoy being with Geri. In fact, I secretly dreamed of retirement—and I was only in my mid-thirties! I also began to question the nature of Christian leadership. Am I supposed to be miserable and pressured so that other people can experience joy in God? It sure felt that way.

I struggled with envy and jealousy of other pastors—those with larger churches, nicer buildings, and easier situations. I didn’t want to be a workaholic like my dad or other pastors I knew. I wanted to be content in God, to do ministry in the unhurried pace of Jesus. The question was, How?

The bottom began to fall out in 1994 when our Spanish-speaking congregation experienced a church split. I will never forget the shock I felt the day I walked into the Spanish service and two hundred people were missing—just fifty remained. Everyone else had left to start another church. People I had led to Christ, discipled, and pastored for years were gone without so much as a word.

When the split occurred, I accepted all the blame for the problems that led up to it. I tried to follow Jesus’ model of remaining silent when accused, like a lamb going to slaughter (Isaiah 53:7). I repeatedly thought, Just take it, Pete. Jesus would. But I was also full of conflicting and unresolved emotions. I felt deeply wounded and angry at the assistant pastor who had spearheaded the split. Like the psalmist, I was devastated by the betrayal of someone “with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship” (Psalm 55:14). I was full of rage and hate, feelings I couldn’t get rid of no matter how hard I tried to let go and forgive. When I was alone in my car, curse words came out of my mouth almost involuntarily: “He is an @#&%!”

I was now the “cursing pastor.” I did not have a theology for what I was experiencing. Nor did I have a biblical framework for sadness and grief. Good Christian pastors are supposed to love and forgive people. But that wasn’t me. When I shared my predicament with fellow pastors, they were afraid I was sliding into an abyss of no return. I knew I was angry and hurt, but at a deeper level I remained unaware of my feelings and what was really going on in my interior life. My larger problem now was not so much the aftermath of the split, but the fact that my pain was leaking out in destructive ways, and I couldn’t control it. I angrily criticized the assistant pastor who had left. I told Geri I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a Christian anymore, let alone the pastor of a church! The most helpful counsel I received was a referral to a Christian counselor.

Geri and I made an appointment and went, but I felt humiliated, like a child walking into the principal’s office. In our sessions, I blamed my problems on anything and everything I could think of—the complexities of life and ministry in Queens, the unrelenting demands of church planting, Geri, our four small children, spiritual warfare, other leaders, a lack of prayer covering. It did not yet occur to me that my problems might have their roots in something to do with me.

I somehow managed to keep life and ministry going for another year before I finally hit rock bottom. On January 2, 1996, Geri told me she was quitting our church. That was the end of any illusions I may have had about my innocence in the mess that had become my life. I notified church elders about Geri’s decision and acknowledged my uncertainty about what should happen next. The elders suggested that Geri and I attend a one-week intensive retreat to see if we could sort things out. So we packed our bags and spent five full days with two counselors at a nearby center. My goal for the week was to find a quick way to fix Geri and end our pain so we could then get back to the real business of life and ministry. What I did not anticipate was that we would have a life-transforming encounter with God.

This was my second conversion and, much like the first, I had the experience of knowing I had been blind and suddenly received my sight. God opened my eyes to see I was a human being, not a human doing, which gave me permission to feel difficult emotions such as anger and sadness. I became aware of the significant impact my family of origin was having on my life, my marriage, and my leadership. Although I initially felt shocked by it all, the awareness also offered me a newly discovered freedom. I stopped pretending to be somebody I was not and took my first steps to be comfortable being Pete Scazzero, with my unique set of strengths, passions, and weaknesses. And Geri and I discovered the importance of love as the measure of maturity and reprioritized our schedules to place our marriage before ministry.

However, this second conversion also introduced me to painful realities I could no longer deny. I was an emotional infant trying to raise up mothers and fathers of the faith. There were large areas of my life that remained untouched by Jesus Christ. For example, I didn’t know how to do something as simple as being truly present or listening deeply to another person. While I was a senior pastor of a large, growing church who had been trained in two leading seminaries, attended the best leadership conferences, and been a devoted follower of Christ for seventeen years, I was stunted emotionally and spiritually.

For nearly two decades, I had ignored the emotional component in my spiritual growth and relationship with God. It didn’t matter how many books I might read or how much I devoted myself to prayer, I would remain stuck in repeated cycles of pain and immaturity unless and until I allowed Jesus Christ to transform aspects of my life that were deep beneath the surface.

I discovered that my life is a lot like an iceberg—I was aware of only a fraction of it and largely unaware of the hidden mass beneath the surface. And it was this hidden mass that had wreaked havoc on my family and on my leadership.

It wasn’t until I understood that these beneath-the-surface components of my life had not been transformed by Jesus that I discovered the inseparable link between emotional health and spiritual maturity—that it is not possible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature. In the months and years that followed, Geri and I changed much about the way we did life and ministry. We began by working a five-day week, not a six-and-a-half-day week. Leading out of our brokenness and weaknesses became a core value. Loving well was now the most important task among all our work for God. We slowed down the pace of ministry at New Life. As we journeyed deep beneath our own icebergs, we invited our leaders to join with us. The result was nothing short of a Copernican revolution—in my journey with Christ, in my family, and in my leadership.

Peter Scazzero is the founder of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York, and author of The Emotionally Healthy Church and The Emotionally Healthy Leader.

This article and the sidebar are condensed by permission from The Emotionally Healthy Leader, by Peter Scazzero (Zondervan, 2015).

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