Lately, I’ve been thinking about emotions and pastoral ministry—particularly, when it comes to qualities like managing self-awareness and developing relational empathy with those I’ve been entrusted to lead. Pastors often pride ourselves on having a high IQ (intelligence quotient) even as we flaunt our indifference to EQ (emotional quotient, or our skill in handling emotions). Many of us rightly reject elevating feelings above truth, but we must be careful not to swing the pendulum to the other extreme. Managing and understanding the role of emotions is critical for every leader, especially those who shepherd God’s people.
Unfortunately, numerous pastors would call emotional intelligence a “feminine quality.” Some even argue that men are the intellectual epicenter of the church and women are the emotional one. This demeans emotional intelligence as unnecessary at best, and at worst a liability reserved for women who can’t control their tears.
This line of thinking can be especially dangerous in church leadership because it can cause leaders to disregard the emotions of others and railroad everyone around them. Pastors with excellent preaching and teaching gifts and no major moral failings can still do damage beyond measure if they are emotionally and relationally bankrupt.
What sorts of sentiments does a low EQ produce in church leadership? See if any on this list ring a bell. Maybe you’re like me and have caught yourself saying or thinking a few of these.
- “It doesn’t matter how you feel; it matters what the Bible says.”
- “I’m a pastor, not a therapist.”
- “I need to keep distance between the people and myself.”
- “Don’t come to me looking for empathy. Talk to my wife.”
- “Get on board with my vision or get out.”
These statements all point to the same misconception: High IQ is the mark of a true leader fit for entrepreneurial work and life at the top of the totem pole. High EQ is unimportant and antithetical to dynamic leadership.
What is so wrong with this line of thinking? For starters, it does not belong anywhere near a church. It’s been said time and time again that emotional intelligence is the currency of relationships. What part of shepherding doesn’t involve building relationships with people and speaking into their lives? During their workweek, pastors spend 40 minutes in the pulpit and 40 hours outside of it. That’s a short time focused on a one-way monologue from a stage, and a whole lot more time engaged in two-way conversations with the saints.
Recently, Jared C. Wilson sounded off on this issue with a series of social media posts:
We like strong personalities, fiery pulpiteers, theologically rigorous thinkers. And then we're shocked when they don't know how to speak to a man struggling with same-sex attraction or a woman struggling in her marriage, etc. They're awkward, unrelational, unempathetic…
It's why we must insist that our pastors actually be *pastors*, with preacher/theologian a subset of that office. Low EQ pastors do untold damage b/c they see the church as an audience or a followership, not as a flock to be cared for…
And personality type has almost no bearing on this. Many introverted pastors are great in counseling/visitation/discipling and many extroverted pastors are terrible. It's not about introvert/extrovert—it's about emotional intelligence. The ability to empathize, relate, connect.
For many of us, this issue can stir up all kinds of insecurities. But I believe most pastors want to grow their EQ. For every pastor who bashes emotional coherence, there are likely 10 pastors eager to be challenged in this area.
A few years ago I was counseling a church member who opened up about a struggle with sin. With a high-and-mighty view of my own personal holiness and some seminary credits under my belt, I felt fully prepared to tell this man a thing of two about killing his own sin. So I put my theological intellect on shining display, listing off verses and theological principles that applied to his situation. It was a Bible-thumping TKO!
But after my tirade of truth, the church member didn’t look energized or encouraged. I had knocked the wind out of his sails. He said, “Pastor, I already know what the Bible says about my sin, but I came here to see if you would come alongside me in this battle? I need someone to disciple me.” My heart sank. I had given him a monologue, expecting him to figure out what to do about his sin alone. I had failed to see him as a man who needed empathy and guidance.
Jesus doesn’t call pastors to be one-and-done counseling hammers. He calls us to make disciples. This man needed a friend, a brother, and a pastor to walk with him and keep him accountable. I had failed in the task.
After that counseling session, I knew I needed to become a more faithful pastor, so I sought ways to raise my pastoral EQ. I’m not done growing yet, but the following three practices were consistent keys to my growth. I hope you find them helpful as you seek to do the same.
1. Reflect on the gospel daily
Nothing can trigger a humble, loving heart for others like the gospel. It’s much easier to walk with a heart of grace for others after reflecting on the grace God has shown you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to write off family members caught up in false teaching or ignore a church member who just made the same mistake for the 20th time. The gospel is a motivating reminder that Jesus didn’t write me off when I deserved it.
I often find myself getting caught up in the day-to-day hustle of life and ministry. The organizational vision of a church can easily overshadow the people of the church. But a heart regularly moved by the gospel will be stirred with compassion and empathy toward others. Christ’s work and message are like anti-venom to the poison of selfish indifference and emotional ignorance.
2. Receive correction and instruction
Accountability and support from others can go a long way toward raising your EQ. I’ll never forget when, after a fellowship with some other pastors, my mentor pulled me aside and said, “Never forget, Costi, you can be right about something, but you don’t need to be ugly about it.” He didn’t need to say another word. I knew exactly what he meant.
Even though it has involved some tough conversations, my ministry has benefited remarkably from sitting down with trusted people who could point out my emotional blind spots. Biblical counseling can be a great way to grow your EQ by dealing with emotional wounds from your past that prohibit you from becoming a healthy leader. And few people are better than spouses for cultivating self-awareness—they know us better than anyone. If pastors are called to preach, teach, rebuke, exhort, and correct others, then surely it is fitting for that spiritual work to first take place in their own life and heart.
3. Resist the ego
Pastors may fear that addressing EQ challenges will expose them as “weak” or that their congregations and teams will no longer respect them. But by cultivating this area of their lives and ministries, they will be another step closer to the embodiment of what Paul called the “unashamed workman.” Pastors growing in their EQ will be able to handle the difficulties of ministry in constructive ways that bring glory to God. Second Timothy 2:24–25 offers this sobering reminder for how we ought to handle our emotions in a secure, humble, and God-honoring way:
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.
Ministry can be tough, and difficult people can jade even the most loving and relational leaders, but there is no excuse for Christian leaders to toss aside emotional intelligence as “useless whining about emotions.” Men of God—not only women—must possess tenderness and toughness when caring for God's flock. True, God has called pastors to speak informational truth to his people, but he also cares deeply about the transformation of their hearts. Our emotional intelligence is an important part of that work.
Costi W. Hinn is executive pastor at Mission Bible Church in Orange County, California.