Emerging research tells us that successful turnaround pastors differ from their colleagues in temperament and emotional intelligence. The data imply an easy way for pastors to avoid the many challenges of a growing church. All they need to do is exhibit the five deficiencies that stifle church growth. If you want to avoid the trouble of leading a growing congregation then all you have to do is …

  1. Be Needy—Constantly crave the attention and praise of others.
  2. Be Inflexible—Press on once you’ve made a decision, undeterred by new facts.
  3. Be Pessimistic—Remain vigilant against setback, discouragement or defeat.
  4. Be Stoic—Focus on what you accomplish, not how you feel.
  5. Be Passive—Don’t express yourself or your feelings to others.

I’ll bet that you’re not interested in avoiding the challenges the pastor of a growing church faces, you’d relish the opportunity! If so, you’re more likely to move in that direction if you hone your skills in a handful of emotional skills. It turns out that emotional intelligence is a key component to successful leadership.

Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Success

According to Steven Stein and Howard Book in their book, The EQ Edge, Emotional Intelligence (EI) is, “the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional meanings, and to reflectively regulate emotions in ways that promote emotional and intellectual growth.” It is the ability to understand our emotions and those of others and regulate emotion’s influence on our behavior. It is, in other words, the process of emotional self-regulation.

EI is vital to successful leadership in large organizations. Objective, measurable EI competencies distinguish successful CEOs from those who aren’t. Failure to master the right EI skills can lead to organizational troubles. As Ram Charan and Geoffrey Colvin state in their Fortune Magazine article entitled, “Why CEOs Fail”:

So how do CEOs blow it? More than any other way, by failure to put the right people in the right jobs—and the related failure to fix people problems in time. Specifically, failed CEOs are often unable to deal with a few key subordinates whose sustained poor performance deeply harms the company. What is striking, as many CEOs told us, is that they usually know there’s a problem; their inner voice is telling them, but they suppress it. Those around the CEO often recognize the problem first, but he isn’t seeking information from multiple sources. As one CEO says, “It was staring me in the face, but I refused to see it.” The failure is one of emotional strength (emphasis added).

A church isn’t a business and pastors aren’t CEOs. But churches, like businesses, are webs of human relationships. Pastors, like CEOs are (or should be) leaders (I am not suggesting that pastors are or should operate like CEOs. I am only stating that pastors are leaders of the churches they serve) So, while both require EI skills to succeed as leaders, the EI competencies required of growing church’s pastors differ from those required of CEOs. Both are distinguished by mastery of critical EI skills.

Recent research by Jared Roth has shown us that successful turnaround pastors scored higher on fourteen of the fifteen EI competencies studied. They scored significantly higher in three factors—emotional self-awareness, independence and flexibility. So, we’re safe in saying that proficiency in some element of EI is essential for anyone who would be the pastor of a growing church. As Stein and Book state, fortunately EI is easily measured and people can improve their Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQi).

The Turnaround Pastor’s Five Distinctive Proficiencies

In Roth’s findings, the EI competencies showing the stronger influence in growing churches were independence, flexibility, optimism, emotional self-awareness, and assertiveness.

1. Independence

Independence is a state of self-awareness and self-expression that frees us to be self-reliant, without emotional dependence on others. As Stein and Book state,

Independence is the ability to be self-directed and self-controlled in your thinking and actions and to be free of emotional dependency. Independent people are self-reliant in planning and making important decisions. They can stand on their own two feet. Independent people are able to function autonomously‚ they avoid clinging to others in order to satisfy their emotional needs. The ability to be independent rests on one’s degree of self-confidence and inner strength, and the desire to meet expectations and obligations without becoming a slave to them. People who crave acceptance at any cost and are scared stiff of giving the slightest offense have grave difficulty exercising independence.

At first glance you might think this is an odd distinction for successful turnaround pastors. Independence, after all, can be counterproductive for team players. Professional athletes, for example, who score high in this domain tend to underachieve because they go their own way instead of listening to the coach and learning the team system.

Pastors typically work within the system so it would seem that independence is counterproductive. But when you think about the specific challenge, a turnaround pastor must be independent. He’s in a failing system that must be changed if it is to survive. The worst thing the leader of a failing church can do is conform to and work within its parameters.

As Stein and Book state, in the context of a turnaround situation, independence is the ability to stand alone, take full responsibility for the church’s welfare and own the fact that “the buck stops here.” Pastors who depend on a steady diet of affirmation and praise from their congregants will find this emotional competency challenging. They fear giving offense. For them it is difficult to exercise independence, enforcing personal and professional boundaries. But this is exactly the leadership behavior that plateaued and declining churches need from their pastors.

2. Flexibility

Flexibility is a skill that enables us to adapt and adjust our feelings and thoughts to new situations. Again, Stein and Book state:

Flexibility is the ability to adjust your emotions, thoughts, and behavior to changing situations and conditions. This component of emotional intelligence applies to your overall ability to adapt to unfamiliar, unpredictable, and dynamic circumstances. Flexible people are agile, synergistic and capable of reacting to change, without rigidity. These people are able to change their minds when evidence suggests that they are mistaken. They are generally open to and tolerant of different ideas, orientations, ways, and practices. Their capacity to shift thoughts and behaviors is not arbitrary or whimsical, but rather in concert with the shifting feedback they are getting from their environment. Individuals who lack this capacity tend to be rigid and obstinate.

Roth states that flexibility is the second distinguishing characteristic of church growth pastors that makes it easier to manage change. Flexible pastors modify plans on the fly.

Flexibility brings two challenges. First is the need for wisdom to know when new facts call for a change in plans. Second is the ability to reassure the church that the goal and direction haven’t changed, this is merely a mid-course correction. Pastors who tend to inflexibility may insist on staying the course even when new data suggest they’re headed over a cliff. It’s also interesting to wonder if members with good leadership skills exfiltrate the church, looking for better ministry opportunities elsewhere.

It is likely that flexibility rests on a healthy view of God’s sovereignty in detail. This ties it to the next important defining EI skill of church growth pastors—optimism.

3. Optimism

Optimism is a general mood that is choosen to be positive by looking on the bright side, thereby producing self-motivation to act. Stein and Book say:

Optimism is the ability to look at the brighter side of life and to maintain a positive attitude even in the face of adversity. Optimism is an indicator of one’s positive attitude and outlook on life. It involves remaining hopeful and resilient, despite occasional setbacks …

It’s the ability to stop thinking or saying destructive things about yourself and the world around you, especially when you’re suffering personal setbacks. True optimism is a comprehensive and hopeful but realistic approach to daily living.

I want to delve into this contrast between optimism and pessimism a bit because the difference between the two responses is, I believe, at the heart of pastoral burnout and leadership failures. Although the psychologist’s or researcher’s definition of optimism indicates that personal choice is involved, there is more to it than mere choice of response, as important as that is. The question is why some choose to respond with alacrity and others with dysphoria.

Stein and Book said that optimists know trouble is temporary; pessimists see it as an unbroken chain that stretches uninterrupted from past to future. Optimists frame a reversal as unique, confined to the current context; pessimists internalize it by assuming blame as a mark of their own incompetence. Optimists know that, “problem solving is a large part of the pastor’s job.” Temporary reversals are taken in stride as part of the territory one traverses with fellow believers who share our fallibility.

Stein and Book press further:

Optimists acknowledge some things as beyond their control yet they choose to remain positive. The pessimist’s response reveals disagreement—perhaps unspoken or unrecognized—that some things are beyond their control; that is why they internalize blame. A pessimist may tacitly acknowledge that only God is sovereign, but the pessimistic response to reversal indicates the opposite. Followed to its logical conclusion, the pessimist’s mindset (“Had I tried harder, applied myself more diligently and exercised my skills to their full extent, I could have avoided this”) reveals the heart of the problem. Pessimists, like the rest of us, are idolators. The pessimist unwittingly embraces the view that “I’m God. I could have fixed this had I really wanted to.”

Here is where I see the link between optimism and flexibility. Both rest on a healthy, biblical view of God’s sovereignty in detail. When we recognize that we must change our course of action because of new information or unexpected reversals, our embrace of God’s sovereign governance allows us to greet the challenge cheerfully (optimism) and make beneficial changes (flexibility).

The apostle Paul models this in his response to imprisonment and affliction. The first chapter of his letter to the Philippians shows him responding with joy to a significant reversal in fortune. His flexibility is evident in capitalizing on the situation to continue his apostolic ministry; he didn’t have to seek out unbelievers because his jailers guarded him 24/7.

4. Emotional Self-awareness

Emotional Self-awareness is being aware of and understanding your emotions.  Stein and Book state:

Emotional self-awareness is the ability to recognize your feelings, differentiate between them, know why you are feeling these feelings, and recognize the impact your feelings have on others around you.

Although Roth’s research ranks it fourth on the list of EI proficiencies in church growth pastors, emotional self-awareness is the most important skill of all. According to Stein and Book it is “the foundation on which most of the other elements are built.” The pastor who does not recognize he’s angry with a parishioner won’t understand the metacommunication in the conversation. He’ll walk away puzzled by the other’s defensiveness.

Many a biblical admonition rests on the assumption that we’re in touch with our feelings, and that awareness enables us to control how we respond. Paul’s instruction, “in your anger do not sin” (Eph. 4:26, cf. Psa. 4:4) perfectly exemplifies self-awareness as the basis of appropriate response to emotion.

5. Assertiveness

Assertiveness is the ability to express your emotions, your ideas and yourself constructively.

This is a key EI skill for pastors leading plateaued and declining churches because it involves clear communication, special sensitivity to the needs of others, and appropriate responses to opposition.  Stein and Book say:

Assertiveness comprises three basic components: (1) the ability to express feelings (for example, to accept and express anger, warmth, and sexual feelings); (2) the ability to express beliefs and thoughts openly (being able to voice opinions, disagree, and take a definite stand, even if it is emotionally difficult to do so and even if you have something to lose by doing so); and (3) the ability to stand up for personal rights (not allowing others to bother you or take advantage of you). Assertive people are not over-controlled or shy‚ they are able to express their feelings and beliefs (often directly) and they do so without being aggressive or abusive.

It is a mistake to think of assertiveness as aggressive behavior, which is likely the reason that many pastors fail in this important EI skill. They fear that being assertive will be perceived as aggression that will inflict harm on others and result in the loss of respect.

To the contrary, assertiveness rests on self-awareness (you know what you’re feeling), impulse control (you express yourself appropriately) and independence (you stand for what’s right regardless of what others may think of you). Stein and Book believe it is evident that a turnaround pastor or church growth pastor will be proficient in exercising assertiveness in ways that lead to beneficial change without harming relationship. In fact, assertiveness usually leads to strengthened relationships because it leads to clear understanding, responds sensitively to others, and results in mutual respect.

Summary and Conclusion

Pastors of growing churches are easily distinguished by their EI skills in independence, flexibility, optimism, emotional self-awareness, and assertiveness. Although every pastor in Roth’s research scored some degree of competence in each of these skills, pastors who had proven abilities to lead growing churches scored significantly higher in each of these five areas. Stein and Book summarize just how important EI is in most fields of human endeavor.

In many occupations, good relationships with a wide range of other people are necessary and expected. They come with the territory; they’re part of the job description. It’s difficult to imagine a salesperson, a politician, a member of the clergy, a social worker, or a teacher with poor interpersonal skills‚ but our research has shown that these skills are also advantageous in fields that don’t immediately spring to mind as “people professions.”

The good news in all of this is that EQi is not “fixed.” It is not determined by genetics. Although we’re all born with an initial EI disposition, it increases with age—wisdom perhaps?—and, according to Thom Rainer, can be developed with discipline. This means that all pastors can gain additional proficiency in each of these five critical competencies, thereby increasing the likelihood that they’ll be able to lead their churches toward more effective ministry, growth and health.

Let me close this article with a few caveats, to place EI in its proper theological context within the mission of God. As Ron Crandall states:

  • Church growth is not a science.
  • Improving the pastor’s EQi is not a panacea for all that ails, but it is an important first step.
  • Pastors may do it “by the numbers” but their churches will still fail to thrive.
  • No matter how good a pastor may be at growing a church, there’s no guarantee the next one will be able to sustain it.

The pastor’s responsibility is to exercise all of the skill and dedication he/she can muster, while depending on God totally.

We can dig the trench, stack the wood and pour the water—that’s being faithful to what God has told us to do as ministers.

Only God can light the fire.