It was Sunday morning, and as I got up to the pulpit and looked out, a flood of emotions hit me as I tried to begin preaching.
I was staring out at people I knew, who were waiting to hear what God had said. I had fired someone recently — a brother for whom Christ had died. That morning before the service, multiple children had come up to me to get a hug or high five, followed by a new widow who was just overwhelmed. To my left was a woman whose husband was in steady decline. Just behind her was a guy who had recently begun experiencing freedom from pornography. Behind him was a woman whose husband had suddenly abandoned her and her daughter. An abuse victim sat to my right. The couple near the back had just buried their daughter. Directly in front of me, there were thirty eager college students exuding energy, passion, and joy. And then, of course, there were my children, sitting with my wife, wondering what Dad would say. Some 650 souls, all with a unique story God was weaving. I know their names.
How should a pastor handle the waves of emotions that come from knowing about the souls of more people than most? With that knowledge come joys and burdens. Enough studies have shown that many pastors are not carrying those burdens well. So what can be done?
Emotional Toll of Pastoring
I’m not going to tell you not to let your emotions get the better of you. I want to remind pastors, myself included, that emotions are a gift of God meant to serve us, not undo us — that our feelings are part of our humanity that God once declared “very good” (Genesis 1:31). They are vital and necessary, helping us know and navigate reality.
Sin, of course, has corrupted our feelings. Our love is not what it should be. Neither is our joy. Our compassion meter is broken. Articles on emotions often highlight this brokenness, and then tell us how to put up guardrails to protect ourselves from burnout — weekly rhythms, days off, friendships outside of the church, sabbaticals. We are only human, after all. And so, we are often told not to rely on emotions, or listen to emotions, or be led by emotions. But what if some of us are avoiding emotions God has given us because we’ve been taught, whether subtly or explicitly, that these kinds of emotions are unhealthy in leadership?
The emotions that arise in ministry come involuntarily and can feel overwhelming. I’m often deeply grieved, not just over trials in my own life, but over the trials of our people, whom I love (1 Peter 1:6). I can be perplexed, sometimes to despair. Hard pressed, and sometimes crushed. Outwardly getting older and wasting away, and not always feeling renewed inwardly (2 Corinthians 4:8, 16). The emotional toll of pastoral ministry is undeniable and unavoidable.
Suppression Is Not a Cure
I have noticed something of a relationship between growing theological rigor and skepticism about emotions. An emotional blindness can slowly emerge, which leads to an emotional deficit, so that when the overwhelming nature of pastoral ministry hits, we are crushed by it. Or we might try to shield ourselves from the blow by hiring others to do the interpersonal work of discipleship so that we can just teach in front of groups. In the latter, the church becomes an audience, instead of the flock God has put under our care.
“Suppressing God-given emotions is one way we quench the Spirit in life and ministry.”
Suppressing God-given emotions is one way we quench the Spirit in life and ministry. We often suffer because we are fighting his work within us. We end up suppressing emotions that the sinless Jesus experienced and expressed. As a result, the congregation often suffers because they’re being led by a one-dimensional pastor.
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis reflects on suppressing love and its odious results:
If you want to make sure of keeping it [your heart] intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. (155–56)
A cold, dead pastor.
How might we then deepen our emotional maturity and avoid one-dimensional shepherding? By training our emotions.
Imitate the Emotions of Jesus
First, we ought to allow ourselves to imitate the emotional life of Jesus. Yes, he was without sin, and we are not, so we cannot trust our sorrow or anger like we can trust his. But because he was without sin, and can sympathize with our weaknesses and temptations, he models the kind of Spirit-filled emotional life we should pursue.
Our personalities seem to dictate what we believe about the emotional range of Jesus. For example, when you read Jesus saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees,” what emotion do you project on the Lord? Is he stern at that moment? Is he yelling? Or is it a lament? When Jesus weeps over unbelief (John 11:35), is it driven by anger or frustration or sadness?
The emotional range of the most perfect human being was complex. Jesus was moved to act when people were in distress (Matthew 20:34). He could be indignant and merciful in the same moment (Mark 1:41 NIV). He wasn’t sentimental. He wept, but not with everyone or in every circumstance. Even as he headed to the cross, he told the women not to weep (Luke 23:28). We see Jesus annoyed, frustrated, angry, distraught, compassionate, loving, merciful, and tender.
As we study him in the Gospels, though, we tend to fill his words and emotions with meaning based on our inclinations and experiences. We push some emotions down that we (or our culture) are naturally uncomfortable with, while expressing other emotions more freely. That’s why you’ll find harsh pastors, in the name of holiness, imitating a stern, severe “Jesus,” while more cowardly pastors, in the name of holiness, imitate a “Jesus” who cries with you and affirms you no matter the circumstance.
Healthy pastors experience the fullness and complexity of their emotions, and then hold them up against the sinlessness of Christ. How might Jesus respond to the pain and loss and victory and neediness in front of me? We grow emotionally as leaders by studying the heart of Jesus as he walks among sinners and sufferers.
Submit Your Emotions to Others
Perhaps the first way to train emotions is what you would have expected (and even counseled others to do). And maybe that has not produced as much fruit as you expected. If that’s so, it may be because we have done so alone and not allowed the body of Christ to minister to us.
Pastors need to read our Bibles with others, not just alone. We need to pray with others, not just alone. The pursuit of personal piety through spiritual disciplines is often presented as something we do only by ourselves. Time alone with God is essential to the Christian life, much less to ministry, but we all need the body of Christ to train our emotions.
“A lack of friendship in a pastor’s life will lead to a stunted emotional life.”
Friendships for pastors are notoriously challenging, especially within the church. I remember sitting in the back of a pastor’s conference and hearing my friend wonder aloud if anyone attending had a friend. A lack of friendship in a pastor’s life will lead to a stunted emotional life. My life has been enriched and challenged by friends who are so different from me in how they read their Bibles, experience the Holy Spirit’s work, and obey Christ’s commands. How they experience Jesus (and his emotions) in Scripture forces me to think beyond my own limited perspective.
These relationships require the kind of vulnerability from pastors that we typically ask others to show us. For these friendships to refine us, we have to be willing to lay down the mantle of teaching and learn from those whom God has given us to teach. Who are the people who live in close enough proximity to you that they can help train your emotions?
Emotionally Healthy Shepherds
God has given pastors a wide range of emotions to help us relate to himself and others: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
As I looked out that Sunday morning on 650 stories and situations, it was clear to me that our church needed an emotionally healthy shepherd — one feeling and expressing, in measured and appropriate ways, a sanctified and maturing range of emotion. They’ll learn to steward their emotions, in part, by imitating what they see and hear in their pastor. Ignoring or suppressing my emotions would not only stunt my growth, but theirs as well.
We don’t have to limit our emotional output in the name of holiness. We can’t assume emotions are unhealthy because we’re experiencing them in new or deeper ways. Acknowledging pain, showing compassion, being grieved, feeling stress, and more, are not necessarily signs of emotional immaturity. They may be the opposite: signs of increasing maturity in Christ. Even feeling a sense of helplessness can be a healthy way God reminds us of how much we need him.
Emotions are gifts to pastors, and the healthy emotions of pastors can be a great gift to a church. So are you an emotionally healthy pastor?