Emotional intelligence, understanding your emotions and the emotions of others, is priceless when beginning the journey of change in a church.
By Aaron Summers
Ministers who feel a call to serve declining or dying churches will face unnecessary challenges if they seek to develop change readiness without developing their emotional intelligence. Emotions can run to extremes—especially after the pandemic—and conflict rises in the local church. The conflict stems from the need to adjust to a changing world while maintaining an unchangeable gospel. And many churches struggle to make the necessary adjustments. According to a 2019 study from Lifeway Research, 61% of churches in the U.S. said their church attendance had declined or remained steady over the last three years. Now, after the pandemic, churches are, on average, at 85% of their January 2020 attendance.
In January 2022, Lifeway Research shared the results of a study concerning the greatest needs of pastors. These sobering concerns mark the effect of the pandemic coupled with the rapid rate of decline in the local church. Any attempt to revitalize or replant a church requires an understanding of the characteristics of the church in need.“Leading a church through the revitalization process is mind-bending, heart-wrenching, and time-consuming.” — @aaronwsummers Click To Tweet
Typically, a church needing revitalization or replanting is one that has declined 10% in attendance over the past five years. The reasons behind that statistic are many and take time to understand and unpack. But leading a recovery process, commonly called a revitalization or replant, is not a sermon series. Leading this process is not a self-help semester-long class. Leading a church through this process is mind-bending, heart-wrenching, and time-consuming. So, if you are replanting a dying church, you must be aware of your emotions and feelings. You must have specific intelligence of your emotions in order to walk with, not drive, a group of people to a preferred future.
Defining emotional intelligence
In Daniel Goleman’s seminal work in 1994, Emotional Intelligence, he defined emotional intelligence as “the ability to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope.” Emotional intelligence has four essential components: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and social management.
Emotional intelligence has been studied for decades, but it is not often discussed among pastors. Emotions are hard-wired into humanity and, thus, are a part of the biblical story. As we read about Joseph’s life in Genesis 37-50, we can see his emotional intelligence develop. In Proverbs, wisdom reveals each of the four parts of emotional intelligence. Finally, Paul writes about the fruit of the Spirit, concluding with self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
Applying emotional intelligence
The problems within declining churches are often the pain points that require high emotional intelligence to navigate the situation healthily. The leader who wishes to revitalize or replant that local church and begins to change any of these areas will need to do so with a well-developed emotional maturity. Before embarking on this journey, the wise leader engages in self-reflection and introspection to discover the motivation behind leading change in the church. This activity is not without its challenges. In her book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown identifies 87 emotions.“The problems within declining churches are often the pain points that require high emotional intelligence to navigate the situation healthily.” — @aaronwsummers Click To Tweet
Pastors are trained to preach and lead more than to listen and feel. For this reason, much of what we consider a failure in church revitalization stems from a lack of awareness and management. The unaware and unmanaged pastor is scoffed at and ignored, while the socially unaware and unmanaged pastor is fired. Neither of these actions heals old wounds and allows for future health and growth. Here are five obstacles to emotional intelligence we need to address.
1. Resistance to change
The leader must learn to couple self-awareness of their own emotions with an awareness of the emotions the church people are feeling. The unaware leader will create more conflict and dissolution of unity than was present before he engaged. The wise leader listens to his heart and the church’s heart. Gordon MacDonald wrote a beautiful book that chronicles his journey in church change.
2. A losing mindset
This will take much love, prayer, and handholding for the pastor to lead a church through this obstacle. Looking for social cues in the congregation creates a space for the pastor to lead slowly and carefully. It is quite possible that the church feels the pain of the depression but has shifted blame to many things other than the root of the problem.
3. Learning to lead, not drive, the people
The church has “done it this way” for years and will not be easily motivated to do otherwise. One local pastor told me he does two things. First, he drops the change into conversation over time. Second, he lets it be the church’s idea when it comes up later. These steps are an excellent portrayal of lovingly leading instead of driving his people. The self-managing pastor will slow down and read the history of the church. The pastor learning to be socially aware and manage situations will ask many questions that allow people to testify to the church’s history.
4. Generational differences
The church that knows the various worldviews of the five generations and engages them at their strengths can learn to collaborate across these lines and thrive during changing times. It’s to be expected that some will resist any change someone else desires for the church. The pain of the status quo is not significant enough to overcome the pain of change. The pastor must lovingly address such resistance. How he loves through the process of change magnifies the transformative effect of the gospel.
5. Leading people to confession and repentance
The pastor who desires to lead change must lead the people to confession and repentance. The emotionally equipped pastor will love first, learn second, then lead. Empathy is essential when addressing behaviors. This is likely the most sensitive and dangerous of the five because it gets personal when discussing behavior. The wise pastor will model more than mention it at the beginning of change readiness development.“The emotionally equipped pastor will love first, learn second, then lead.” — @aaronwsummers Click To Tweet
Developed emotional intelligence is priceless when preparing a church for change. All humans are wired with emotions, but not all know how to manage them well. A plateaued, declining, or dying church will likely not be ready to discuss change without a healthy dose of time, love, and patience on the pastor’s part. Helping a church navigate the choppy waters of change can strike fear in the heart of any pastor. However, those who take the time to learn self-awareness and self-management skills will be prepared for the journey.
For permission to republish this article, please email Marissa Postell Sullivan.
Aaron Summers serves as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Crowley, TX. He and his wife Dulcie have 2 kids in college and enjoy traveling in their RV.