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The Emotionally Healthy Church
A Strategy for Discipleship that Actually Changes Lives
By Peter L. Scazzero, Warren Bird
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2010 Peter L. Scazzero
All rights reserved.
As Go the Leaders, So Goes the Church
* * *
The overall health of any church or ministry depends primarily on the emotional and spiritual health of its leadership. In fact, the key to successful spiritual leadership has much more to do with the leader's internal life than with the leader's expertise, gifts, or experience.
It took me a long time to realize that yet another leadership seminar or more information was not the key to "successful" church leadership. In fact, my journey toward leading an emotionally and spiritually healthy church was not triggered in a seminar or book. Instead, it was brought to a head with a very painful conversation at home.
My Wife Couldn't Take It Anymore
"Pete, I'm leaving the church," my wife Geri had muttered quietly.
I sat still, too stunned to respond.
"I can't take any more of this stress—the constant crises," she continued.
Geri had been more than patient. I had brought home constant pressure and tension from church, year after year. Now the woman I had promised to love just as Christ loved the church was exhausted.
We had experienced eight unrelenting years of stress.
"I'm not doing it anymore," she concluded. "This church is no longer life for me. It is death."
When a church member says, "I'm leaving the church," most pastors don't feel very good. But when your wife of nine years says it, your world is turned upside down.
We were in the bedroom. I remember the day well.
"Pete, I love you, but I'm leaving the church," she summarized very calmly. "I no longer respect your leadership."
I was visibly shaken and didn't know what to say or do. I felt shamed, alone, and angry.
I tried raising my voice to intimidate her: "That is out of the question," I bellowed. "All right, so I've made a few mistakes."
But she calmly continued, "It's not that simple. You don't have the guts to lead—to confront the people who need to be confronted. You don't lead. You're too afraid that people will leave the church. You're too afraid of what they'll think about you."
I was outraged.
"I'm getting to it!" I yelled defensively. "I'm working on it." (For the last two years, I really had been trying, but somehow still wasn't up to it.)
"Good for you, but I can't wait any more," she replied.
There was a long pause of silence. Then she uttered the words that changed the power balance in our marriage permanently: "Pete, I quit."
It is said that the most powerful person in the world is one who has nothing to lose. Geri no longer had anything to lose. She was dying on the inside, and I hadn't listened to or responded to her calls for help.
She softly continued, "I love you, Pete. But the truth is, I would be happier separated than married. At least then you would have to take the kids on weekends. Then maybe you'd even listen!"
"How could you say such a thing?" I complained. "Don't even think about it."
She was calm and resolute in her decision. I was enraged. A good Christian wife, married to a Christian (and a pastor I may add), does not do this. I understood at that moment why a husband could fly into a rage and kill the wife he loves.
She had asserted herself. She was forcing me to listen.
I wanted to die. This was going to require me to change!1
The Beginnings of This Mess
How did we get to this point?
Eight years previously, my wife and I had a vision to begin planting a church among the working classes in Queens, New York City, that would develop leaders to plant other churches both in New York City and around the world.
Perhaps it is more accurate to say that I had a vision and Geri followed. Wasn't that the biblical way large decisions were supposed to be made in a marriage?
Now, four children later, she was battle weary and wanted a life and a marriage. By this time I agreed. The problem was my sense of responsibility to build the church, and to do so for other people. I had little energy left over to parent our children or to enjoy Geri. I had even less energy to enjoy a "life," whatever that was! Even when I was physically present, such as at a soccer game for one of our daughters, my mind was usually focused on something related to the church.
I remember wondering, Am I supposed to be living so miserably and so pressured in order that other people can experience joy in God? It sure felt that way.
Weeks had turned into months. Months into years. The years had become almost a decade, and the crisis was now in full bloom. The sober reality was that I had made little time during those nine years for the joys of parenting and marriage. I was too preoccupied with the incessant demands of pastoring a church. (How well I now know that I will never get those years back.)
Jesus does call us to die to ourselves. "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). The problem was that we had died to the wrong things. We mistakenly thought that dying to ourselves for the sake of the gospel meant dying to self-care, to feelings of sadness, to anger, to grief, to doubt, to struggles, to our healthy dreams and desires, and to passions we had enjoyed before our marriage.
Geri has always loved the outdoors and nature. She values her large, extended family. She loves the field of recreation, creating opportunities for people to have fun. There was rarely time for those pleasures.
Workaholics for God
We were very busy for God. Our lives were filled with serving, doing, and trying to love other people. It felt at times that we weren't supposed to do some of the things that would give me energy and joy, so that others could have these feelings. In actuality, we had died to something God never intended to be killed (as I will explain later).
I remember sitting at the dinner table with my brother-in-law as he talked about his joy in being a referee and coach for girls' basketball teams.
"Must be nice," I mumbled to myself. "Too bad I can't have that kind of freedom."
I had a profound experience of God's grace in Jesus Christ when I became a Christian at age nineteen. His love filled me with passion to serve him. Over time, however, this passion became a burden. The incessant demands of the church planting in New York City, in addition to my neglect of the emotional dimensions of spirituality, slowly turned my joy into "duty." My life became out of balance, and I slowly bought into the lie that the more I suffered for Christ, the more he would love me. I began to feel guilty about taking too much time off and enjoying places like the beach.
My spiritual foundation was finally being revealed for what it was: wood, hay, and stubble (1 Cor. 3:10–15). I had limped along for so many years that the limp now seemed normal.
Geri's courageous step on that cold January evening saved me. God intervened dramatically through Geri's words, "I quit."
It was probably the most loving, courageous act of service she has ever done for me. It forced me to seek professional help to resolve my "vocational" crisis. Unconsciously, I hoped the counselor would straighten Geri out so I could get on with my life and the church.
Little did I know what was ahead!
God forced me to take a long, painful look at the truth—the truth about myself, our marriage, our lives, the church. Jesus said, "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32). It was demoralizing to admit, finally, that the intensity of my engagement in spiritual disciplines had not worked spiritual maturity into my life.
Why? I ignored the emotional components of discipleship in my life.
Life before This Crisis of Intimacy
I grew up in a New Jersey suburb, in an Italian American family, only one mile from the skyscrapers of Manhattan.
I went away to college in 1974, got involved in a Bible study on campus and became a follower of Jesus Christ during my sophomore year. That experience launched me into a spiritual journey that would include, over the next six years, the Catholic charismatic movement; a bilingual Spanish-English, inner-city, mainline Protestant church; an African-American church; Pentecostalism; and evangelicalism.
After teaching high school English for one year, I joined the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an interdenominational ministry that facilitates Christian groups on university and college campuses. I worked for three years at Rutgers University and other New Jersey colleges. Then I went off to graduate studies at Princeton Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
During those college years I met and became good friends with the young woman who would later become my wife. In 1984 Geri and I were married, and we entered a whirlwind—not even realizing at first that the winds were anything but normal. At the five-month mark of married life, I graduated from seminary, and the next day we moved to Costa Rica. For one year we studied Spanish in preparation to return to New York City. Geri returned to her parents eight months pregnant. I returned from Costa Rica two nights before our first baby was born.
One month later the three of us moved to Queens, New York City. I spent a year serving as an assistant pastor in an all-Spanish immigrant church and teaching in a Spanish seminary. The experiences gave us opportunities to perfect our Spanish and discern God's will for our future. That year also initiated us into the world of two million illegal immigrants from around the globe, who fill large cities like New York. We became friends with people who had fled death squads in El Salvador, drug cartels in Columbia, civil war in Nicaragua, and implacable poverty in Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
The Start of the Dream?
Then, in September 1987, we started New Life Fellowship Church in a working-class, multiethnic, primarily immigrant section of Queens. (Of the two-and-a-half million residents of Queens, more than two-thirds are foreign-born.) The immediate Corona-Elmhurst neighborhood of our current church meeting site includes people from 123 nations. National Geographic calls "Elmhurst 11373 the most ethnically diverse zip code in the United States." Roger Sanjek picked the Corona-Elmhurst section of Queens, New York, for his study called The Future of Us All, calling it "perhaps the most ethnically mixed community in the world" and noting its rapid change from 1960 at 98 percent white, 1970 at 67 percent, 1980 at 34 percent, and 1990 to 18 percent white.
Our first worship service began with 45 people. God moved powerfully in those early years. After little more than a year we had grown to 160 people. By the end of the third year, I began a Spanish congregation. By the end of the sixth year, there were 400 in the English congregation plus another 250 in our first Spanish congregation. Large numbers of these people had become Christians through New Life.
My parachurch days with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship taught me practical ministry skills, such as how to lead a Bible study, how to share the gospel, and how to answer questions non-Christians commonly ask. My seminary education gave me the intellectual tools I needed—Greek, Hebrew, church history, systematic theology, hermeneutics, and more.
Unfortunately, neither background prepared me for planting a church in Queens. I was immediately thrust into a crash course to understand what Paul meant when he said that the gospel comes "not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power" (1 Cor. 2:4).
During those early years of New Life, God taught us a great deal about prayer and fasting, healing the sick, the reality of demons, spiritual warfare, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and hearing God's voice. Whatever I learned, I taught the congregation.
People were becoming Christians, with hundreds beginning a personal relationship with Jesus 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 on a leadership level.
We always seemed to have too much to do in too little time. While the church was an exciting place to be, it was not a joy to be in leadership—especially for my wife, Geri, and me. There was a high turnover of staff and leaders, all of which we ultimately attributed to spiritual warfare in the intensity of New York City. Perhaps this was the natural growing pains and fallout of any large corporation or business. But we weren't a business. We were a church family.
However, Geri and I did know that something was missing. Our hearts were shrinking. Church leadership felt like a heavy burden. We were gaining the whole world by doing a great work for God while at the same time losing our souls (cf. Mark 8:35).
Something was deeply wrong. I secretly dreamed of retirement, and I was only in my midthirties. Despite ongoing spiritual checkups—no immorality, no unforgiveness, no coveting, and so on—I could not pinpoint the source of my lack of joy. The foundation of my own personal character and development could not sustain the church we were building. It was a shaky foundation, waiting to collapse.
A Crawl toward a Crisis
During this time, Geri felt like a single parent with all the responsibilities she carried alone for our four small children. She was tired of high-pressure urban living. She was weary of the stress that I seemed to bring home weekly from church.
She wanted more of a marriage. She wanted more of a family. She wanted a life.
The bottom began to fall out when, in 1993–94, our Spanish congregation experienced a split, and relationships disintegrated that I had thought were rock solid. God was beginning to get my attention and seemed to be pushing me deeper and deeper into a pit at each turn. I approached the bottom of the pit, kicking and screaming,
I thought I was tasting hell. It turned out I was.
Little did I know the bottom was still two years away.
The event God used to get me into the pit initially was in the form of a betrayal by one of the assistant pastors of the Spanish-language congregation. For months I had heard rumors that he was dissatisfied and wanted to leave New Life Fellowship to start a new church, taking most of the people with him.
"That's impossible," I'd say to myself. "He is like a brother to me." After all, we had known each other for ten years.
When I asked him about the rumors, he would categorically deny them: "Pedro, nunca" ("Never, Pete").
I will never forget my shock the day I went to the afternoon Spanish service and two hundred people were missing. Only fifty people were there. Everyone else had gone with him to start another congregation.
Over the next several weeks, what seemed like a tidal wave swept over the remaining members of that congregation. Phone calls exhorted them to leave the house of Saul (me) and go over to the house of David (the new thing God was doing). People I had led to Christ, discipled, and pastored for years were gone. I would never see many of them again.
When we talked in private over two years later, this assistant pastor said, "You made promises to disciple me, but your words meant nothing. You did not deserve to lead these people."
When the split occurred, I did not defend myself. I tried to follow Jesus' model and be like a lamb going to the slaughter (Isa. 53:7). "Just take it, Pete; Jesus would," I repeatedly said to myself.
In reality, I felt as if I had let myself be raped.
I accepted all blame for the destruction. While I felt deeply betrayed, much of the failure was mine. This associate pastor had a legitimate gripe: I was overextended. I was pastoring two growing churches, one in English and one in Spanish, and I was too busy getting the "job" done and putting out fires. I lacked the flexibility and hours to fulfill my promise to give him time, friendship, or training.
Even so, I had a love for him like a brother. With the psalmist, I experienced the reality of someone "with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God" (Ps. 55:14), only later to discover that "my companion attacks his friends; he violates his covenant" (Ps. 55:20). I did not believe such a betrayal was possible in the church.
Perhaps, more importantly, I was mesmerized by his gifts and abilities. The Spanish congregation admired his dynamic leadership qualities. Did it really matter that he was not broken and contrite of heart (Ps. 51:16–17)? Did it really matter whether his character was lacking in some areas?
The main problem was that I lacked both the courage and maturity to confront him.
The sad truth is that my "godly, lamblike response" had little to do with imitating Jesus and much more to do with unresolved issues and emotional baggage I was carrying from my past.
My taste of hell went deeper than the congregational split. Suddenly, I found myself living a double life. The outward Pete sought to encourage the discouraged people who remained at New Life. "Isn't it amazing how God uses our sins to expand his kingdom? Now we have two churches instead of one," I proclaimed. "Now more people can come into a personal relationship with Jesus. If any of you want to go over to that new church, may God's blessings be upon you."
Excerpted from The Emotionally Healthy Church by Peter L. Scazzero, Warren Bird. Copyright © 2010 Peter L. Scazzero. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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