Bill sat across from his counselor and recounted the pain of the last eighteen months. After nine years at First Church, he had taken a well-deserved sabbatical to travel, reflect, study, and pray. On his first Sunday back at the church, he found a sealed envelope conspicuously placed in the middle of his desk. It was an anonymous petition asking for his resignation. The ensuing months were a blur of board meetings, interventions by denominational officials, listening posts with members of the congregation, and sleepless nights. He had survived the ordeal (he thought) but it had clearly taken an emotional toll. He now wondered if he should even remain in parish ministry. He pondered with his counselor: “What red flags did I miss? What should I have done differently? Why does this seem to be happening so frequently to me and my colleagues?”

Virtually every pastor has battle scars to show, and conflict seems almost part and parcel to the practice of ministry. So, what’s going on here? Is it our congregations and their particular cultures that create these scenarios? Or, is it the pastors themselves? Are folks who are drawn to ministry less emotionally, healthy than the general population? Of course, there are no simple answers to these questions and no one person or situation is to blame.

However, it was precisely these kinds of recurring situations that prompted us to search for clues. In order to get an accurate handle on some of what might be happening, we decided to mine the data bank of information stored at North Central Ministry Development Center which has been in the business of screening candidates for ministry for over 40 years. There were several questions that we brought to the data:

1.  Are pastors emotionally healthy and effective in ministry? 

The data provides some really good news! In many ways, pastors far exceed the national averages for overall emotional intelligence, which is the ability to manage one’s own emotions and relate effectively to others. Particularly encouraging, their scores for emotional self-awareness, which many theorists identify as the foundation for all other emotional competencies, consistently place them in the upper twenty-five percent of the population. Even the lowest ministry scorers tend to still be right at average.

2.  Do pastors over time become worn down?   Do they become more conflict avoidant?  

Here’s some additional good news. We found that both long-term pastors and those just entering the ministry score similarly high for emotional intelligence. Both groups are in the above average range and there is no statistical difference between the two groups. Here’s the downside: Both experienced and beginner pastors need to broaden their conflict management repertoire. Pastors, in general, are far more likely to accommodate (to give in to others and sacrifice their own needs) and far less likely to compete (to assert their own position regardless of other’s needs) than their congregants.  Some of you might be thinking, “Isn’t being a good Christian all about turning the other cheek, being willing to sacrifice and not win at the expense of others?” It depends. Our experience shows that pastors take their conflict styles to an extreme so that they end up selling out their opinions, even when they are a matter of principle in order to appease others. Over time such a practice can lead to disillusionment and burnout.

A more nuanced look finds that those clergy who came to North Central because of difficulties in their ministry scored lower than other clergy on three dimensions of emotional intelligence: self-actualization (the ability to fulfill one’s potential), happiness (the ability to experience joy on a day-to-day basis), and impulse control ( the ability to manage one’s impulses and not overreact). By the time they seek outside help, they are often feeling ineffective, sad, and a bit on edge. They may also have gotten into a bit of trouble by acting without thinking (reacting) when they are feeling emotionally drained.

3.  How can pastors improve their skills at managing their emotions in the midst of conflict? 

The data from our study are clear. Of the five conflict management styles on the Thomas-Kilmann inventory (collaborating, compromising, competing, accommodating, and avoiding), the two dimensions that predict to lower scores for emotional intelligence among pastors are the overuse of accommodating and avoiding. By developing other conflict skills, especially when things are calm, clergy can be more flexible in intense situations that require them to think on their feet.

So how does one move beyond accommodating and avoiding? Learning concrete behavioral skills through continuing education and coaching are two options. Another approach is to practice becoming more assertive and independent in decision making as part of one’s day-to-day interpersonal style. Our research also shows that individuals who possess these qualities tend to rely less on accommodating and avoiding when conflict arises.

A final recommendation is to focus on the development of problem solving skills. Interestingly, in the study we published two years ago, we found that the lowest score for seminarians on the BarOn EQi (BarOn Emotional Quotient-Inventory)is problem solving, or the ability to think things through logically and systematically. This is also the lowest score for more experienced clergy. By learning to step back and think things through, pastors can avoid being driven by their emotions, gain perspective on a problem, generate options and solutions, and stay grounded. This is a skill that can be learned!


Want to learn more? Read additional articles by Susan Nienaber and Mark Sundby, and listen to a podcast about their work, here. Mark and Susan are leading a workshop, The Pastor’s Use of Pornography, at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, MN on September 16, 2011. Contact Gaynelle Erickson from the North Central Ministry Development Center for more information. 

Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog  


Mark Sundby is a licensed pshychologist and Executive Director of the North Central Ministry Development Center. Susan Nienaber  is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a senior consultant with the Alban Institute. “Myth-Busting” originally appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Congregations magazine (Volume 33, Number 4). Copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.    



AL252_SM The Spiritual Leader’s Guide to Self-Care   
by Rochelle Melander and Harold Eppley 

The Spiritual Leader’s Guide to Self-Care  is an ideal companion for clergy, lay leaders, and others who would like guidance about how to make changes in their personal life and ministry. Readers may work through one of the fifty two sections each week or adopt a more leisurely pace. The guide includes journal-writing suggestions, personal reflection questions and activities, guidance for sharing the discovery process with another person, an activity for the coming week, and suggested further resources.  

AL304_SM Practicing Right Relationship: Skills for Deepening Purpose, Finding Fulfillment, and Increasing Effectiveness in Your Congregation     
by Mary K. Sellon and Daniel P. Smith 

In a book that is both profound and practical, Mary Sellon and Daniel Smith make the case that the health of churches and synagogues depends on congregations learning how to live out love in “right relationships.” Practicing Right Relationship offers theories, stories, and tools that will help congregations and their leaders learn how to build and maintain the loving relationships that provide the medium for God’s transforming work   .  

AL388_SM Know Your Story and Lead with It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership   
by Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones 

Knowing your story is an essential component of effective leadership, but finding your story among the myriad narratives that fill your life isn’t a simple task. Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones have offered a path to finding your own story amid the powerful family and cultural narratives that may be obscuring your vision. Know Your Story and Lead with It shows leaders how to explore their story of reality, tell it to other group members, and consider how it can be used as a resource for leadership.   

AL411 Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry      
by Barbara J. Blodgett

Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be unapologetically urges clergy readers to develop practices that will help them become more excellent ministers. A long-time field educator, now serving as a denominational staff person responsible for ministerial formation, Barbara Blodgett believes excellence is a matter of doing simple things with care and consistency. Ministers who commit themselves to excellence will grow and flourish, and even become happier in ministry.  


Mark Your Calendar for These 2011 Third Quarter Events!  

Peers,Larry 120x “Finishing Strong, Ending Well”  
July 18-20, 2011, La Casa de Maria, Santa Barbara, CA
Leader: Larry Peers, Alban Senior Consultant 

epperly,bruce_120 “Nurturing a Healthy Spirit: Tending to the Holy”   
August 30-September 1, 2011, Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, Asheville, NC
Leader: Bruce Epperly, author of Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry 

Hotchkiss, Dan_Winter 2010 Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership  
September 20-22, 2011, Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center, West Hartford, CT
Leader: Dan Hotchkiss, Alban Senior Consultant and author of Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership  

For a full list of educational seminars and other events, check out Alban’s 2011 Event Calendar   


Copyright © 2011, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share articles from the Alban Weekly with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at and let us know how the Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of the Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please complete our reprint permission request form.  

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