Managing Your Negative Emotions
While most church leaders prefer to avoid negative emotions such as distress, fear, anxiety, etc., all church leaders will experience a variety of negative emotions at some point. Negative emotions are our survival brain’s early warning signals that something is amiss, that danger is present and requires prompt intervention such as fight (more arguing), flight (more avoiding), or freeze (mind goes blank) reactions. Sometimes your survival brain’s perception is accurate – but many times, it is inaccurate. While your fight, flight, or freeze response may be automatic, you can simultaneously awaken your thinking brain to do it’s thing. Your thinking brain can simultaneously (1) evaluate the situation, (2) determine what is rightly amiss, and (3) choose to engage self and others in ways that best fit the context. Are you truly in danger? Or are you facing a challenging board meeting, which may be uncomfortable but is not really life-threatening? God has empowered you as a pastoral leader to lead, which can best happen when your thinking brain is in the driver’s seat, even if the survival brain is acting like a back seat driver! If you want to build your negative emotion management skills, try the five recommendations below. (All scripture quotations are NASB.)
- Rejoice in hope. I Peter 1:6 recognizes that we are “distressed by various trials” (NASB). Peter recommends that we rejoice in the living hope that we have in Jesus Christ. How often do you look forward in hope to seeing God’s intervention during your time of negative emotion?
- Ready your mind for action. I Peter 1:13 challenges us to be the boss of our survival brain, saying, “prepare your minds for action”! Perhaps you take a few deep breaths to help you calm down. Perhaps you take a thoughtful inventory of what is actually happening (i.e., is it really that bad?). The result is clearer thinking and hopefulness. How quickly are you aware that your survival brain is trying to run the show?
- Respond instead of react. I Peter 2:1 commands us to “rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” Notice that these are regular reactions that fracture communities and are typically triggered by negative emotions. Use negative emotions as a source of information, not destination. When your negative emotions are triggered, can you sort through the information they provide, then decide what your best course of action will be?
- Respect your context. I Peter 2 (and elsewhere) stresses the difficult conditions in which the recipients of this letter were living. Peter’s advice is to “patiently endure” and “do what is right” (2:20) when faced with the negative emotions of others. When you are the recipient of somebody else’s negative emotions, Peter advises us not to respond in kind. Can you “keep your cool” and remain thoughtful and kind when faced with the negative emotions of others?
Return to the Lord. 1 Peter 5:7 we are commanded to “cast all your anxiety on Him, because he cares about you.” When you are faced with your own or others negative emotions, turn and return to the one who can surround you with his peaceful presence. How quickly do you turn and return to God when you are anxious?
- Peace Amadi. (2021). Why Do I Feel Like This? Understanding Your Difficult Emotions and Find Grace to Move Through. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. See especially Chapter 5, “Discouragement”; Chapter 6 “Anxiety,”
- Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson (Eds). (2019). Tending Soul, Mind, and Body: The Art and Science of Spiritual Formation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. See especially Chapter 3, “The Holy Spirit and Positive Psychology in Spiritual Formation.”
- Peter Scazzero. (2021). Emotionally Healthy Discipleship: Moving from Shallow Christianity to Deep Transformation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Gary H. Lovejoy. (2015). A Pastor’s Guide for the Shadow of Depression. Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House.
Emotional domain contributor: Virginia T. Holeman, PhD., LMFT, LPCC, Retired Chair of the Department of Counseling and Pastoral Care, Asbury Theological Seminary
Executive editor: Russ Gunsalus
Curator of content: Dave Higle