Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23). Self-control is an especially vital practice for ministry leaders to develop. Self-control assists ministry leaders to manage difficult conversations or confrontations with greater emotional calm. First, leaders can apply self-control to their thoughts (2 Cor. 10:5; Phil 4:8).You can choose what train of thought to nurture and identify what train of thought derails your day. You can also apply self-control to your actions (Gal 5:13-16; Col 3:5-10). As a ministry leader, you can choose to do some things (e.g. correct misperceptions) and can refrain from doing other things (e.g. demean a staff member). The most challenging part of your life to control are powerful negative emotions. When you abdicate your capacity for emotional self-regulation, management of thoughts and actions become most challenging because our thinking and behaviors are primed by our emotions. In other words, associated thoughts and behaviors are primed by the emotions linked to them. For example, if you are angry (emotion), you will recall situations (thoughts) that angered you easier than situations in which you were happy. You may also rant or give someone the silent treatment (actions also primed by anger). Emotional self-regulation/self-control does not come naturally. It requires attention, ability, and intentionality. The process of emotional self-control is consistent with the Biblical message of the “old self” being transformed into the “new self” (Eph 4:20-24).
The following five principles will help you grow in your capacity for emotional self-control, which is so important for ministry leaders. The first four principles are from Terry and Sharon Hargrave’s “Restoration Therapy” approach.
- Say what you feel. Knowing what you are feeling is the first step to emotional self-control. Say what you are feeling to yourself, if not to others. This is most important when you are in emotional pain. Identify what emotions lay underneath the negative feelings that are on the surface. Are you feeling unsafe? Scared? Alone? Judged? Abandoned? Identify a recent event. Can you name the deeper emotions that might lay submerged beneath your surface emotions (e.g. anger, fear)?
- Say what you normally do. Our feelings prime our actions. In this step, you simply name how you typically react. Think of what you normally do as a “knee jerk” reaction; you do it without thinking in response to some event that triggers negative emotions. Do you withdraw? Take over? Give in? Distract yourself with tasks? Criticize others? Can you describe what you typically do in response to emotional pain?
- Say the truth. What does Scripture say about how God thinks about you? Naming this truth is important (John 8:32). First and foremost, you are a child of God and a person of worth. Too often you may replay the negative messages you believe about yourself deep down inside. These negative messages keep your knee jerk reactions well oiled. Can you name God’s truth about who you are?
- Say what you will do differently. What we normally do often continues to keep us in cycles of pain. Now is the opportunity to do something different, something that will change your cycle of pain for a cycle of peace. Based on the truth about yourself, what would be your logical response? For example, if you tend to lash out with angry words, counting to ten to bring your thoughts under control is an example of doing something differently. What might you do differently?
- Practice, practice, practice. Emotional self-control doesn’t just happen. You will need to practice the four steps in order to change your brain’s automatic responses. Perhaps you can partner with someone on your ministry team and together support one another in developing the skill of emotional self-control. You may want to write the four steps in a memo on your smartphone and rehearse the process at every opportunity you get. What kind of reminders will help you to put the four steps into practice?