Healthy Leaders, Healthy Churches

By Jennifer Johnson

Christian leaders often try to “fill the well” by reading, praying, resting, and spending time with God, and they talk about “leading out of the overflow” of a life that’s replenished by these activities. This type of spiritual development is about much more than sermon preparation, and it’s vital to strong leadership at churches of every size. 

J.K. Jones, pastor of spiritual formation at Eastview Christian Church in Normal, Illinois; Kelly Kastens, worship arts pastor at Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, Maryland; and Glen Schneiders, lead pastor at Crossroads Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, each play a role in prioritizing this type of soul care at the churches they serve. They recently talked to Christian Standard about disciplines and decisions that can lead to healthier ministers, staff, and churches.

An Ounce of Prevention

The abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” A paraphrase for the church might be, “It’s easier to prevent burnout than to fix it.” Churches that make it a priority to develop and sustain healthy leaders may still have staff members who experience struggles, but “preventative maintenance” goes a long way toward building healthy teams.

PrintKelly Kastens learned this lesson the hard way.

“At one point, my ministry became my identity,” she says. “Scripture and prayer were not a connection between God and me; they were tools to do ministry with others. I was at a crisis point when I went to the Transforming Center, a ministry of Ruth Haley Barton.

“Since 2009 I’ve been part of a transforming community that gathers several times a year. It has been absolutely life changing. The people in my group don’t know about my job title and aren’t impressed by my ministry credentials. What’s important is that I am a soul on a journey.”

At Crossroads, Glen Schneiders is also intentional and proactive about leading himself and his team toward health. He brought Haley Barton to coach his church’s staff in spiritual formation several times over a two-year period, and he has continued to create formation opportunities on a regular basis.

Many of these are simple, such as a daily half-hour gathering of the Crossroads church staff every morning, Monday through Thursday. The group spends the 30 minutes praying and worshipping, and Schneiders often shares a few thoughts about a portion of Scripture as they work through the New Testament together.

“It’s two hours a week that we’re paying them to be at work but not be on the job,” he says. “But it’s a small investment compared to the benefits we receive individually as well as in our unity as a team. We’re not just talking about spiritual leadership and connecting with God; we’re doing it in an authentic way.”

A Culture of Health

Consistent and intentional activities like these are crucial to developing healthy leaders. Although the specifics may vary from church to church, it’s important for senior leaders or elders to outline the “rest requirements” for staff members—and to hold staff accountable for following the plan.

At Eastview Christian Church, this includes two team retreats each year and an annual “play day” for staff. Like at Crossroads, the Eastview staff prays together regularly—at Eastview it’s every Monday morning for an hour or more. The church also encourages leaders to take at least two paid personal retreat days per year.

Mountain Christian also creates regular opportunities for leadership teams to spend time together and with God. Monthly staff meetings include not only the regular round of updates and information, but also time set aside for a spiritual exercise as well as extended celebration of what God has done in their lives and in the church over the last few weeks. At every staff meeting someone gets a “fist bump,” a simple but significant way to publicly recognize an individual’s excellent work or extra effort.

“We have 15 commandments of culture that we go over with our staff at a vision day every September,” Kastens says. “These are key to us being healthy individually and as a team, because they remind us not only who we are and what we’re doing, but also that this is Jesus’ church and not ours. When things are going poorly, it’s his church and the gates of Hell will not prevail. When things are going great, it’s his church and he gets the credit.”

In addition to these vision days, people are invited to take paid days throughout the year to go away and spend time with God, and those who are involved in leading or teaching in the weekend worship experiences take off one out of every six weekends. In fact, not only do they not work at Mountain that weekend, they can choose to worship somewhere else.

“People say, ‘You do what? You give the staff how much time off?’” Kastens says. “But it’s a game changer when people are healthy. And the vision days and time to eat and laugh and talk together—it matters more than you can imagine.”

Habits of Health

Regularly scheduled days to step aside from the demands of ministry are important; equally important is helping leaders learn to use that time well.

“Sometimes we call these spiritual disciplines, but I like the term ‘holy habits,’” says Jones. “Cultivating these habits will look different for different people, but they’re absolutely necessary. In his Gospel, Luke said Jesus prayed or visited the synagogue ‘as was his custom.’ Jesus had some spiritual habits, and we need to [have some] as well.”

In addition to basics like Scripture reading and prayer, Jones suggests other holy habits to strengthen and sustain leaders, like developing “sacred friendships” and connecting to people with whom you can share your struggles, serving others beyond the requirements in your job description, and even embracing your own pain.

“You can’t lead very long and not be hurt by someone,” he says. “If we don’t learn to process that pain, we short circuit what God is trying to do in us.”

Like Mountain and Eastview, the Crossroads team goes on staff retreats several times a year, and each one includes significant time for solitude, silence, and reflection.

“Rest is important,” Schneiders says. “We start every retreat with a time of quiet, and some people take a nap first thing. There’s room for that, because sometimes that’s what we need.”

Schneiders also invests in resources and coaching to help his team grow in spiritual disciplines. Matthew Sleeth, author of 24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life, has spoken to the Crossroads team about the biblical principle of Sabbath and the importance of stepping away from technology. Schneiders also finds the Enneagram personality test to be helpful for both personal and team development, and a member of his staff is responsible for taking new staff through the assessment and providing ongoing coaching.

“It’s a tool that can help us understand our predispositions as well as why others react the way they do,” he says. “Understanding your Enneagram number can shape your spiritual formation.”

It Starts with the Senior Leader

Just as Schneiders takes the initiative to provide these resources for his team, every leader who wants a healthy team must model it and make it a priority.

“Obviously the spiritual health of the leader affects the health of the church, but it also influences the entire staff,” Kastens says. “Our church values, the opportunities for time away—all this works because our lead pastor, Ben Cachiaras, lives it and makes it important. He’s the one who invites the staff to his house after an entire weekend of Easter services. He is more exhausted than anyone, but he says, ‘Let’s play. Let’s be together.’”

At Eastview, senior pastor Mike Baker keeps a stack of cards—one for each of Eastview’s dozens of staff members—and prays through them regularly. Schneiders spends time early each morning reading the text he’ll later lead his staff through during their 30 minutes together and takes an hour-long walk with his wife almost every night.

“It’s a simple thing,” he says, “but it’s significant in helping me deal well with stress.”

Ultimately, this type of spiritual “self-leadership” benefits everyone: the senior leader, the staff, and the church as a whole.

“It takes time, but knowing that the people I’m serving with have my back, that together we’re building a safe community, that’s what allows me to grow,” Kastens says. “If we as leaders don’t invest in our own relationship with God, it can damage everyone around us.”

“A lot of older, wiser voices, the monks and nuns, were right,” Jones says. “They knew that if you stay in a place very long, that place and those people take on your personality and your perspective. If we’re out of step with Jesus, this influence can lead to all kinds of unhealthiness. If we are walking with Jesus, it can be a beautiful thing.”

Jennifer Johnson, a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor, is a freelance editor and writer living outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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