Emotional Health for Church Planters and Their Spouses

By Kathy Litton

The transformational power of the Holy Spirit brings maturity and growth to us in our emotional health. Here's why ministry leaders, as well as their wives, need to grow in this area of discipleship.

Your Life on Display

When church planters and their wives work on their own emotional health, it is a real gift to the church.

After more than 40 years of church leadership and ministry, I made the stunning discovery. A huge swath of my life and my behavior had been under surveillance, and I didn’t even know it. My emotional health was on display, and I wasn’t even quite sure what it was.

Knowing Your Emotions

A term that gained popularity in the mid-‘90s that described the reality of our emotional health was “emotional intelligence.” Swiftly, the world began to recognize that understanding, identifying, and managing our emotions was truly a marker of health. The concept of emotional health entered the Christian context with the ground-breaking work of Peter Scazzero, a church planter and pastor in New York City, with his first book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.

While reading Peter’s work, I made the stunning discovery that as a visible spiritual leader, my emotions and emotional health were on public display—and I wasn’t even conscious of it. It was eye opening to learn what a significant role my emotional health played in my life, and it was so easily observed by those around me.

True Emotional Health

So, what does “emotional health” mean?

  • The ability to identify and manage your emotions, as well as recognize and identify the emotions of others
  • Our ability to cope with life events and how we acknowledge our own emotions, as well as those of others
  • For believers, understanding the work of Jesus Christ though the cross and applying that to our emotions and emotional needs

None of us are born emotionally mature, but fortunately, our emotional maturity isn’t fixed. We all can grow in our understanding of the powerful role our emotions play.

Our emotional health is directly related to a brokenness of the soul and heart brought about by deception of sin and our sinful nature. Yet God desires to bring fullness and maturity into every area of our lives, including our emotions.

Taking Emotional Inventory

These questions may help you understand how your emotional health manifests itself:

  • Can you identify your emotions and express them in helpful manner, or do you have a reputation for explosive, destructive emotional occurrences?
  • Do you say yes when you should say no on a regular basis?
  • Do you have a history of broken relationships?
  • Do you rarely share your weaknesses and flaws with others, or do you feel the need to project something that is not true about yourself?
  • Does disapproval crush you?
  • Do you consistently over-function at home, work, or church, and then resent others?

The answers to these questions are revealing. When others’ disapproval devastates or crushes us, it indicates we are too dependent on what people think. A constant cycle of out-of-control outbursts hurts relationships and will handicap interactions with everyone around us. Taking on too many responsibilities to impress others or fear of losing their favor is a big indicator of our emotional health—not merely a scheduling problem.

The Example of Christ

So, what does emotional health look like? In his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter Scazzero teaches us that emotional health allows us to:

  • Name and recognize feelings
  • Develop empathy (identifying with and having compassion for others)
  • Initiate and maintain meaningful relationships
  • Break free from destructive thought patterns
  • Express thoughts clearly
  • Learn how the past impacts the present
  • Clearly, directly, and respectfully ask for what we need, want, or prefer
  • Accurately assess our own strengths, limits, and weaknesses and freely share them with others
  • Develop the capacity to maturely resolve conflicts

We can take this list, open our Bibles, and see many moments, narratives, and interactions of Jesus where His emotional health was on display. Jesus incarnated human flesh, the human experience, and human emotions without sin. Jesus was emotionally expressive—we see scenes of His joy, sadness, anger, and even discouragement and despondency. He built healthy and intimate relationships. He was emotionally honest and vulnerable. While He served people tirelessly and generously, He did not please all the people around Him. His identity was secure. He withdrew from people to seek isolation and recharged often.

A Spiritual Transformation

Being emotionally healthy does not imply we will be happy all the time. It means we are aware of our emotions. Emotionally healthy people still feel stress, anger, and sadness, yet they know how to manage negative feelings. Emotionally healthy people can share failures and weaknesses instead of feeling compelled to project an unflawed life. They aren’t easily offended. They are able to receive criticism without becoming wounded, and in fact, they understand criticism helps foster their growth. As believers, the very moment the Holy Spirit replaces our dead, stony heart with a living heart at salvation, the Spirit begins applying the liberating effects of Jesus death and resurrection to bring spiritual transformation, which includes the power to transform our emotional health.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Paul prays, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (NASB). Paul prays our whole being, spirit, body, and soul be sanctified, or set apart as complete, whole, and healthy and for God’s service. Sanctification happens to us day by day as God transforms us by the work of the Holy Spirit and as we grow in spiritual maturity. Our emotional growth, progress, and the propensity of our hearts also mature over the course of time.

Our spiritual maturity is the basis of our emotional maturity. Once again, we must return to Peter Scazzero with this critical statement: “You can’t be spiritually mature and emotionally immature.”²

Restoration and Wholeness

Our emotional maturity is rarely connected to our discipleship, yet it certainly should be. Unfortunately, if we overweight the accumulation of factual Bible knowledge and theology as spiritual maturity yet fail to note necessary fruit of personal spiritual transformation, we miss the dynamic power of the gospel in the restoration of the believer’s wholeness.

God has provided all we need for our emotional health to be transformed and mature. As an example of how God provides for our emotional wholeness, let’s consider two significant provisions. Both of them are very familiar to us in the spiritual and theological realm, yet they are very consequential to our wholeness and growing emotional health.

1. The gospel

The gospel is just as necessary for my transformation as it was my initial justification. In fact, God’s purpose in our redemption is our complete transformation. Not only can the gospel change us from the inside out—and it absolutely should—but it also changes and matures us emotionally.

The gospel is a lifelong journey of greater personal understanding and application, which produces change in our heart and lives. Peter helps us see that in 2 Peter 3:18 when he says, “Grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (ESV).

We grow as we apply these gospel truths to our everyday realities:

  • I am forgiven. (1 John 1:9)
  • I am sanctified. (1 Corinthians 1:2)
  • I am free. (John 8:36)
  • I can do all things through Christ. (Philippians 4:13)
  • I am an heir of God. (Romans 8:17)

I received Christ as an eight-year-old child, yet I don’t ever move on from that experience. Walking daily in a vibrant understanding and application of the gospel is the most powerful tool in my emotional progress.

Walking in vibrant understanding of the gospel helps us receive criticism. Criticism can evoke humility and growth, or criticism can drive create anger, hurt, or personal devastation. When your kids ministry is criticized or your husband’s leadership attacked, it doesn’t have to devastate you. Because your identity is not built on any performance or accomplishment but on Christ’s unconditional love and His work on the cross on your behalf. Criticism doesn’t have to devastate us. As Tim Keller says, “When I forget the gospel, I become dependent on the smiles and evaluation of others.”³

The gospel gives us unprecedented freedom. Walking in vibrant understanding of the gospel gives us freedom regarding our sin and failures. None of us have to pretend we have it all together. Spiritually and emotionally healthy people are aware where they fall short. They live in genuine community as they confess sin to one another in order to seek wholeness and healing from the power of that sin. Bringing sin to the light is the pathway of freedom.

Jonathan K. Dodson puts it this way:

The wonderful news of the gospel is that Jesus frees us from trying to impress God or others because He has impressed God on our behalf. We can tell people our sins because our identity doesn’t hang on what they think of us. We can be imperfect Christians because we cling to a perfect Christ.

Walking in a robust understanding and application of the gospel has the power to set us free from:

  • Needing constant approval of others
  • Being easily offended
  • Avoiding conflict
  • Covering up weaknesses and brokenness

2. The love of God

Our hearts are to be wired to be satisfied by love, security, and significance. Christianity is built on the concept that God lavishly loves us (1 John 3:1), and we are created to be entirely and completely satisfied in that love.

I made a huge step in my emotional wholeness when I made two discoveries. The first was that only the unfailing love of the Father would meet my deepest spiritual and emotional needs, and the second was that all other sources would eventually fail to do that because they were never designed to completely meet my needs.

Psalm 33:13-18 (ESV) shows this idea of God’s steadfast love:

The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man; from where he sits enthroned, he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds. The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue. Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love.

David reminds us our hearts were designed to be satisfied by Him. Yet we look to marriage and a loving spouse, raising great kids, a flourishing ministry, a career, and finding meaning in causes, achievements, admiration, and respect from others to satisfy our souls. These aren’t bad things—just the wrong things.

Unfortunately, when we continue to turn to the wrong things, we will struggle with jealously and comparison. When we run from conflict out of fear (believing avoiding it is safer), we will miss finding resolutions.

When we desperately need the applause of people far too much, we worry far too much about our image and far too little about our actual spiritual reality.

But Oswald Chambers reminds us, “Nothing that other saints do or say can ever perturb the one who is built on God.”

Jesus came to show us and teach us how to relate to the Father and live in the Father’s love: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:26, ESV). We learn from His pattern to seek solitude for continual intimacy and dependence with His Father. He drew peace, strength, and stability in His Father’s love.

Scripture also includes a stunning, vulnerable scene where Jesus’s emotional life is in full view. In Matthew 26:38-39 (ESV), as Jesus is approaching His crucifixion He prays in the Garden of Gethsemane:

‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.’ And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.’

We get no sanitized version of Jesus’s emotional agony. On full display is His anguish and fear, yet He takes His emotional reality directly to the Father. Jesus trusted the love and nature of His Father. And His loving Father met Him in that reality with His love and even sent an angel to strengthen Him.

The only reliable love available to us is from God. Running around with a tin cup is exhausting. God is essential for a flourishing life. As Beth Moore says, “He has so made us that He Himself is necessary to us. God never created in us a need He did not intend to fill.”

There’s a freedom that comes when we know our worth is not on the line every day. We won’t look to be understood or praised. We will serve others expecting nothing. We feel no pressure to impress or compete.

John Piper illuminates this idea further in his well-known mantra that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” If the glory of God is the evidence of God, then when I am genuinely, deeply satisfied in God’s love and stop looking to other sources, my satisfied soul exhibits and testifies to the power of God.

Walking in the love of God sets me free from:

  • Over-functioning to impress others
  • Fear of disappointing people
  • Striving to maintain an image
  • An unhealthy spirit of competition

Rooted in Christ Alone

That church being planted, its success or failure does not validate you nor will it satisfy your soul. That reputation you want to manage in order to earn admiration is ultimately unmanageable. In fact, it becomes like spinning plates. That rage you try to conceal is only healed when you drag it to the light of the power of the gospel and the love of your Father.

The road to emotional health and growth is found in Christ. So, put down all your roots in Him.

Adapted from “Growing Emotional Health” in the Five Markers of Healthy Planting Wives eBook.


¹https://www.christiantoday.com/article/what.does.it.mean.to.reach.emotional. maturity.as.a.christian/93293.htm

²Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, 19.

³Gospel in Life: Grace Changes Everything, 49.

Published November 29, 2023

P.S. Get our best content in your inbox

We send one email per week chock full of articles from a variety of Church Planting voices.

Kathy Litton

Kathy Litton is the director of planter spouse development at NAMB. She works with the spouses of church planters throughout North America, encouraging them, strengthening them and providing general guidance. She is married to Ed Litton, pastor of Redemption Church in Mobile, Alabama.