By G. Bruce Queen
Have you ever met someone and the longer you talked the more distressed or angry you became, but had no apparent reason for your reaction? Have you ever walked into a meeting and soon realized there was an underlying current, but you weren’t sure of the reason for the unusual tenor of those present and you began to feel uneasy?
As senior pastor, I dealt with a staff member that could drive me to frustration and anger almost every time we met and I had no idea how to deal with those emotions when they emerged. I also found that some church members solicited similar emotions within me, but there was no obvious reason to me for such reactions. I now realize I was blindsided by these reactions on several occasions and I did and said things that got me into trouble. As I look back over my ministry, the above instances happened over and over and I did not always handle them well.
I pride myself in being cognitively smart (though some might disagree!). I have had many years of formal education; however, these emotionally charged situations continued to get the best of me and I had no idea why. I began to think I was doomed to continually repeat these encounters over which I seemed to have no control.
I would later learn a new concept called emotional intelligence; I was so taken by the idea that I read the book Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence.¹ In a nutshell, emotional intelligence means learning to identify, assess, and manage the emotions of self and others. That sounded like a tall order, but this new information suggested that if a person could learn to better manage their emotions, their life and their leadership could be set on a new plane.
I learned that a part of our brain – the amygdalae – considered by some to be the primitive part of the brain, actually controls, among other things, our fight, flight, freeze, and survival instincts. This part of the brain acts as a long term storage unit that catalogues those situations where we need to protect ourselves. When we sense danger, real or imagined, the amygdalae goes through its storage banks, chooses a scenario and the accompanying feeling(s) “close” to what may be happening at the time, and immediately plays the “tape.” We then emotionally react to these stimuli and respond with fight, flight, or freeze.
With all of my maturity, learning and experience, no one ever taught me that such things happen and that I could choose my reaction. When those emotional reactions hit me, I did not pay attention to them and had no prepared way to deal with them except to follow the response I felt within.
Each situation we encounter is unique, but the amygdalae is not so discerning because the desire to protect ourselves from harm needs to be quick. The “little old lady” who accosted me about not singing all four verses of her favorite hymn sent me into a fight, flight or freeze reaction that ended with bad results.
What sets us apart from other animals is that when the amygdalae sends us these self-preservation reactions, we can recognize them, access them, send them to the frontal cortex to analyze, and then decide whether to use them or to choose a very different reaction. There is significant benefit in learning how to take emotionally charged situations (gut reactions), analyze them, and then make an intelligent response that is the heart of emotional intelligence. Once I began to be aware of and understand my emotional responses, I began to see them occurring in others. As I began to better manage the emotional responses of others. I have further learned to better manage emotional responses within groups. This insight has become a very helpful tool in ministry.
One thing that resonated with me in the book Primal Leadership, was how the study suggested that when leaders of equal education and training were compared, leaders who scored higher in emotional intelligence were more successful.
I realize that one of the reasons I went through a forced termination was my inability to manage my emotions and my reactions to them. I also realize that I did not read the emotional landscape of those I was leading. I was not able to create a positive emotional environment because of my own emotional ineptness.
Needless to say, I have become a student of emotional intelligence. I not only read about it but I have found a coach who is helping me to practice emotional intelligence so I can better react to my emotions and the emotions of others. These new insights are making a positive mark in my ministry. I am happier with myself, those I interact with, and those I lead. I am rarely blindsided now by these emotional outbursts within my brain.
If I meet a rattlesnake in my backyard I know I have a readymade reaction to keep me safe. I know now that my emotional intelligence can also help me face those “gangs of three” without losing my cool or becoming their victim. I am becoming emotionally intelligent and my life and ministry are at a much better place. Maybe emotional intelligence needs to be a tool in your ministry toolbox!
Reverend G. Bruce Queen, D. Min. is an Intentional Interim Pastor in Virginia and has served as a member of the Central Virginia Ministering to Ministers Foundation Regional Board and as a member of the MTM Board of Trustees. He is a MTM Healthy Transitions Wellness Retreat for Ministers and Spouses alumnus and has assisted in leading numerous Wellness Retreats.
¹Goldman, Dan, Boyatzis, Richard, and McKee, Annie, Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence , (Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 2002).