I entered the ministry in my mid-twenties and was often reminded of how young I was by those to whom I ministered. There were several encounters that will forever be etched into my mind. One was with an elderly gentleman in his sixties, while I was on a Clinical Pastoral Care rotation at a Veteran’s Hospital. Upon the visit, I introduced myself as the chaplain. He proceeded to inform me that I did not look old enough to be a chaplain. The other was also on a rotation assignment in another hospital with a staff member. This individual informed me that they could not be a member of a congregation where the pastor was younger than they, and at the time I was much younger.
These two anecdotes illustrate the prevailing thought concerning spiritual maturation. Many correlate an individual’s spiritual and emotional maturity with age. However, in her book, “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents,” (New Harbinger Publications, 2015) Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD indicates the reality that emotionally immature adults neglect their children emotionally and raise emotionally immature children. In his book, “The Emotionally Healthy Church,” Peter Scazzero reveals that there is a connection between one’s spiritual maturity and emotional maturity. Here is where I believe the crisis is for the church: the inability to connect emotional and spiritual maturity with discipleship.
As I reflect on those anecdotes illustrated earlier, I am reminded of how age is a common barometer of emotional maturity until an individual does something that does not coincide with their age. Many have voiced comments about adult men who play video games. That is not what I am referring to. What seems to be pervasive in the body of believers is the inability to grow up emotionally. In most congregations there is a crisis, a controversy or scandal. When those who are in the midst of these unsavory events act out, many will have adult temper tantrums. If you are not familiar with an adult temper tantrum, it is when an adult storms out of a meeting because they are not getting their way or commences to bully other members into submitting to their wishes. These are not the attributes of adults; however, they play out over and over in congregational life.
We are directed, led and prodded by our emotions. They lead us like puppets on a string. Diana Fosha, Daniel J. Siegel, and Marion Solomon write, “Hardwired to connect with each other, we do so through emotions. Our brains, bodies and minds are inseparable from the emotions that animate them.”[i] An individual’s emotional self or emotional process is inseparable from their spiritual maturation. Scazzero observes, “Very, very few people emerge out of their families of origin emotionally whole or mature.”[ii] An emotionally immature individual cannot be spiritually mature. This is the challenge of discipleship or transformation that following Christ offers.
While the church has been successful in training individuals concerning spiritual gifts, the link between spiritual maturity and emotional maturity has not traditionally been connected. This gap has made the possibility of an authentically transformed life untenable. As we encounter Christ and follow him, we do so with the emotional history of our family of origin. This is neither good nor bad, it is simply challenging to one’s spiritual growth, especially when the emotional self is neglected.
Followers of Christ are disciples, and discipleship is a journey, not a destination. It is not reaching a point in our lives when we can declare that we have arrived. This is a journey of spiritual development that involves the emotional self. As a disciple develops spiritually, transformation involves the development of the emotional self.
As believers, we accept Jesus Christ into our lives as our Lord and Savior. This for the Christian is a powerful and life-changing moment. It is the moment when one looks towards the examples and teachings of Jesus to live by. As the apostle Paul taught in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (NASB).
How refreshing and comforting to realize that being a follower of Christ makes things new. Yet, the connection between spiritual development and emotional maturity is missed. Here is where the teaching of discipleship becomes paramount in the life of the believer. Following Christ traditionally is linked to being a disciple. The definition of a disciple is one who follows and learns. What seems to be missing in the process is developing emotionally as well as spiritually.
If Scazzero is correct in his work on emotional health, then emotional development is integral to discipleship development. Disciples must be keenly aware of what drives an individual to do what they do. At the core of who we are is our emotions. We cannot separate ourselves from our emotions. An individual’s emotional process comes from their family of origin. The environment that nurtured us during our formative years is the environment that stamps us with our emotional process—however, we can mature.
To the Church of Corinth Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11 NASB). Here, the writer spoke about maturing in the love of God. This type of maturation is not surface-level, nor is it restricted to our spiritual nature. To truly mature in the love of God involves maturing emotionally. It involves growing into the individual that personifies Christ. This is not a mere image, or a reflection, it is indeed a new creation that emerges like a butterfly from the cocoon. May we find our way through the murky minefield of spiritual growth and be transformed thoroughly.
The Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson is pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, Endicott, N.Y.