Book Review: The Emotionally Healthy Church

Because I spent an entire day in bed this weekend, due to the bottom half of my body becoming separated from my top half, I read an entire book. It was probably too much information to really let sink in all at once – especially since I had just attended an all day seminar on Saturday that was also full of heavy information – so I would not recommend reading this in one sitting like I did.

Peter Scazzero spends the first section of the book laying out the total dysfunction of his own life and his work as pastor of New Life Fellowship in Queens, New York, prior to 1996. In this eight year period, he had married, had four children, and planted a new church that was (seemingly) thriving in one of the most richly diverse neighborhoods in America.

But in that year, 1996, his wife confessed to him that she was done with him and done with his church, and she wanted out. This led to an emergency two week leave while he and his wife received crisis marital counseling, which then led to a three month sabbatical from his pastorate at NLF, which then led to a ripple effect of change in the way NLF discipled its people.

His marriage was restored, and his ministry was redeemed.

Through his wife’s drastic measures, Scazzero began to realize he was putting his work before his family – and even before any real relationship with God – and was creating a working environment among the staff and volunteer leaders at NLF that led everyone to do the same. Leaders and members were burning out, becoming embittered, and leaving the church. People who were hurting or trapped in habitual sin were not receiving the prayer and attention they needed, because a shallow culture of simply going through the motions had been established from the top down.

Scazzero makes bold confessions in this book, and is brutally honest about the image of himself he projected during this time. A frequent speaker at church growth conferences, he admits to stretching the truth at times about the size and state of his church.

I read the entire first section of this book with my jaw gaping wide open. I wasn’t so much surprised at the way he was leading others and living his life – I’ve been around the block a few times to be shocked by that – but I was so encouraged that he daringly wrote a book that made him look sooo very bad. There weren’t many ironed edges to his account of the way things were, but he gives us a very frayed story of self image, power, and bad theology that affected hundreds of people in and around his church.

As I continued reading, I wept. Through telling his story, Scazzero gives testimony to the power of conviction, repentance, and submission. Through his own example, through his own drastic change in the way he lived his personal and professional life, lives were transformed and the model of ministry at NLF was radically changed. Staff were encouraged to work reasonable hours and take time off during the week, leaders were given thorough training and strongly encouraged to set clear boundaries in their ministries. People were actually being discipled, through love, tough words, and encouragement because their small group leaders were setting an example of confession and repentance.

The culture of ministry changed from leading out of strength and pride, to leading out of brokenness and humility.

Scazzero had made the near-fatal error of compartmentalizing his ‘spiritual’ life from his ‘practical’ life, thereby placing more importance on ‘doing the work of God’ over attending his children’s soccer games or getting to the heart of what people were struggling with. He had also become co-dependent with his work – dropping everything for whatever emergency came up during his family time. He had set no boundaries around himself or his family. He writes:

Jesus does call us to die to ourselves. ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mark 8:34). The problem was that we had died to the wrong things.

Structurally, one of the things I like about the book is the way each chapter in the section on Six Principles of an Emotionally Healthy Church begins with the statement, ‘In emotionally healthy churches, people…’ The paragraph proceeds to describe how members and leaders within a healthy church deal with conflict, or whatever that principle happens to be. From there it deconstructs our faulty thinking and faulty theology, and leads the reader through scripture into a healthier way.

Sazzero also references many respected authors and books, such as C.S. Lewis, Richard Foster’s The Celebration of Discipline, Henry Cloud and John Townsend, and Dan Allender’s, The Cry of the Soul. Also, themes in this book remind me of themes I’ve read in Larry Crabb’s Soul Talk, and in Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp’s How People Change and Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands.

I am – perhaps freakishly – passionate about these issues of leadership and church burnout. In the last fifteen years I have burned out of three churches, and have seen countless people leave these congregations because they have been ignored, bullied, over worked, and under nourished. I personally have submitted myself to the (false) idea that working on church fliers at Kinko’s until 1am and attending daily prayer meetings at 6am is an excellent way for me to serve God.

I have since learned to set boundaries. I don’t feel pressured to jump in and serve, but seek where I am uniquely gifted to serve. Jesus is at the center of all things, not me, or the pastor, or any particular created vision.

I highly recommend this book to leaders and members of churches, especially those who are feeling tired and burned out and without focus. I pray it will open your eyes, and lift a weight off your shoulders.

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