Emotionally Healthy Discipleship Review
A personal crisis nearly led Peter Scazzero to resign as lead pastor of the church he and his wife Geri started. His journey of restoration inspired him to write Emotionally Healthy Discipleship (EHD). For anyone who has been leading for some time, Scazzero’s story resonates. His commitment and all-out drive for growth and ministry success eventually led to burnout. The author describes how he simultaneously watched the exponential growth of his church and sensed that something was deeply wrong.
Our first worship service began with just a few people, but God moved powerfully in those early years and the church grew rapidly. Since I spoke Spanish, we began a Spanish congregation in our third year. By the end of the sixth year, there were about four hundred people in the English-speaking congregation, plus another two hundred and fifty in our first Spanish-speaking congregation. We had also planted two other churches…People were becoming Christians, with hundreds beginning a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The poor were being served in new, creative ways.
We were developing leaders, multiplying small groups, feeding the homeless, and planting new churches. But all was not well beneath the surface. (p. X)
“The bottom began to fall out,” according to Scazzero when, the “Spanish-speaking congregation experienced a split.” This is what first exposed his “emotional immaturity.” Eventually, Scazzero hit “rock bottom” when his wife decided she was “quitting the church.”
Those who have been leading for years have probably experienced something similar. You are making an impact for God, you are seeing success in ministry, but you feel burnt out.
For Scazzero, this crisis marked a long and slow journey toward healing and restoration. It also helped him see how his own emotional immaturity reflected the emotionally unhealthy discipleship he unknowingly promoted in the church.
The author sees his own crisis as emblematic of most discipleship in the church today. He views much of the activity in the church today as a thin veneer of spirituality. He states: “Much of discipleship in the church today is the spiritual equivalent of cladding” (p. XVI). Scazzero explains,
On the surface, everything looks like the real thing. Our people are upbeat and optimistic, filled with faith that Jesus will get them through crises and valleys. They are uplifted spiritually through moving worship experiences and dazzling messages. We highlight infectious testimonies. We see to it that our small groups and weekend gatherings are warm and welcoming and that there is a sense we are growing into the new things God wants to do in our midst…It appears to be the real thing that will endure severe storms and the test of time, but it is not. Yes, our people participate in worship, listen attentively to sermons, and attend small groups. They often serve faithfully in various ministries and give financially. And yet, their transformation in Christ remains at the level of cladding, a thin veneer on a life that has yet to be touched beneath the surface. (p. XVI)
This deficit in the church and his own failure and burnout led to his discovery of EHD. EHD aims to move believers from shallow Christianity to deeper transformation by addressing the four fundamental failures of what he calls “traditional discipleship.”
- We tolerate emotional immaturity.
- We emphasize doing for God over being with God.
- We ignore the treasures of church history.
- We define success wrongly.
The book breaks into two major sections. Part 1 explores the four failures mentioned above. Part 2 outlines the seven marks of EHD.
Now, that we’ve briefly summarized the book, let’s talk about some positive aspects of the book and some critiques.
The second part of the book outlines the seven marks of EHD. I found most of the seven marks helpful. They are:
- Be Before You Do
- Follow the Crucified, Not the Americanized, Jesus
- Embrace God’s Gift of Limits
- Discover the Treasures Buried in Grief and Loss
- Make Love the Measure of Maturity
- Break the Power of the Past
- Lead Out of Weakness and Vulnerability
This section of the book contains several bright spots worth mentioning. For example, Scazzero’s chapter “Break the Power of the Past” encourages readers to see how God may use our broken and mired past for good. Scazzero points to Joseph’s perspective about the suffering and mistreatment he endured at the hands of his brothers.
No one would have blamed Joseph for complaining, “My family ruined my life. They robbed me of my best years!” But he never did that. Instead, he persevered through great difficulty because he believed God’s plan and purpose for him was good. We see this clearly when he later declares to the brothers who betrayed him, “It was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:8). He reminded them that, while their intentions may have been evil, God intended it for good (Genesis 50:20). Joseph knew, as scholar Walter Brueggemann notes, “the evil plans of human folks do not defeat God’s purpose. Instead, they unwittingly become ways in which God’s plan is furthered. (p. 177)
I particularly liked this point because there’s a tendency in our culture to focus on how others have wronged us and we fail to see how God can use “all things for good” if we trust in his sovereignty (Romans 8:28).
The section on “Leading out of Weakness and Vulnerability” was useful too. Scazzero argues that we should lead out of brokenness and humility, rather than out of pride and defensiveness. The author shows how different biblical figures led out of brokenness and humility. For instance, he shines the spotlight on several comments Paul makes in his letters, which indicate his growing awareness of sin and the privilege of being part of God’s family (Galatians 2:6, 1 Corinthians 15:9, Ephesians 3:8, 1 Timothy 1:15). Scazzero uses this example and others, to call on his readers to embrace weakness rather than to act as if things are going well when they aren’t.
It’s clear from Scazzero’s story that he was maintaining a façade of spirituality while inwardly he was suffering. For him, the pathway toward EHD was one lined with speaking honestly about his fears and insecurities and admitting his mistakes. Scazzero saw that his humility and vulnerability even began to change the ethos of his church.
Scazzero’s experience is not uncommon for many American pastors. Many pastors feel as if they have no one to turn to when they are struggling. The only exception might be their spouse. So, they feel pressure to put up a front to maintain credibility with the members of their church. This is a common temptation for most Christian leaders. It might be especially tempting to live a double life when you do not work with a team of close peers that are committed to holding each other accountable. If you do a simple online search of “help for pastors in crisis,” you will find websites for support groups dedicated to connecting pastors in a way that encourages vulnerability while “maintaining complete confidentiality and privacy.”1
In contrast to this, the New Testament provides us with examples of how even the top leaders of the early church were accountable to each other. The example of Paul confronting Peter for his hypocrisy immediately comes to mind (Galatians 2). Though the Apostle Peter was the most prominent among the Apostles, he was not exempt from peers correcting him. Leaders need close friends in whom they can confide. They need trusted colleagues within the church who are willing to speak a word of correction (Proverbs 27:6).
Finally, the chapter on “Follow the Crucified, Not the Americanized Jesus” provides a solid critique of how American churches often measure their success based on the world’s values rather than on what Jesus values. I once heard that the American church’s definition of success can be summarized in the ABCs of church growth: Attendance, Buildings, and Cash.2 Scazzero rightly argues that we should reject the Americanized definition of success in the church by resisting the impulse to make ourselves great through our successes and by embracing suffering and failure.
Overall, the seven marks of EHD offer some helpful advice toward growing as a servant leader and deepening one’s spiritual maturity.
The author often critiques the concept of traditional discipleship in his book. It’s important to understand how Scazzero defines discipleship. Some of the statements he makes clue us into what he means.
I did not realize that the problem was in the way we made disciples and the quality of the materials we used. It was limited in its ability to get people unstuck in a number of areas in their lives…It wasn’t until I experienced a building-wide failure—personally and in our ministry—that I finally realized the problem was the materials themselves. What we needed was a whole new way of doing discipleship that worked beneath the surface of people’s lives. (p. 217, emphases mine)
Scazzero largely defines discipleship in the way we talk about equipping. According to him, discipleship may include attending Sunday School, seminars, or classes. It’s clear he’s talking about discipleship this way because the author offers an alternative discipleship course aimed at EHD3. In our context, we refer to discipleship more as spiritual mentoring that is supplemented by classes. This distinction is important because Scazzero is mainly critiquing the content churches teach their members. However, his critique goes beyond this, which leads to our first critique of the book.
Being Before Doing
Scazzero’s emphasis on being before doing minimizes the importance of ministry as a means of growth. The author makes it seem like you can’t effectively disciple others unless you spend considerable time in “the desert” so to speak and gain maturity. Otherwise, you are in danger of promoting unhealthy discipleship. That’s pretty much at odds with viewing ministry as a means of spiritual growth. Scripture depicts serving and spiritual transformation as taking place concurrently. Being and doing shouldn’t be “either/or” but “both/and.” It’s often in doing that we experience God’s blessing (John 13:17; Acts 20:35). For a more detailed argument for ministry as a means of spiritual growth, check out this essay on our website.
His emphasis on being before doing also places a lot of pressure on leaders to strive toward a high standard of maturity before ever ministering for God. For example, he states,
Perhaps one of the best pictures of success in the Bible is John the Baptist. John was born into a highly respected family. His father, Zechariah, was a Levite priest with significant education and social standing in the community. It was expected that his eldest son, John, would follow in his footsteps. But he didn’t. Instead John moved to the desert to be with God. A few scholars believe John may have joined the Qumran community, a monastic sect of Jewish believers eagerly anticipating the Messiah’s coming. We cannot know for sure. As it happened, John’s ministry lasted less than two years. And yet, Jesus said of him, “Of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11 NLT). We do not know the specifics, but we do know John practiced being with God for years before launching his public ministry. Even while terrible world events swirled around him, John sunk his roots deeply into God. Rather than rushing in to address every need, John waited on God. In allowing the Word of God to penetrate the core of his being, he became the message that he ultimately preached. Instead of moving to the urban center of Jerusalem to start his ministry, John began his work in the wilderness—a place that required people to travel long distances to get to him. (p. 21)
I agree that Christian leaders should lead by example. Paul commands Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Paul also urges the Corinthians to “follow my example.” Yet he adds, “as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). We are to follow a Christian leader’s example insofar as they follow Christ’s example. Areas of their life that do not line up with Scripture’s standard of maturity should be rejected. The Apostle John clearly states this in 3 John 11. “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good.” In the context, he’s calling out Diotrephes, a corrupt Christian leader, who was abusing his authority by unrighteously removing people from the church.
Additionally, Scazzero’s emphasis on being before doing could lead to legalism. What about God’s ability to use messed up individuals to deliver great servants of God? What about the countless people who are serving the Lord that followed people who are no longer walking with God? It’s only by God’s grace that we can impact others for him even though we possess many flaws.
Drawing from Monastic Life
Scazzero relies heavily on monastic tradition to deepen one’s inner life with God. In his EHD course, Scazzero encourages participants to cultivate their relationship with God by,
[Guiding] them to rearrange their days to integrate the practice of being still and silent in God’s presence and to develop a rhythm of meeting with Jesus twice a day through the practice of the Daily Office. (p. 220)
The “Daily Office” traces its roots back to Christian monasticism. The Daily Office or Liturgy of the Hours as it’s called in Roman Catholic tradition, forms the basis of prayer within Christian monasticism. Scazzero recommends three fixed times of prayer throughout the day, which are guided by his Day-by-Day Devotional Books. They consist of Scripture reading and prewritten prayers that Scazzero suggests you read out loud whether by yourself or with others.
Scazzero bookends each fixed time of prayer with a few minutes of “Silence and Stillness.” In his Daily Office Prayer Guide, he outlines what this time of silence should look like.
When silent, seek to sit still and straight. Breath slowly, naturally and deeply. Close your eyes, remaining present, open and awake. Don’t hurry! When you are alone, if God leads you to pause at a certain phrase or verse stay with that. Less can be more.4
Again, Scazzero models his practice of Silence and Stillness after observing Catholic monks during a retreat. He states,
A central theme of the monastic life is that each of us needs to go alone to our cell (a simple hut or room), sit before God in silence, and persevere in his presence. It is a space set apart to meet with him. However, the goal of spending time alone is not just to devote that time to prayer, but to become a person who prays always…Until I spent time with monks on retreats, I never understood how it was possible to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17 KJV). (p. 56)
To his credit, Scazzero’s focus on monasticism isn’t unique to EHD. Monasticism is growing in popularity among evangelicals5. Its emphasis on slowing down and cultivating one’s inner life seems to be a reaction to ever multiplying programs and initiatives found in many evangelical churches today. However, you don’t need to turn to monasticism to deepen and grow your inner life with God. Books like Hallesby’s Prayer strike the right balance between developing a strong inner life with God and viewing prayer as a form of spiritual work. The first five chapters of Tim Keller’s book Prayer address the imbalance that often exists in our prayer lives –where we either tend to see prayer as a time of rest for the soul or as a form of work to bring in God’s kingdom. Keller harmonizes these two forms of prayer without turning to monasticism. Instead, Keller utilizes Scripture to show how these modalities of prayer are not at odds. This leads us to my final critique of EHD.
A Lack of Scriptural Grounding
Scazzero makes his case largely from the early church fathers and broader Christian counseling literature, rather than from Scripture. For example, he describes his search for an alternative to the “traditional” form of discipleship.
Over the next twenty-five years, Geri and I and our team at New Life Fellowship Church embarked on a journey of research, study, and intentional personal growth. We sought wisdom and biblical principles by learning everything we could about transformation—family systems theory, monastic movements and spirituality, contributions from the global church, two thousand years of church history, historical theology, marriage and family studies, interpersonal neurobiology…just to name a few—while pastoring a local church in New York City. (XVII)
Another example of this comes from his chapter “Make Love the Measure of Maturity.” Scazzero draws heavily from Martin Buber’s “I-It vs I-Thou” model to link emotional and spiritual maturity, which comes from “Buber’s seminal work [I Thou] on the nature of relationships, which itself is steeped in the riches of the Jewish, and particularly Hasidic, tradition” (p. 140). Though we can draw insights from extra-biblical writings, one is left to wonder: Why does the author mostly draw from secular sources on a subject Jesus taught about extensively?
To give you an idea of this imbalance, his chapter Make Love the Measure of Maturity is 34 pages long. In it, Scazzero makes 48 references to Martin Buber and his concept of the I-It/I-Thou distinction. Yet he only cites five verses from Scripture.
This lack of Scripture is common in EHD6. Though EHD talks about concepts contained in Scripture, it’s not clear if Scazzero models EHD from Scripture.
Peter Scazzero’s story of the inner drive to succeed in ministry and the resulting burnout resonates with those who have been leading for years. There’s always a tendency to rely on self-effort or the energy of the flesh to accomplish God’s work. Fortunately, the Lord uses a variety of ways to teach us “not to rely on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9; Philippians 3:3).
Yet, this central concept of Christian leadership and service is never explicitly mentioned in EHD. This highlights, maybe the critical flaw I see with EHD. We can debate whether all of his concepts are consistent with Scripture, but his ideas do not emerge from Scripture. EHD seems to be a compilation of ideas and concepts that helped Scazzero work through his crisis. However, he did not make a strong scriptural case that this is the pathway forward for believers struggling with burnout and an anemic inner life.
 Although I’m critical of these as a measure of a church’s success, this saying might be slightly cynical. Aside from “Buildings,” an influx of people who come into saving faith in Jesus through a church and people generously giving to the poor should be viewed as a mark of health. Scripture supports this (Ephesians 4:16; 2 Corinthians 8, 9).
 If I were to venture a guess what the ratio is between secular/Christian Counseling sources/Early Church Fathers and Scripture, it would be about 10:1.