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Survivor and pastoral leadership

Traits of a survivor and successful leader

The Rev. John Boley reflects on years of experience relating to pastors across the Michigan Area and watching the TV show, Survivor. The quality he finds of critical importance is high Emotional Intelligence.


Clergy Assistant, Michigan Conference

Many of you no doubt have watched the show “Survivor” over the years.  It has been going on for about 20 years now and has spawned a whole series of other TV shows with its elimination competition format.

I have followed it with our family on and off over the years. I have always believed it to be a fascinating study of human nature – a close look at how people manage their egos, their selfishness, their benevolence, their kindness, their emotions, their rationality – all while under the stress and deprivation of comfort and nourishment, and, of course, the stress of a consuming game to be played. A new season began last week and I intend to watch this one closely. It brings together 20 of the winners from the past – individuals who learned how to play the game and have studied it intensely over the years.

Sometimes when we are witnessing the interactions between Survivor contestants, we quickly praise them for their adeptness at dealing with other people. And sometimes we cringe at their seeming ineptness in dealing with other people. To win the game, it takes a lot of luck, some significant stamina, a lot of ethical compromise, and a bit of ruthlessness.

But the winners all seem to have something else – they have a huge amount of emotional intelligence. The famous contestant Boston Rob, a fan favorite and a superb player of the game of Survivor, seems to have an extraordinarily high emotional intelligence quotient (EIQ). I look forward to watching all of these contestants as this season goes forward.

So what is “emotional intelligence?” It is a fairly new idea – and on its surface sounds like an oxymoron – how can our emotions be intelligent? It was first introduced in the 1960s but didn’t gain traction as a psychological understanding and business management tool until the mid-1990s. It is generally defined as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” It is marked by self-awareness, self-regulation, assertiveness, empathy, and social skills. Indeed, it is the interface between emotions and intelligence.

A reality of emotional intelligence is that all of us believe that we have a high EIQ (including me), but we can all ascertain very easily, on Survivor and in our families and public dealings, those who don’t have a high one.

In his landmark book, “The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus: Relational Smarts for Religious Leaders,” the author, Roy Oswald, analyses the emotional intelligence of Jesus and presents Jesus as the model in how to deal with a variety of people and places, therefore guiding and hoping for a higher EIQ for religious leaders.

Unfortunately, emotional intelligence is hard to teach – most people arrive at adulthood with their EIQ pretty much fixed, by both nature and nurture, and there is little facility for training in it beyond the basics of family dynamics and early education. Fortunately, there is an increasing number of resources designed to improve our EIQ’s, primarily from the business world and the world of parenting. They will no doubt improve over the years, but perhaps the single most important thing in our interactions with people is fixed early on and it is very hard to grow or improve.

After being a District Superintendent and the Clergy Assistant to the Bishop for these last several years, it has become glaringly apparent that the single most important trait of a successful pastor is to have a high EIQ. Pastors can be praised or denigrated for their preaching, biblical and theological knowledge, administration, and pastoral care, but it is their EIQ which makes the difference – often times making or breaking the pastorate. Stated more bluntly, congregations can forgive much in a pastor when the pastor has a high EIQ. And conversely, for most pastors who get into serious trouble in a congregation, it is not their preaching, teaching, theology, or biblical interpretation that is the problem, it is their lack of emotional intelligence.

So where do we go from here? While Emotional Intelligence if hard to teach, all pastors, indeed, all human beings, can improve their interpersonal skills by focusing on the compassion and empathy of Jesus. What would Jesus do? How did he place himself in the other person’s shoes? Would he feel for the other person and their lot in life? Would he be kind and generous, giving the person the benefit of the doubt? Would he seek healing and wholeness based on the conditions, the terms, and the context of the other person?

How do I improve my emotional intelligence? I can spend my waking moments following the style, attitude, empathy, compassion, contemplation, and engagement of Jesus!!

As we go forward in this polarized and crisis-filled world, and as we go forward in the uncertainty of the United Methodist Church, we need as much grace and respect as possible all the way around. And every one of us will want to add as much emotional intelligence as we possibly can into every personal encounter we are blessed to be a part of.