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Manipulation vs. Ministry: Jim Coffield Speaks into Emotional Intelligence for Church Planters

Jim Coffield speaks at a conference.

At the end of January, Jim Coffield joined our presbytery’s Church Planting Network quarterly gathering to discuss emotional intelligence as a pastor. A licensed psychologist, Jim is on staff with Christ Covenant Church in Knoxville, TN as their director of Adult Ministries and Counseling, and he spent 18 years on faculty with the counseling department at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.

Of his time teaching students who were going to be either pastors or Christian counselors, Jim says, “I became intrigued by the number of very good candidates who were cognitively qualified but had some struggles relationally and interpersonally. Seminaries tend to focus on the knowledge a person should have instead of soft skills and emotional health. I’m seeing a lot of pastors burn out and churches face significant conflict because of a lacking emotional skill set.”

Jim is also on staff with Leaders Collective where he works with cohorts of senior pastors and church planters. Between these cohorts and his counseling work, he says he’s seen a lot of discouragement, loneliness, and isolation. “That drives me to create a healthier place for people to serve Christ in.”

While it’s easy to find checklists of what makes a good church planter and step-by-step guides of how to be a better church planter, Jim explores the river running beneath an individual’s drive and actions. He says that articles about emotional health typically list attributes like “resilience,” “self-starting,” and “team player,” but these don’t get to the root of relational styles. “I could be an entrepreneurial and resilient leader who is manipulative. There are some bad men who have been successful as church planters and some good men who have had failed church plants.”

“Everybody has a pull,” he explains. “It could be positive or negative, but it’s what you evoke from another.” Jim explains that we are created in the image of an evocative God. “The closer to Him you grow, what is evoked is a sense of awe.”

The way that we use our “pull” comes from a combination of temperament, personality, and the feedback we perceive from others as we grow up. Jim says, “Someone who hasn’t explored this could be a dangerous person. If you don’t know what you evoke and why, you can move toward manipulating people instead of ministering to them. There’s a fine line between manipulating and leading, and often, only you and God know which you are doing.”

Because church planters must lead their young, small body of Christ, they must know themselves well enough to know when they’re leading and when they’re manipulating.

Citing the ideas of Larry Crab (Christian counselor, author, teacher), Jim notes that we have a choice in every relationship about whether to manipulate or minister. “Social intelligence (understanding your own emotions and ways of relating) is the first step. Then, it’s learning to manage that.”

Our natural tendencies toward self-protection and manipulation come, of course, from the Fall. Jim says, “The first thing Adam does after the Fall is hide himself, and the second thing he does is blame his wife. Our sinful hiding and manipulation is incredibly complex and goes to the very core of us.”

While Adam and Eve showcase our fallen manipulative tendencies, Jesus exemplifies ministry. People, even His own apostles, tried to manipulate Jesus, but He never reacted with manipulation. Jim explains, “Everybody wanted to make Him what He wasn’t willing to be. It’s not manipulative for the apostles to say, ‘I don’t understand what’s going on here’ or asking what direction they’re going in, but trying to get Jesus to meet their goals against His will was manipulation.”

Jesus interacted with others selflessly, and healthy biblical leadership requires this kind of humbleness. Jim expands, “There’s nothing wrong with wanting people to like me, but when that becomes a goal, an idol, instead of a normal desire, and I begin to manipulate them to meet my needs, that is sin.”

Jesus was able to put aside manipulation because He prioritized time with His Father. Being connected to the Lord, He knew His vision for ministry and was not swayed by the world’s version of success.

Jim talked to the Church Planting Network about how we relate to others, how we react to disappointment, and how we react to inconveniences. These are three symptoms that we can use to assess emotional health. “It’s important for pastors to look at the river running underneath the way they live life, and churches need to make sure that there’s time, money, and resources for their pastors’ spiritual formation. This could be meeting with a spiritual director and/or a counselor. Church leadership (and congregants) should expect their pastors to take advantage of these resources not as a sign of weakness but as a sign of strength.”

In Jim’s experience, conversations about this topic are rare. He says, “We want a much tamer God than the God we have. We want a god who will give us formulas and management strategies. Ultimately, it’s the spirit of God that will make a church come alive.”

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