An Interview with Courage & Renewal Alumnus and Author Peter Scazzero
Peter Scazzero and his wife Geri discovered Courage & Renewal work like many: through a book. More specifically, it was the books of Parker Palmer that gave this evangelical pastor and author the tools to bring contemplative spirituality more fully into the life of his growing, multiracial congregation in Queens, NY with people from over 73 nations. He spoke with the Center for Courage & Renewal about his new book The Emotionally Healthy Leader, adapting the Circle of Trust approach for evangelicals, and making the case for soul work in the life of leaders. The following is an edited transcript.
ERIN LANE: You begin your book, The Emotionally Healthy Leader, by talking about four distinct conversion experiences. The last one you name was the move from “Skimming to Integrity in Leadership” back in 2007. Around that same time you attended your first Courage & Renewal retreat. What was going on in your life that prompted that decision?
PETER SCAZZERO: At that point, in the early 2000’s, my wife Geri and I were writing curriculums. We had already come to see that evangelical curriculum was too heady, too intellectually driven. And we wanted to get at people’s transformation, their souls. So we both attended an introductory retreat, and then Geri attended a seasonal series of five retreats. Although we already had the language of contemplative spirituality, we didn’t have the tools.
Since then, our whole church has been influenced by Courage & Renewal: the way we train small group leaders, run our staff meetings, think of discipleship, the way we operate as a culture. For example, Geri was the one who first brought open and honest questions to our staff meetings. I also use poems like “Fire” by Courage & Renewal Facilitator Judy Brown to open our team up through a medium other than Scripture. These reflective practices help us get at the soul of who we are together. We’re not telling people how to do their journey. We want people to hear the Holy Spirit coming from inside of them.
So in our curriculum and in our study guides, we always have guidelines now for how we operate that are probably a simplification of the Courage & Renewal Touchstones. Anyone who gets exposed to our Emotionally Healthy Spirituality work is exposed to Courage & Renewal work.
EL: What was most challenging for you about the Circle of Trust approach to spiritual formation? What about it felt most natural for your church, New Life Fellowship?
PS: We already had a theology of the Holy Spirit and language for true self. What we had to work on was differentiating the two. Quaker language wouldn’t work in our tradition. We define true self as the Spirit of God moving in us and how He’s made us. (There’s a chapter in Scazzero’s book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, called “Know Yourself That You May Know God.”)
One of the gifts of Courage & Renewal is the theological balancing it brings to evangelicals. Evangelicals tend to emphasis Genesis Chapter 3, i.e. the nature of human sinfulness. But Courage & Renewal work tends to bring out Genesis Chapter 1 and 2, i.e. the nature of human goodness. We as evangelicals tend not to trust our passions, loves and delights. It has been a wonderful opening up for all to see God’s goodness in creation.
EL: You’ve been writing about Emotionally Healthy Spirituality since 2006. Why the shift now to Emotionally Healthy Leadership?
PS: I got to a point where I realized our church was stuck because of me. At that point our church was quite large, with 25 people on staff. I had to dig more deeply into how my interior issues were hurting the church.
The inner work of a leader is like drilling down into a rock. We’re building something bigger than most and if our foundation isn’t solid, the whole thing will crumble. I use the illustration of a skyscraper in The Emotionally Healthy Leader.
If there are four inner things you’re going to need to deal with as a leader, here they are: facing your shadow, leading out of your marriage/singleness, slowing down for loving union, and practicing Sabbath delight. Ultimately, who you are matters much more than what you do. Each of these inner life issues then impacts the way we do the outer work of leadership – like planning and decision-making or culture and team building.
EL: What’s the next frontier of your development as a leader?
PS: After 26 years of being lead pastor, I’m now a teaching pastor and pastor at large at New Life Fellowship Church. I was able to change my role and come under the leadership of a 36 year-old. Geri and I are trying to give ourselves away at this point to the next generation. It’s been way more wonderful than we imagined – the letting go. The additional time we now have for reflection has deepened our work with others.
Running an organization is very demanding. I was always aware that while I had some gifts to do it, it wasn’t ideal for my true self. Yet I sensed God was calling me to do it because it forced growth for me. Sometimes people can use “this isn’t my true self” as a way of avoiding hard things that are necessary for maturity during a certain phase of your life. You need real discernment for that, especially when you’re younger. If I had not pushed through my 2007 conversion, it would have been a real loss. It wasn’t that I was supposed to be lead pastor forever but I believe it was something that was a must for my journey for that season. And for that I am eternally grateful!
Erin Lane is a Courage & Renewal Facilitator and the Center’s Assistant Program Director for Clergy and Congregational Leaders. She develops programs that deepen the spiritual formation of people of faith and support healthy congregational life. A writer and speaker, Erin is the co-editor of Talking Taboo and author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe. She blogs on faith, feminism and belonging at www.holyhellions.com.