Struggling with stress

Do you find yourself snapping at your spouse or secretary? Do you feel under constant pressure to do more, try harder, go faster? Does everyone, including I yourself, expect too much of you?

Rebecca E. Hight, a registered nurse and pastor's wife, does free-lance writing in her "spare time" from her home in Marion, Ohio.

Does this seem familiar? You're sitting at your desk preparing next week's sermon. But the thoughts swirling through your mind won't let you concentrate: "I promised to speak at the nursing home this afternoon. And I haven't visited those two new couples who were in church. Oh! I almost forgot. The church board is having an important meeting tonight. And this sermon isn't falling into place! I wish there were more hours in the day!"

Too much to do, too little time to do it in. This complaint is not unique to the pastoral ministry. Members of other helping professions—nurses, social workers, counselors, workers in suicide-prevention and drug-abuse centers—recognize the phenomenon as "burnout." Demands on their time and energy, combined with their dedication to helping others in need, are causing these talented and committed persons to experience stress and burnout at an alarming rate.

Stress is a part of every life. In fact, most of us would be bored if no stressful situations ever enlivened the everyday routine. Psychologists T. H. Holmes and R. H. Rahe list some of the more stressful events of life on their social readjustment rating scale: death of a spouse, divorce, a jail term. But marriage, marital reconciliation, and retirement also appear on the list, indicating that events that are usually perceived as happy occasions can produce as much stress as unhappy incidents.

So stress in itself is neither good nor bad. It is our reaction to it that makes stress either a positive or a negative influence. If recognized and dealt with in a positive fashion, stress can become a significant growth experience. But if stress is pro longed and unrelieved, if the energy used in dealing with it is turned inward in a nonproductive way, the results can be harmful. The individual may become burned out, disillusioned and discouraged, indifferent to the work he formerly enjoyed.

Some years ago, Drs. Meyer Friedman and R. H. Rosenman established that a certain personality (which they called "Type A" behavior) was directly related to a higher-than-average rate of heart dis ease. (See Type A Behavior and Your Heart, [Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, 1975].) Characteristics of the Type A personality include a compulsion to accomplish several tasks at the same time (such as signing letters while talking on the telephone), impatience, competitiveness, and a constant feeling of time pressure. The Type A person is always in a hurry. He shows tension through posture (sitting on the edge of the chair) and behavior (tapping a foot or a pencil, clenching fist or jaw muscles). His conversation is accented by tense, energetic gestures.

Many ministers see some of these characteristics in themselves. With these built-in personality traits, plus the pervasive stress of their profession, such minis ters may be prime candidates not only for heart disease but for other health problems that physicians have linked directly to stress: colitis, ulcers, asthma and other allergies, fatigue, back strain, headache, and depression. Placed in a stress-producing situation, the minister may respond with hasty and frustrated behavior that affects not only himself and his family but the very persons whom he most wishes to serve.

What can the busy clergyman do about the stress involved in the job? How can he lower his risk factor for physical and emotional problems?

It is important, first of all, to recognize the sources of stress, to know exactly what gives you a headache or that feeling of tightness in your chest, or causes you to snap impatiently at your secretary or your spouse.

Three major stress areas may affect the minister: (1) attempts to meet the needs of many individuals; (2) tensions within groups such as boards, committees, or the congregation; (3) unrealistic self-expectations.

The pastor's work is primarily that of a healer, reconciler, and restorer. However, not every person who comes for help is cured. This "failure" to work miracles may cause the pastor/caregiver to feel uneasy, personally responsible, or even subconsciously angry toward the one who "re fuses" to take good advice and be made well. Being constantly available to others, being concerned for their well-being, offering spiritual advice, all take their emotional toll. Small wonder that some pastors become burned out by excessive demands (either their own or others') on energy, strength, and resources. Clergy and lay persons need to join together in mutual support as they minister, having kindness and compassion for one another, looking out for one another's interests, not just each for his own (see Phil. 2:1-4).

It is difficult to join individual personalities, viewpoints, and methods into one cohesive church board, staff, or committee that as a skilled team can work effectively toward common goals. Yet this is exactly what a pastor is often expected to do. When group members react to situations based on their own emotional needs or personal bias, the result may be stress-producing—intolerant actions, defensive behavior, and arguments. The group as a whole can support the pastor-leader in such cases by attempting to defuse the situation in the spirit of Galatians 6:1-4: "My brothers, if someone is caught in any kind of wrongdoing, those of you who are spiritual should set him right; but you must do it in a gentle way. And keep an eye on yourselves, so that you will not be tempted, too. . . . Each one should judge his own conduct" (T.E.V.).*

But the most demanding form of stress occurs when the pastor expects too much of himself, setting up a standard of behavior and effectiveness that is humanly impossible to achieve. "I must try harder. I could help more people if only I cared enough [were more spiritual, worked longer hours, studied harder]. I must not fail!" No one can meet all the needs of everyone who comes to him. Yet the dedicated Christian minister may attempt to do just that, with little regard for his own or his family's needs. It may be necessary, though painful, to view disappointments and "failures" through the question: "Did I expect too much from myself in this situation?"

If you suspect that you have a Type A personality, if the stresses and frustrations of life are weighing heavily on you, if you see yourself as a prime candidate for burnout—consider some important revisions in your daily schedule. There is no simple or easy way to change the habits you have built up over a lifetime. But a recognition of the problem, whether incipient or full-blown, is an important first step. A desire to react to stress in different, more positive and creative ways can lead to a more productive life of Christian service.

Consider awakening a half-hour or so earlier in the morning. Use the extra time to eat a leisurely breakfast, read the morning paper, or chat with your spouse before leaving for work. Drive more slowly; break the habit of trying to beat red lights and pass slow drivers. If your busy schedule has caused you to eliminate personal Bible study and prayer, try giving top priority again to a short devotional time each day. The feeling of peace and relaxation you gain may affect your reaction to stressful situations that come up during the day.

Another important practice is a daily exercise period. Walk, jog, do calisthenics, take up tennis or bicycling. Do whatever you enjoy, but exercise your body! You'll clear cobwebs from your mind as you do. Relaxation is also important. Allow time for reading, listening to music, learning new interests or hobbies. Many pastors have no substantial interest in anything besides the work of the church.

Accept criticism without reacting defensively. At the same time, try to be objective. Some criticism deserves your careful study and may motivate you to make helpful changes. Not all criticism, however, is lovingly motivated or well considered. Learn to recognize which kind you are dealing with, and respond accordingly. If you can make positive changes, do so; otherwise, put harmful remarks out of your head and go on about your business.

Practice expressing your own feelings clearly and directly, in a nondefensive, nonthreatening way. Recognize your talents and use them well. Invest in meaningful relationships. Ministers need personal friends; you may find new contentment in cultivating a few close and deep friend ships.

If you spend your lunch hours and morning breaks on church business, change this habit. At least two or three times a week schedule a quiet luncheon (invite your spouse at least once a week) in a spot far removed from the church-office atmosphere. Ban family and church problems from the conversation. Consciously relax and enjoy this "time out." If you don't protect your time and energy, no one else will do it for you.

A session of goal-setting may also be helpful. Review your reasons for entering the pastoral ministry. What aspects of your work do you believe are most important? Are you giving a large part of your time and talent to those things? If not, what is preventing you from doing this?

You will relieve much frustration and resentment if you can reorder your time so that the things that count are getting your best efforts. Three questions might put your work in perspective: "Is this the most important thing I can do right now?" "Will this be important five or ten years from now?" "Have I carefully considered the best way to do this?"

Share with other ministers your thoughts about what is helpful in managing the stress of a busy life. They may offer new insights, and you may be able to help them as well.

If God has called you to your task as a pastor, then time is important and should be used wisely. But the wisest use of time and energy may be to establish priorities, building in time for your own well-being, for your family, and for reflection and communion with God. Reevaluate your perspective on a regular basis. If you approach your work calmly and at a measured pace, knowing at the outset what you can realistically expect to accomplish, you will be a more effective worker in God's kingdom and will enjoy a new appreciation of the life He has given you.


* Bible texts credited to T.E.V. are from the
Good News Bible--Old Testament Copyright ©
American Bible Society 1976; New Testament:
Copyright © American Bible Society 1966, 1971,



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Rebecca E. Hight, a registered nurse and pastor's wife, does free-lance writing in her "spare time" from her home in Marion, Ohio.

July 1982

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