Is the ministry getting you down?

John S. C. Hsuen, a minister and a medical doctor, identifies some of the elements of pastoring that lead to stress and then points to resources that can turn stress from a destructive to a productive force.

John S. C. Hsuen, M.D., is chief of staff, Hongkong Adventist Hospitals, and an ordained minister. This article is adapted from a lecture delivered at a professional growth seminar sponsored by MINISTRY for Hong Kong-area clergy.

Clergy are particularly vulnerable to stress. First of all, a minister, by the very nature of his calling, is to be a man of God, the spiritual leader to whom the congregation looks for its example. His every word and action is carefully watched. Naturally, this puts great pressure on him to uphold the image his congregation has of him. So, at no small cost in emotional strain, he controls his normal feelings and reactions in order to meet the expectation that he be something just short of a spiritual superman. (Incidentally, this high level of expectation applies not just to the minister, but to his family as well.)

Second, the clergy are the spiritual guardians of the congregation. The members turn to their minister for counseling and help. He is expected to deal with the multitudinous problems of his people—marriage difficulties, personality clashes, problem teen-agers, et cetera. These tension-charged problems deliver a double blow; the minister not only carries them on his heart, but he also faces guilt feelings for being emotionally drained by them.

Third, a minister has no regular office hours. He is on duty virtually twenty-four hours a day. As the shepherd of his flock, he responds to their needs no matter when they arise, day or night. The sick must be visited, the dying must be spiritually supported in their last hours, the bereaved must be comforted, small and large crises in the church demand his immediate attention. All this in addition to his routine pastoral responsibilities. It's no wonder he feels emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of the day! There is no rest for him even on the Sabbath. In fact, the worship services and other religious activities of his congregation probably make this day even busier than others!

Having pointed out how vulnerable clergy are to stress, I hasten to add that stress is an inevitable part of life. Not all stress is harmful. In fact, some stress is necessary for human productivity. However, when stress becomes continuous and relentless, it turns destructive.

What actually happens within your body when you are under stress? If someone should suddenly shout, "Fire! Fire!" your body would immediately respond with a built-in physiological defense mechanism. The heart would begin to beat faster, speeding up the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the muscles in arms and legs. Breathing would become deeper and faster, increasing the oxygen supply to cells. More glucose would be poured into the blood by the liver, providing fuel for immediate energy. The body would quickly divert a greater circulation of blood to muscles involved with movement, with a relative decrease in blood supply to the inner organs. The pupils would become dilated, allowing clearer vision. These physiological changes are triggered by the hormone adrenalin, secreted by the adrenal gland. With this altered physiological state, we are now better able to cope with the emergency. The body can take these physiological changes for a short while without deleterious effect. However, if they persist, they will cause a breakdown of life forces.

Medical doctors cite stress as a direct cause of one third of all diseases and claim that another third is indirectly aggravated by stress. Some of the well-known diseases that are caused by emotional distress include: duodenal ulcer, heart disease, high blood pressure, bronchial asthma, bowel disorders, and a host of skin diseases.

The late Dr. Hans Selye, who spent a lifetime studying stress and who became the world's foremost scholar on the subject, has said that an individual at birth is equipped with enough of what he calls "adaptation energy" to last a lifetime. This pool of energy can only be depleted; it cannot be replenished. It is very much like fueling a conventional airplane. Once it takes off, it cannot have its fuel replenished; it is expected to carry enough fuel to last the entire trip with some in reserve. Under normal circumstances the adaptation energy that man is given at birth should last his entire lifetime. However, this pool of energy is drawn upon more heavily when the body is under stress, and therefore may run out prematurely. In other words, stress causes the living machinery to develop problems and to break down sooner than it should. Those who are subject to a great deal of stress, as are clergy, risk having their effectiveness decreased and their usefulness cut short.

Strictly speaking, it is not stress itself that hurts us, but how we react to that stress. If we allow ourselves to react adversely, we suffer the consequences. On the other hand, if we react to stress in the right way, we can come off unhurt. It is like having good shock absorbers in your car. You hardly feel the discomfort as your car goes over a bump in the road. What are some of the "shock absorbers" that can protect your emotional well-being from the bumps of stress?

1. Good health. When you are in good physical health, you are better able to cope with stress. Our emotions and our bodies are not in separate compartments; they are intimately connected, one affecting the other. Not only can emotions cause physical diseases, as was mentioned earlier; the reverse is also true. Poor physical health can interfere with the emotional well-being. Our mind, source of our emotions, is housed in this physical body. Its proper function depends on the support systems of the body. Your mind and your emotions cannot function at their best if the support systems are faulty.

For example, you have experienced nights in which, for one reason or another, you have not slept well. The next day not only do you find yourself physically tired, but you discover that your level of tolerance for stress is appreciably lower. It is much harder to exercise the Christian graces. You are more irritable and impatient. Things that normally do not bother you now disturb you greatly. At such times you are less inclined to engage in serious Bible study. Your ability to concentrate is weakened, and your attention span is shortened. All these things happen because you have not had the needed sleep the night before! The importance of maintaining excellent physical health cannot be overemphasized. Doctors don't invent the laws of health; doctors discover them. These are laws that the Creator has built into every cell and fiber of our being. They are as much God's law as is the moral law, the Ten Commandments. Notice these three basic principles of good health.

A balanced diet. We are literally what we eat. Not only is the quantity of food that the body requires important, but also the quality of food the body needs for optimal health. Temperance in eating is crucial. Temperance has been defined as "the total abstinence from that which is harmful and the judicious use of that which is good." Overeating, even of good food, can clog the digestive system. It makes us overweight and brings with it all the health problems associated with obesity. It also causes mental sluggishness.

Regular exercise. Activity is the basic condition of life; inactivity brings about decay and degeneration. Exercise is a very important part of maintaining good health. A recent Japanese Government survey on the physical condition of people in that country is very revealing. According to this research, the Japanese reach their peak in physical strength at the age of 15 for females and 17 for males, and start losing it around the age of 20 for both sexes. Among other findings: If the physical power of males is rated as 100 percent at 17 years, it declines, on an average, to 97 percent at age 20, to 90 percent at age 29, and to 75 percent in the late 40s. But those who have regular exercise (three or more times a week) maintain their physical power at a level 15 to 20 percent above these levels at all ages. This means the physical strength of a Japanese male in his late 40s who exercises regularly will be, not the statistically expected 75 percent, but 90 to 95 percent, which is the normal physical power of someone in the 20-to-29 age bracket!

Besides its benefit to physical health, exercise relieves tension. In our bodies, the nerve of motion is balanced against the nerve of emotion. Exercise, by working through the nerve of motion, can unwind the tightened nerve of emotion. This has been well recognized by physicians. For example, people who jog find that the tension that they had when they began leaves them as they run. Physical exercise is therapeutic to the relief of stress and tension.

Rest. We need adequate amounts of sleep to allow our body to recuperate from the efforts of the day and for the wear and tear to be repaired. Not only do we need physical rest, but we also need emotional rest. It is important for the minister to take his mind off his spiritual ministry one day a week. Obviously he cannot do this on the Sabbath, when his congregation rests from daily toil. The minister, then, must organize his work in such a way that he has one day during the week totally free from pastoral responsibilities, a day he can devote to doing something different. It may be profitably spent with his family, his spouse and his children. It may be difficult to find such a day, but the minister must insist on having such a day for himself and his family and jealously guard it. He will be a better minister if he does. Remember our Lord's invitation to His disciples after their first successful evangelistic mission: "Come apart and rest awhile." As ministers of the gospel, you will be better able to cope with stress if you will take time—one day a week—to break away from your church responsibilities.

2. Supportive family. Blessed are those clergy who have spouses and relatives who are supportive of them. It is amazing what love and support from our family and relatives can do to our flagging spirits. Spouses of the clergy play no small role in helping the minister cope with the stresses of his calling. A minister can have a supportive family by taking time to cultivate its friendship. All such relationships are built on a quality, two-way communication. Effort and time spent here will prove a real blessing.

3. Spiritual resources. Living as a spiritual superman is a source of stress. Be yourself. I am not suggesting that clergy compromise principle and live carelessly. But I do maintain that a minister can be himself, with his faults and failings, and still command the respect of his congregation if they see in his life, in the long run, a dedicated man of God who is sincerely and earnestly endeavoring to fulfill his mission. You don't have to be on guard all the time lest telltale evidence of your true self be seen. You don't have to pretend to be perfect. Realizing this will help you be more relaxed and protect you from the tension and stress of trying to be what you are not.

Capitalize on the power in prayer. When I am worried and distressed over some problem or difficulty, I remember these words: "What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear; what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer." I then look for a quiet corner where on my knees I can pour out my worries to God. As a result, I find peace in my heart. During prayer, any number of things can happen that will bring peace to my heart. Sometimes the Lord shows me the way to solve the problem. Sometimes He helps me define the problem and shows me that my worry is unfounded. Sometimes He simply strengthens me to face the issue head-on instead of trying to dodge it. Sometimes He assures me that if I commit this problem to Him, He will take care of it in the best possible way. So, when I rise from my knees, I find that the tension and stress have left me. He has fulfilled His promise "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:28-30).

Take time to feed your own soul. It is possible for a baker to go hungry handling hundreds of loaves of bread because he fails to take time to feed on the bread himself. It is possible for the minister to be so busy ministering to the spiritual needs of his flock that he fails to feed his own soul. The cause of Christ needs Marthas with their energy, promptness, and diligence, but they must first come and sit with Mary at Jesus' feet so that their energy, promptness, and diligence may be sanctified by His grace, and that they may be an unconquerable power for good. You must spend a great deal of time with the Word of God in the preparation of sermons that you preach to your congregations. You must spend hours praying for your congregation. This, however, does not take the place of time spent for your own personal spiritual needs, or the time spent in prayer for your own spiritual strength. If you maintain a vital connection with the Lord and make sure that the battery of your inner strength is recharged as a result of a meaningful, quality communion with Him, you will then be able to go forth, braced for the challenges of the day, conscious of the ability to meet every rightful demand and having strength equal to the task. You will be able to go through the day conscious of His abiding presence.

Clergy need to recognize their vulnerability to stress yet understand that destruction comes, not from stress itself, but from an adverse reaction to it. In spite of the stress that is built into ministry, the shock absorbers provided by good health, a supportive family, and spiritual resources can enable us to live productive, satisfying lives that will confess the beauty of God's peace.


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John S. C. Hsuen, M.D., is chief of staff, Hongkong Adventist Hospitals, and an ordained minister. This article is adapted from a lecture delivered at a professional growth seminar sponsored by MINISTRY for Hong Kong-area clergy.

November 1983

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