Managing ministerial stress

While you can't eliminate stress, by using these strategies you can manage it and control its effects. Concluding article in a three-part series.

Michael G. McBride, Ph. D., who himself has served in the ministry, is a family mental health counselor in Sequim, Washington.

Every pastor experiences the pain of vocational stress during his or her ministry. The nature of the calling and the position the pastor occupies between parishioners and prelates make it unavoidable. But while no simple, clear-cut solutions exist, nevertheless, by implementing the following psychological and spiritual strategies pastors can reduce stress-related problems.

Negotiate with role senders

One key strategy for minimizing vocational stress is negotiation with role senders. A pastor can implement this strategy at any time in his or her ministry, but it is particularly useful when he or she is considering an invitation to a new congregation.

D. P. Smith argues that at the time of such a call, both the minister and the local congregation should give careful consideration to such questions as: What is the meaning and purpose of the church? What is the mission of this particular congregation? What do the people of this congregation expect of a minister? Are those expectations relevant to the congregation's goals? Does the pastor share the understanding and goals of the congregation? Do their expectations fit reasonably well with his or her expectations, with his professional concerns, spiritual needs, predispositions, and style of ministry?1

Where possible, the pastor should always ask to meet with the church board, board of elders, and any other formal or informal leadership groups within the church to consider the kinds of questions stated above. By facing these issues systematically, directly, and in sufficient depth a congregation and pastor may uncover serious differences that later would disrupt their relationship.

The pastor should also initiate a similar process with the administration of the calling conference to identify any marked discrepancies between his or her goals and the goals and expectations of the conference administrators. Learning about such discrepancies can enable both parties to avoid later role problems.

By drawing up a list of pastoral roles from the inventory of religious activities referred to in part two of this series, pas tors can provide themselves with a tool useful in negotiating with role senders. This list can be helpful in the negotiations that take place before the pastor accepts a call, but it is also useful anytime during the pastor's tenure when conflict and ambiguity evince themselves.

In the latter situation, the pastor may present the list of clergy roles to the congregation, board, elders, or any other group from which the conflicts arise, asking them to rank the roles in order of importance. When they have completed the rankings, the pastor asks individuals to share their lists with the group. When several have done so, it will generally become evident that the members of the group hold significant differences of opinion.

The pastor should allow the group to argue for their various positions until it is clear that they cannot reach unanimity. Then he or she can discuss the issue of ambiguity and role conflict and call attention to how their confusion affects his or her ministry. Next the pastor should present his or her personal role priorities, strengths, and weaknesses, informing the role senders as to what they can expect and what roles must be fulfilled or supplemented by other individuals or through other means.

P. Higgins and J. Dittes discovered that when clergy and laity discuss the minister's role in this way, consensus concerning that role increases both be tween minister and laity and among the laity themselves. They discovered that generally the more those involved dis cussed a given role subject, the more agreement developed—but that the in crease in agreement was limited to the subjects discussed. The largest changes came in the laity's understanding of the importance of study to the minister, the necessity of reduced emphasis on routine visitation, and the importance with which the minister regarded the training of lay leadership. 2

The negotiating process, then, provides a thorough procedure for clarifying role expectations and matching those expectations with role performance, thus reducing or minimizing ambiguity and unnecessary conflict.

Avoid withdrawing

People tend to avoid those things that cause psychological discomfort. So although pastors ought to strive to increase communication when they are experiencing role conflict or ambiguity, re search suggests that at such times communication is likely to decrease. 3 Robert Kahn and his associates found that those who experience a great deal of role conflict tend to discount the importance and power of role senders, to trust them less personally, and to withdraw from them. 4

In the case of ambiguity, withdrawal is a self-defeating practice in both the short and long run. Basically, ambiguity results from a lack of information, and withdrawal cuts still further the flow of information. Communicating more frequently with the others involved in the situation and engaging them as information gatherers and providers would be far more effective. According to Kahn, the best way to find out what others expect is to ask them.

If ambiguity persists, most people eventually quit trying. At this point, communication deteriorates and withdrawal begins. This self-defeating mechanism increases the conflict, adding momentum to the developing vicious cycle. The withdrawal further reduces the flow of information, making less data avail able with which anyone can work to minimize the conflict. Cooperation and negotiation become difficult, if not impossible. Finally, in frustration, the role senders increase their pressure on the pastor and invoke even stronger sanctions in an effort to make him or her hear and respond favorably.

Rather than running away from the personal discomfort that role conflicts and ambiguity bring, pastors must reduce the pressure through communication.

Know yourself well

Another important factor in minimizing role conflict and ambiguity is knowing yourself well. Pastors who want to minimize ambiguity in the expectations others have of them must also minimize it in themselves. Confusion tends to breed confusion. Those who are not clear as to who they are, what they believe, what their understanding of the church and ministry is, what their goals are, and where their strengths and weaknesses lie are not well prepared to evaluate or relate to the expectations of others.

Self-evaluation, administrative evaluation, peer evaluation, career counseling, personality and vocational testing, and congregational evaluation—all can help pastors assess who they are.

Get sufficient exercise

A person's primary response to any threat—physical or otherwise—is the "fight or flight" mechanism, a reaction of the sympathetic nervous system meant to help one attain safety in times of danger. Once the stimulation of the event penetrates the psychological defenses, the body prepares for action. The heart and respiratory system increase their rate, circulating more blood and oxygen to the muscles and to the control centers in the brain. Hormonal secretions increase, and sugar and fats pour into the blood to feed the muscles and the brain, preparing them to fight the stressor that has provoked the system. The pupils of the eyes dilate to enable the person to see the apparent threat better.

According to D. Girdano and G. Everly, the threats we face endanger our egos more often than our lives. Consequently, physical action is not warranted. Unfortunately for the organs of the body, what took only minutes to start takes hours to undo. The stress products flowing through the system will continue to activate various organs until they are either absorbed into storage or used by the body. While these gradual processes take place, the body's organs suffer. 5

When we are stressed, we need to use up the products the body produces in re action to the stress; to release the fight-or- flight mechanism by putting it to its intended end—physical movement. In our society, which does not permit the killing of lions or the harming of our neighbors, physical exercise is the most effective release of such arousal. By channeling the increased energy in tended for fight or flight into walking, running, swimming, or hiking, we can safely dissipate stress products. Vigorous activity may even create a rebound effect that results in a state of deep relaxation.

As pastors undergo the general stresses of the ministry and of specific tensions and conflicts related to roles, it is critical that they implement a regular program of physical exercise to guard against the physiological effects of stress. Pastors of ten claim that time does not permit them to exercise and that their busy schedules militate against systematically employing such activities. Nevertheless, they would benefit remarkably from such a program. Seemingly insurmountable problems and conflicts appear in a new perspective when pastors act upon their need to exercise.

Use relaxation exercises

When under stress, the body experiences excessive muscle tension. Much of this harmful, stress-producing muscle tension is extremely subtle and almost impossible to detect. Permitting such a condition to continue for an extended period of time may produce or exacerbate a wide variety of physical disorders, such as tension headaches; muscle cramps and spasms; limitation of range of movement and flexibility; susceptibility to muscle injuries such as tears and sprains; insomnia; urinary problems; dysmenorrhea; and a wide range of gastrointestinal maladies including constipation, diarrhea, and colitis. 6

The best means of ending these dysfunctional physiological effects is by breaking the tension through neuromuscular relaxation exercises. There are literally hundreds of techniques, but all have the same basic objective of teaching the individual to relax the muscles at will, developing an awareness of what it feels like to be tense and then what it feels like to be relaxed. 7 Relaxation is an effective coping tool that helps minimize the adverse physiological effects of the tensions generated by the role problems pastors commonly face.

The supervisor's role

There are some strategies for minimizing vocational stress in ministry that pas tors cannot implement. Rather, they must be implemented at the administrative level of the church. These strategies relate to the role of supervision.

As the result of a 1976 study, T. Beehr concluded that people in roles with certain situational characteristics do not suffer as severely from stress. His conclusion has important implications for the management of conflict and ambiguity, because organizations can modify these situational characteristics.

Beehr stated that "autonomy is the strongest and most consistent moderator of the relationship between role ambiguity and role strain. Organizations that wish to reduce the role strain associated with ambiguity should increase the autonomy in their employees' roles." 8

By giving pastors a degree of professional autonomy, administrators can assist them in minimizing the effects of role conflict and ambiguity. And conversely, by stifling their pastors' autonomy, conference administration or local church leadership subject them to increased stress.

In addition to pointing out the benefits autonomy provides, Beehr's study indicated that people with supportive supervisors do not feel some role strains even if their roles are ambiguous.

Another way in which supervisors can help pastors minimize vocational stress is by involving them in the decision-making process. John Flora found that in situations in which workers feel they are an integral part of the decision-making process, they are likely to experience more satisfaction with their jobs, have less anxiety, be more optimistic about their future, and are more likely to desire to stay in their positions. 9

Administrators, then, can minimize role-related problems by allowing pastors to participate in making the decisions that affect them. How they address this matter has implications for how well their staff members will deal with stress-related issues.

Spiritual stress reducers

In addition to implementing the psychological stratagems given above, pas tors can strengthen their attempts to manage role-related stress by practicing certain spiritual disciplines.

The primary spiritual focus must be the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the role model for ministry, and thus He serves as the paragon upon which pas tors pattern their personal and professional behavior. Since Jesus knew role conflict, ambiguity, stress, and pressure during His earthly ministry, we may gain some insights about how to deal with these problems by observing the manner in which He dealt with them.

Because of their servitude during nearly 600 years of foreign occupation, the Jewish people emphasized the kingly nature of the Messiah to the exclusion of those prophecies that focused on His role as a suffering servant (e.g., Isaiah 53). 10 Consequently, they held many notions regarding the Messiah that were unreasonable, unrealistic, and at variance with the work Jesus had come to perform. Their preconceptions prevented many from accepting Him as the Messiah.

That even Jesus' disciples accepted the popular beliefs about the Messiah is demonstrated by their frequent disputes concerning the positions they coveted in the earthly kingdom they presumed He was about to establish. And they rejected any suggestion that the Messiah's mission would end in death (Matt. 16:21).

To meet the people's deeper needs of healing and wholeness, Jesus upset these shallow expectations regarding the Messiah that involved magical, military, and superstitious desires. Amid conflicting voices and mixed signals He faithfully created the role He understood Scripture, God's call, and the people's need to point to. He faithfully carried out His mission in spite of the ambiguity and role conflicts that doing so raised. 11 Clergy can similarly color the content of their roles by bringing their own expectations to bear upon those of the laity. They too must be faithful to their sense of calling; they must fulfill the ministry God has given them.

The key to Jesus' success in living with conflict and ambiguity was His devotional life with God. Mark notes that in the beginning of Jesus' ministry, "in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed" (Mark 1:35, RSV). In describing His later ministry, Luke states that "in these days he went out to the mountain to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God" (Luke 6:12, RSV). And as Jesus' ministry came to its climax, Judas knew where He could be found, because He went out "as was his custom" to the Mount of Olives in the evening to pray (Luke 22:39, RSV).

Luke reveals that prayer was connected with all of the highlights and crises in Jesus' life. Jesus prayed at His baptism (Luke 3:21), before His first confrontation with the Pharisees (Luke 5:16), before He chose the disciples (Luke 6:12, 13), before He questioned His disciples as to who they thought He was and first spoke of His own death (Luke 9:18), at the Transfiguration (verse 29), and upon the cross (Luke 23:34).

Jesus knew well that He could not live without the Father; that if He was going to give of Himself in ministry, He must sometimes receive; that if He was going to spend Himself for others, He must summon spiritual reinforcement to His aid. In other words, Jesus knew that He could not live without prayer. 12

Jesus' devotional life sets the example for pastors who experience the pain of role conflict and ambiguity. Their devotional lives are their personal counseling sessions with God. In prayer, not only are they open to receive the Lord's grace and mercy, but they may also experience the catharsis of confession. Through devotional exercises ministers may clear from their minds the confusion regarding priorities in their work. In secret prayer they can express to the Father the anxieties, tensions, and pleasures that their work engenders.

During their devotions pastors can think clearly about what they can and cannot do. And through their relation ship with God they can receive the courage to do what needs to be done and the confidence to commit to God what they cannot do. These times of prayer will refresh them in spirit and restore them emotionally.

If ministers need human dialogue to sustain themselves and to negotiate and resolve vocational stress, how much more they need the divine. And it is a disciplined devotional life on which the divine-human relationship that supplies their need is built. 13

A third spiritual element that helps minimize vocational stress is peace—a peace that exists in the midst of toil and conflict. It is the peace that comes when we experience with Paul the reality of Christ's promise that "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9, RSV). It is the peace that leads us beside still waters and restores our souls (Ps. 23:2, 3). It is the peace with God that we receive through our Lord Jesus Christ because we are justified by faith (Rom 5:1). When pastors believe that both they and the church belong to God and that God will work His purposes out, even if they can not do it themselves, then they can relax in the peace that only Jesus can give.

Another aspect of the peace that pas tors can experience in their relationship with God is contentment, in other words, coming to terms with the Giver of life. During his second imprisonment in Rome the apostle Paul wrote of this contentment: "I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content" (Phil. 4:11, RSV). Paul could say this even though he was imprisoned and did not know if the verdict would be life or death. Similarly, he could write to the Corinthians: "For the sake of Christ, then, I am con tent with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:10, RSV).

Pastors must develop the mind-set of Paul that allows them to be content. Perhaps one of the greatest joys of the ministry comes when pastors no longer crucify themselves on the cross of their own idealism. They can realize peace, contentment, and happiness only when they let go of intense, inappropriate, and unrealistic ideals and expectations for themselves, others, and the church. One's ability to "listen" to, challenge, and change oneself is a major key to finding contentment.

Yet another type of peace is available to the troubled pastor—the peace of surrender. Jesus experienced this kind of peace in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was there that He went through the greatest of His crises as the darkening events pointed to the cross. The conflicts, stresses, and ambiguities that surrounded His ministry now reached their peak. He was facing death. He knew what crucifixion was like; He had seen the ugly process. He could have, even then, refused to complete His mission and ministry. He could have turned from the cross.

But Jesus fought the mental anguish and won. He went to Gethsemane in the dark; He came out in the light because He had talked with God. He went in agony; He came out with the victory won and with peace in His soul because God's everlasting arms were underneath Him, even on the cross. His victory came as He maintained His surrender to a love that would never let Him go. "Life's hardest task is to accept what we cannot under stand; but we can do even that if we are surrendered to God and are sure of His love." 14

1 D. P. Smith, Clergy in the Cross Fire: Coping
With Role Conflict and Role Ambiguity
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974).

2 P. Higgins and J. Dittes, "Change in Laymen's
Expectations of the Minister's Role," Ministry Studies
2:5-8.

3 Smith.

4 Robert Kahn et al., Organisational Stress:
Studies in Role Conflict and Ambiguity (New York:
John Wiley and Sons, 1964).

5 D. Girdano and G. Everly, Controlling Stress
and Tension: A Holistic Approach (Englewood
Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1979).

6 Girdano and Everly.

7 According to Herbert Benson (The Relaxation
Response [New York: Avon Books, 1975]), four
components are necessary to eliciting the relaxation
response: (1) a quiet environment with as few
distractions as possible; (2) a mental device that
shifts the mind from logical, externally oriented
thought; (3) a passive attitude; and, (4) a
comfortable position that relieves unnecessary muscular
tension.
Specific description of relaxation techniques is
beyond the scope of this article. One can study
progressive relaxation techniques, autogenic training,
sensory awareness exercises, and other techniques
in such volumes as Benson's book and Girdano
and Everly's Controlling Stress and Tension: A
Holistic Approach.

8 T. Beehr, "Perceived Situational Moderators
of the Relationship Between Subjective Role Ambiguity
and Role Strain," Journal of Applied Psychology
61:35-40.

9 John Flora, "Role Conflict and Role Ambiguity
in the Elementary School Principalship" (Ph. D.
diss., Indiana University, 1977), Dissertation
Abstracts International 38, No. 6A: 3173.

10 For a delineation of their expectations, see,
e.g., "Messiah, Expectations of, Among Jews,"
SDA Bible Students' Source Book (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1962).

11 James D. Ashbrook, "Discussion of Hadden
Paper," Ministry Studies 2:35.

12 William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (Phila
delphia: Westminster Press, 1956).

13 W. Hulme, Your Pastor's Problems: A Guide
for Ministers and Laymen (New York: Doubleday
and Co., 1966).

14 Barclay.


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Michael G. McBride, Ph. D., who himself has served in the ministry, is a family mental health counselor in Sequim, Washington.

March 1989

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