The leader under stress

Third in a five-part series on pastoral leadership

Doug Burrell, a Baptist pastor from Rome, Georgia, is the director of Discovery Resources.

In the film Falling Down Michael Douglas plays a character who has reached the proverbial end of his rope. In the opening scene, this stressed-out man sits in his car on a hopelessly congested California freeway, trapped on all sides by other frustrated commuters. As he bakes in the heat of the freeway, he boils on the inside. Finally, after a series of unpleasant exchanges with fellow freeway images, he decides he has had enough. He takes his briefcase, exits his vehicle, and walks away a time bomb of raw nerves and pent-up frustrations ready to explode at the slightest provocation.

Ministers about to explode too—what can be done about stress in ministry?

A similar scenario is being played out in churches around the world. Ministers find themselves trapped in a jammed freeway of responsibilities and expectations. Their world and the rules for operating in it keep changing. The competition for the minds, hearts, commitments, and imaginations of their parishioners has made it difficult to see success. The demands of wounded families, declining resources, and the need for more diverse speaking and leadership skills have many ministers drowning in a sea of stress. Add to these the increased stress of family life, the difficulty in making ends meet financially, and you can better under stand why many ministers are "taking their briefcases" and leaving the pulpit.

What can ministers do about the stress they face in ministry? Are burnout and blowups facts of life that the church and ministers just have to live with? Is there any thing you can do to keep from "falling down"? What follows are several insights I have gained from my own journey in ministry and from working with ministers who are seeking to be more effective.

First, recognize the reality of stress

Stress is a fact of life, and higher stress is a fact of modern life. But that doesn't have to mean disaster. Stress can be constructive or destructive it's how we deal with it that counts. When you think about it, stress is an expression concerning the pressure of opposing or competing forces. A stress point may be found at the intersection of two activities competing for the same amount of time. It may be that stress develops around two competing ways of responding to a question or request.

A certain amount of stress is healthy. The pressure to choose creates a vitality needed to be creative. It builds character. In physical therapy and body building, stress is intentionally introduced to produce a greater range of motion, greater muscle mass, and a healthier body. Likewise, strength is developed in facing the competing forces (stress) and by resolving the issue at hand (making the choice). Greater and more destructive pressure and anxiety can actually be created by putting off these choices. These small, everyday "unresolved griefs" can, over time, create a tidal wave of pressures that lead to depression, rage, and burnout.

But stress is constructive only to a certain point. Too much stress can be destructive. Athletes learn to manage stress to use it where it is helpful but also to listen to their bodies to find the healthy balance be tween stress and Sabbath.

Second, make a choice

Ministers can choose to deal with stress in a constructive, healthy way! Of course, we can also choose to be devoured by the pressures. It is important to realize that you are not helpless. In many ways our society has become a society of victims by transferring responsibility for our well-being or health or financial condition on to someone other than ourselves. It's easy for ministers to do that also. If we are not careful we can blame the church when we are highly stressed. It's not too unusual to hear ministers comparing experiences and saying something like "My family just doesn't understand" or "The church members expect too much from me." But managing our lives and our ministries is our responsibility. We cannot be satisfied with the response of the steward who hid his talent out of fear. God has made us stewards over our ministry and our lives. We can choose foolishly, or we can choose wisely. But we are the stewards, and we make the choices. It is our responsibility to address the stresses of ministry in healthy ways.

Third, train yourself to cope with stress

There are several critical coping skills that ministers would do well to develop. It's possible to be intentional about training yourself in these skill areas. Here are four coping skills to begin with: flexibility, problem solving, communication, and intimacy.

Flexibility: People who are rigid and up tight (inflexible) are going to have more problems with stress than those who learn to "go with the flow." The issue that gets many ministers is the issue of control. You and I might as well learn to live with the fact, there are many things about ministry and about life that are beyond our control. Practice "letting go." Exercise your flexibility. Try to do things differently on purpose. Who knows, you might like it.

Problem solving: Face it. In ministry we are in the problem-solving business. Dealing directly with difficult problems and making positive changes to get them resolved will help you avoid a backlog of anxiety and the buildup of tension. It will also enhance your leadership stature and the respect others have for you.

Communication: A large percentage of conflict and misunderstandings arises out of poor communication skills. It is important that ministers be intentional in their communication practices. Sharing your thoughts and feelings with others in a way that brings about greater understanding is important, even when it is uncomfortable. If you have trouble here, seek out someone to coach you, or to give you honest advice.

Intimacy: The saying "No man is an is land" is true. One of the great danger signals in ministry is isolation. I use the word "intimacy" here to indicate "closeness" or "trust." Every minister needs to develop trusting relationships as a supportive system for dealing with stress, grief, anger, and disappointments, and for the investment of our positive energies. We need to have close relationships outside of our congregations so that our judgment and that of our trusted friends will not be clouded by our fiduciary responsibilities as ministers.

Finally, attend to your spiritual needs

Jesus' spirituality brought Him peace to face an otherwise overwhelming stress. He dealt with that stress by attending to His relationship with His heavenly Father. Sometimes we in ministry are so busy taking care of others that we forget to take care of ourselves.

We cannot overemphasize the importance of time away from the pressures of ministry. Jesus regularly withdrew to a "lonely place." Jesus sometimes withdrew from the crowds and the demands of ministry. Surely we are not greater than our Lord. It is OK to take care of yourself. You will have greater vision and keener insights, and be able to experience more fully the "joy of your salvation."


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Doug Burrell, a Baptist pastor from Rome, Georgia, is the director of Discovery Resources.

June 1997

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