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Being healthy amid pastoral stress

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Archives / 2000 / January



Being healthy amid pastoral stress

Larry Yeagley
Larry Yeagley, now retired, has served as a pastor and chaplain. He lives in Gentry, Arkansas, United States.


John Smith is a young and dynamic pastor. He loves his work. He adores his family and is committed to its health and to the growth of his church. But right now he finds himself in a dilemma.

Recently his conference assigned him to a new church-planting program. In addition to his present duties, the plan involves training lay persons in several churches, some distance away from home. This additional assignment will keep him away from his family almost every weekend.

"The plan is not family-friendly," John said. "My wife and children would have to spend weekends without me an unfair burden on their emotional health and my own." John approached his president but quickly sensed that he should not press the matter further. What should he do? Here are some of the approaches we discussed as we sought ways to handle the problem.

Family first

The wisest among us put the family first. "Nothing can excuse the minister for neglecting the inner circle for the larger circle outside."1

When I was a chaplain in psychiatric units, I met young patients under treatment for clinical depression. Some of them were pastors' children. In talking with them, I found out that their pastor-parents were gone most of the time, returning home occasionally to enforce the rules. These children seemed to have a hatred for such parents and for their church.

My job was to show the minister parents that they were painfully bumping their emotionally starved children in their mad dash to save the world for God. I, too, have been guilty of this. In my early ministry I would spend the entire Sabbath working for the church while my wife had the full responsibility for our small boys. After some time it dawned on me that I was robbing my family and depriving myself of all kinds of blessings. My boys used to beg me not to accept weekend dinner invitations so that we could enjoy Sabbath as a family. I decided that pastoral visitation is important, but it must not rob my family of my love and companionship. The day of worship is designed to heal and nurture families including the pastor's.

Your spouse is important

My wife and I once conducted a seminar for pastors on how to minister to people in crisis without destroying their own health through stress. We explained that much of our stress results from living in spaces that are sick. If the work space puts unrealistic demands on a person, and there are few rewards, affirmations, or words of gratitude, the emotional space becomes sick and the ill effects spill over into the home. We appealed to the ministers to check the health of their work environment to make sure the home remained healthy.

A young minister responded privately: "I'm so happy you challenged me to examine my work space. I have been placing all my energies into my work. As a result my wife and I have been arguing and growing apart. For the past few months we have discussed divorce. Today I've discovered that my marriage and family take priority over the church. Thank you for giving me permission to balance my life. Starting tonight, I am going to begin working on my very sick marriage."

Set aside plenty of private time for you and your spouse. Enjoy walks together. Attend musical concerts. Play games together. Sit facing each other and reflect about the highlights of your marriage. Have dinner at a special restaurant. Build mini-honeymoons into every month. Give your spouse surprises for no special reason. Love needs no reason.

These little extras will keep your pastures greener than the proverbial ones on the other side of the fence. Your children will feel secure and loved when they see their parents in love.

Set your own agenda

Set your own agenda. If you don't, someone will set it for you. Their agenda may not be healthy. When I was an in tern, my churches set my agenda. For three months of each year I was visiting police departments to gain permission to solicit for mission funds. I was touring the streets where church members were giving yellow silk flowers to pedestrians and asking for donations. I was picking up the money and replenishing their supply of flowers. During those months I struggled to finish my Sabbath sermon, usually completing it late Friday night. After delivering the sermon, I was often embarrassed to face the parishioners. Finally, I gathered the courage to set my own agenda. I was able to live through that church pro gram without depression. My wife and family were privileged to have a husband and father who wasn't grouchy and moody. We all experienced better health.

Setting your own agenda requires a clearly developed theology of minis try. Examine the concept of ministry throughout the Bible. Be attentive to the contexts in which ministry is discussed. Apply those principles to your situation.

Eugene Peterson in The Contemplative Pastor argues that sermon preparation is easy when you drench yourself in Scripture. There has to be water in the well if you intend to give the worshipers a drink. Since I see my role to be that of proclaimer, nurturer, teacher, and counselor, I enjoy spending my entire mornings filling the well and soaking myself in the Water of Life. When I am in the pulpit I am relaxed and quietly confident that what God helped me develop in manuscript or notes is what the people need.

Jesus spent much time in quiet places with the Father. He left the quiet place and strolled into the marketplace and poured His love and compassion into the lives of people. Then He went back to the quiet place to be filled once more. I like to call this the rhythm of the ministry. Linger in the quiet place so that you can meet God's children in the marketplace.

Have a plan

It is pointless to be running in proverbial circles. This only leads to exhaustion and frustration. You need to have a plan. A plan is different from an agenda. Your theology of ministry must lead you to plan for the whole year. How do you do this? Certainly not by running around. I set aside one or two weeks ev ery six months to adjust my goals for the six months just ahead and develop goals for six months beyond that. This keeps my one-year plan current and realistic. And I build my vacations into my goals. Spending regular time with my family is a part of my goals.

Be not anxious

God is constantly in the process of touching and impacting people's lives. When I visit a person, I need to remember that before me the Holy Spirit was already ministering to the needy one. While I am visiting, the Holy Spirit is present to give me words to speak. When I leave, the Holy Spirit stays with the per son to take what I have left behind my words, my smile, my tears, my silence, and my touch and turns them into a ministry that I could never perform by staying. All I need to do is allow God to use me as a small tool, then trust that He will build a mansion of holiness in the place of a shanty of sinfulness.

Henri J. M. Nouwen speaks about worried ministers as people who have their hearts in the wrong place. He describes them as overstaffed suitcases with no room for the Spirit. They have an address, but they are never home long enough to be addressed by the Spirit. Rather than hurrying and scurrying about, ministers would be healthier knowing that they can't initiate. That is the work of God. We are His tools.

Have a sense of humor

A merry heart is like good medicine. Humor and laughter must be a part of the pastor's life and the pastor's home. Twice a week I used to visit a rancher who was slowly losing his battle against cancer. Each day we'd play a game of dominoes. Each day he won. Each day he made up the rules as the game proceeded. As we played the game, George told the funniest jokes I have ever heard. One day we were laughing until the tears ran down our faces. George threw back his head and cried, "Oh, if I couldn't laugh, I'd die."

The late Norman Cousins taught us the value of laughter when he over came a rare disease by engaging in body-shaking laughter. He instilled the idea in the minds of healthcare providers to build laughter rooms in their hospitals. It's true. A merry heart does good like a medicine. Pastors need regular, good doses of that medicine.

Set aside a day for family

I know a pastor who told his new congregation, "You should know that Tuesday is our family day. I do not wish to receive any phone calls on Tuesday unless there is a genuine emergency. In turn, if you tell me which day is your family day, I promise I'll not call you on that day." These words may sound a bit abrupt, but they do tell the congregation what to expect, and they say something about the importance of family.

Next to the day of worship, our family day was the most therapeutic day of the week. I left my work behind and focused strictly on the health of the family.

Develop good health habits

Ministers and their families need to follow good health principles. They need to live in a healthy manner. Good health of body most certainly influences emotional and spiritual health. When the stresses of church life strike, we are able to handle them better if we have good health. Read again Ellen White's Counsels on Health and see what you've been missing.

Set boundaries

A pastor returned home after a day of visitation. "How was your day?" he asked his wife.

"I might have finished the laundry, but instead I spent all morning listening to the woes of your church members. Why do they trouble me? I'm not their pastor."

This spouse and others in similar situations needed to devise ways of quickly referring calls to the pastor. The pastor handles complaints, problems, and a variety of church matters. Such calls need not infringe on other family members. It is appropriate for them to say, "This is not something I can help you with. Let me take your phone number and have the pastor call you."

I visited a pastor's home during meal time. Twice the pastor answered the phone and twice his food had to be reheated. Handling church problems and eating a meal don't go together. The pastor would be wise to install a telephone answering device. Or learn to courteously postpone calls until the meal is finished. If calls are allowed to interrupt meals, family worship, and important family discussions, the whole family may feel frustrated and resent not only the phone intrusions but the work of pastoring and the church itself.

Be creative

We are made to be creative. When we fail to use our creativity we lose interest in ministry. We tend to be bored and become ineffective in our work. We are wide open to discouragement and even depression.

Sitting on the floor of my study, my son was writing the pros and cons of several lifework choices. He looked up and said, "Daddy, what would you think if I told you I wanted to be a minister?"

"Well, Jeff," I replied, "if you plan to be an unimaginative minister, I wouldn't be too happy. We have enough of such ministers boring people. But if you plan to be a creative, innovative minister who is not afraid to try new ideas, I'd be very happy."

You can't be effective in ministry unless you put your personal imprint on everything you do. Uncreative ministers lose enthusiasm and are not productive. They develop attitudes that harm their own emotional health and that of their families.

Creativity in ministry promotes success and good health.


My sons and I conducted a father-and-son retreat a few years ago. Most of our activities were fun and games. We made a remarkable discovery. Fathers didn't feel comfortable playing. Their sons instantly played with vigor, but fathers were awkward. They had forgotten how to play. With some coax ing, the fathers gradually allowed themselves to be children again.

Adult children are a delight to God. He doesn't want us to become dull and stodgy. I often tell people that Jesus must have enjoyed playing because children were drawn to Him. I can't prove that theologically, but it seems logical to me.

When I worked as a chaplain I would sometimes be tense after a serious emergency. That's when I headed for the pediatrics area of the hospital. I made paper airplanes for the children and taught them how to glide them across the room. If the child could walk, we went into the hall and pretended that we were landing big jets at Heathrow Airport. The nurses sometimes scolded me for cluttering the hall, but my game-playing made me a healthier chaplain. I hope it did wonders for the children also.

Playing sharpens our minds. The exercise stirs the endorphins that fight off discouragement.

Slow down

Slow down. Work slower. Preach slower and more conversationally. Hurry destroys creativity. You'll accomplish just as much when you work at a slower pace. It keeps you from stress-related diseases and avoids addiction to your own adrenaline.

Remember for whom you are working

If God called you to ministry, you are working for and with God. You may be receiving a paycheck from the institutional church, but you take your orders from the Chief Pastor. Study the methods of Jesus. Learn His attitudes toward people. Watch Him take time for weary sinners. See Him caring for people who were forgotten long ago. Hear the shouts of joy from those who were cured. Then pray that God will help you perform the ministry of TLC tender loving care. Take time to be with people. Listen to their pain. Care for them genuinely and cure them with the gospel.

And experience health of body, mind, and spirit!

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1 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948) ,204.

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