Creating emotional balance in an unbalanced world

How do emotions factor into the issue of pastoral burnout?

Karen Holford, MA, MSc, is family ministries director, Trans-European Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom.

I have paddled my toes in the great sea of burnout—probably even waded in up to my chest. I’m not sure how deep. When life feels completely overwhelming, you can take one small step and suddenly discover that there is no ground under your feet, and you are desperately treading water. For several months I lay awake at night, too stressed from the day to unwind, and then struggled at work because I was too exhausted from my sleepless night.

A few years later I was offered freelance work. The project was to create a workshop on helping children flourish by experiencing healthy and balanced emotions. As I researched the topic, I discovered that, as a ministry leader, I could make wiser and more balanced choices about my own life. I could choose to think positive thoughts that would help me experience healthier emotional balance and protect me from the risk of burnout. Eventually, after 40 years, I was learning how to live out my high school motto: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8).1 Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson researched the effects of positive thinking on our psychological well-being.2 She suggests that in order for us to have healthy emotional balance in our lives, we need to have at least three positive emotional experiences for every negative emotional experience and more than three to one if we want to flourish. Negative emotions are those that drain us and deplete our resources, and positive emotions are those that refuel and refresh us. Even though we cannot eliminate negative emotions from our lives, because they are a resultant component of living in an imperfect world, we can learn to deal with such draining emotions by identifying them and understanding their potential effect on our emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational well-being. We can choose to experience positive emotions, just as Paul did, to help us stay emotionally healthy through the challenges of pastoral ministry.

Negative emotions

Fredrickson3 identifies some negative emotions we are most likely to experience:

• Shame—when you feel a sense of inadequacy and a feeling of personal failure

• Guilt—when you feel bad about having done something wrong.

• Sadness—when you have lost something precious to you

• Embarrassment—when your mistakes are made public or when you are being ridiculed

• Disgust—when you experience something that looks, smells, sounds, tastes, or feels revolting

• Contempt—when you have a sense of your own superiority and look down on someone with bitterness

• Anger—when you feel hostile about something or toward someone

• Fear—when you are not sure whether you can cope with the challenge you are facing

• Stress—when you have more to do than you can easily manage or when you think that other people will be disappointed in you, even when you do your best

• Frustration—when something prevents you from reaching your goals as quickly as you had hoped, or people are unreasonably critical of you.

Some negative emotions are useful. They can encourage us to make healthy changes in our lives. Stress reminds us to manage our workload differently, ask for help, or share the load with someone else. Fear can protect us from dangerous situations. Guilt reminds us to ask for forgiveness from God and those we have hurt and find ways to repair the broken relationship. Mourning and sadness are natural and healthy responses to losing someone who has been important in our lives or something that was valuable to us. All of these emotions inspire us to pray for the help, wisdom, and comfort of the Holy Spirit. Fredrickson studied love and a variety of other positive emotions like joy, inspiration, and pride through the lens of social science, rooted in research studies, hypothesis, and data. However, biblical counsel informs us that God presents a plethora of opportunities for us to experience positive emotions that protect us from depression, despair, and thoughts and experiences that deplete our emotional resources.

God’s gifts

Some of God’s gifts are inspiration, hopefulness, thankfulness, joy, kindness, serenity, job satisfaction, and wonder. Weave a few of these positive thoughts and emotions in your life to counter the negative emotions, and notice the difference they make to your emotional and spiritual well-being.

Inspiration.Observe what Paul says: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy— think about such things” (Phil. 4:8).

Now consider the following:

• How does God inspire you? How did He inspire you to become a pastor? Which aspects of your ministry do you find most inspiring? What was the most inspiring moment for you today, yesterday, or last week? Are there instances when you felt closest to God? How can you spend more time with God to experience His fullness and sufficiency?

• Make a list of Bible verses and psalms that inspire you the most. Read them when you need inspiration. Focus on the most important message for your life.

• Read Philippians 4 and list Paul’s ideas for encouraging Christians to have healthy and positive emotions.

• Collect biographies of famous Christians who did amazing things with God. Read or listen to their stories. Ask yourself: What do I like best about this story? Which part of their story is most like my story? What should be the most important message in their life stories for me today?

Hopefulness. Consider Jeremiah’s counsel: “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’ ” (Jer. 29:11).

What are the thoughts and ideas that undermine your hopefulness? Could it be that you have experienced deep tragedies and disappointments? Or perhaps your life has been so busy that you do not have time to plan events and look forward to them. Or you have not had time to focus on the wonder and miracle of heaven and the promises of Jesus. To help you tap into the resources that will restore your hopefulness, consider the following:

• Keep a notebook of Bible verses and promises that nurture your hopefulness.

• List the ways God has helped you through your challenges in the past. When did you manage a setback well? Who and what helped you manage the crisis? What useful insights have you learned from those experiences?

• Plan something small to look forward to each week. This could be having lunch with your spouse or a friend, studying with an enthusiastic Bible student, visiting an inspiring senior, going for a walk with a friend, planning something fun with your family, or spending time working on your hobby.

• Collect all the messages, emails, and cards you have received that fill you with hope. Read them again when your hopefulness needs a boost.

• Nurture someone else’s hope. Send them an encouraging card or mes- sage. Let them know that you are praying for them.

Thankfulness. The apostle says: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:18). What prevents you from experiencing gratitude? Maybe you are so busy that you find it difficult to pause and notice the thousands of gifts God gives you every day of your life. Each breath, each step, each thought, each movement, each smile is a gift from Him. Or maybe you are facing serious challenges, and your mind is filled with worries and concerns. Here are some things you can do about such issues:

• Start your day by being grateful to God. Before you even crawl out of bed, pause and thank Him for at least a few of the many gifts He pours into your life.

• Use a notebook to write about whatever fills your heart with thankfulness.

• Memorize psalms of gratitude, such as Psalms 100, 107, or 118 so you can recall or recite them when you are driving in your car or meditate on them when you are in the shower.

• Write thank-you letters to those who have had a significant influence in your life.

• Find creative ways to thank as many people as possible, every day.

• As you drive or walk along the road, notice all the things you want to thank God for. It helps to be thankful for specific things, rather than generally grateful.

• Use the letters of the alphabet to prompt your gratitude. List the things you are grateful for that begin with each of the letters.

• Write down all the things you are thankful for each day on a chalk- board or whiteboard in your study.

• Make a gratitude jar. Each day write on a slip of paper something you are thankful for and put it into the jar. When you struggle to be thankful, pull a few slips out of the jar and read what you wrote on other days.

• Sit quietly and thank God specifically, and in detail, for at least three gifts He gave you during the day. Write them in your gratitude journal or diary.

Laughter and joyfulness. The wise man says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine” (Prov. 17:22). “There is a time for everything, / and a season for every activity under the heavens / . . . a time to laugh” (Eccl. 3:1, 4).

When did you last have a really good laugh? What stops you from experiencing joy and fun in your life or with your family and friends? The sense of humor comes as a gift from God to help us de-stress and connect with each other. Here are a few tips to maintain your humor quotient:

• Create a “funny file”—an ordinary file box packed with funny cards, cartoons snipped from newspapers, amusing stories, and your favorite comedies on DVD. Dip into it when you are feeling low to balance your stress hormones with some smiles and laughter.

• Watch the Matthew DVD—in this version of the gospel story, Jesus is depicted as someone who is full of smiles and laughter, with the sheer delight of being able to share God’s love with a hurting world.

• Share with someone the funniest thing that happened to you during the day or the funniest idea you had.

• Buy an annual zoo pass—walk among the animals and smile at their antics whenever you need to balance your life with healthy laughter. Watch the meerkats, lemurs, and monkeys. God certainly showed His sense of humor when
He created them!

Kindness. “Be kind and compassionate to one another,” counsels the apostle (Eph. 4:32). Being kind to others seems to be one of the best ways to experience happiness yourself, as long as you are still being kind to yourself. Try these pointers:

• Make a list of all the kind acts that Jesus did.

• Watch the Kindness Boomerang video at and notice the difference a simple act of kindness can make. Explore kindness ideas on the Web site or sign up for sample ideas.

• Offer 20 minutes to help your spouse, child, or friend with a challenging task.

• Place some coins in someone’s expired parking meter.

• Do something kind for someone who experiences a challenging time.

• Reach out to another pastor or church leader and surprise them with the gift of kindness.

Serenity. “ ‘Peace I leave with you,’ ” said Jesus. “ ‘My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid’ ” (John 14:27). What soothes you and calms you after a stressful day? Notice when you are feeling calm and identify what soothes you. Also notice what disrupts your peace so that you can manage those disruptions more effectively:

• Make a list of soothing and comforting Bible verses to memorize or read.

• Create a playlist of music that helps you unwind and relax, such as classical music, hymns, and other Christian songs. Keep calming CDs in your car. Or sing soothing hymns to yourself.

• Take a cool shower, a warm bath, or a walk in the woods. Walk around your garden, share a favorite drink, work out in the gym, light a candle, sit by a log fire, or watch the ocean.

• Write your troubles and negative thoughts in a notebook entitled “In God’s hands,” and place them in His care.

Wonder. “For you created my inmost being; / you knit me together in my mother’s womb. / I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; / your works are wonderful, / I know that full well” (Ps. 139:13, 14).

What prevents you from experiencing moments of wonder? Maybe the pressure of time and work or forgetting to pause and focus on the wonders of God’s creation. When you open your eyes to look for God’s wonders, you will feel refreshed, inspired, and uplifted. Why not stop for a few moments and look at the myriads of wonders that are all around you?

• When you are walking down a city street, notice the little plants that manage to survive between the cracks. Watch the clouds in the sky. Listen to birdsong. Take a diversion through a park. Sit on a bench and look at the detail of the bark, the shape, and the leaves of an elegant tree.

• Look closely at a beautiful flower and notice the colors and shading of the hues. Or take a few minutes to explore the detailed construction of your hands and wonder at the amazing creation of your own body.

• Gather some interesting natural objects—like shells, stones, seed-pods, and bark—and place them in a wooden bowl on your desk. Whenever you feel stressed, choose an object. Focus on it for a few moments until you can list three wondrous things about it that you have never seen before.

• Search the Internet for short videos of natural wonders, birds, or web-cams in national parks.

Job satisfaction. “Whatever you do,” says Paul, “work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Col. 3:23). What prevents you from experiencing positive job satisfaction? Maybe you have never been able to arrive at the bottom of your “to do” list. Is it focusing on all the different mistakes you have made and the things that weren’t quite perfect? Are there critical voices grumbling around in your thoughts that have been there since your childhood? Here are some things you can do:

• List ten areas of efficiency covering work, hobbies, and relationships. Review it to see how you can incorporate more of your strengths into your ministry and life.

• At the end of each day ask yourself, What went well today? Write at least three items.

• If something did not go so well, call it a learning experience. List three things you can learn from it and plan what you could do differently next time.

• Affirm your colleagues when they have done something well and celebrate their accomplishments.

As a family therapist, I have promoted activities that nurture positive emotions in both church and community workshop settings. When working with pastors and their spouses, we stress the need for balancing our emotions. Individuals and couples explore at least ten different activity tables complete with materials and instructions needed to help nurture positive emotions, such as calmness, joy, gratitude, inspiration, and humor. Even the children have enjoyed participating.

Workshop participants were sent away with gift bags containing resources such as beautiful natural objects and inspiring Bible verses to help them experience positive emotions at home. Thank-you cards for friends were included because benefits are magnified when positive experiences are shared.

Fredrickson states, “Gratitude opens your heart and carries the urge to give back—to do something good in return, either for the person who helped you or for someone else.”4 Scripture declares, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:18); “Give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:38a). Adherence to biblical counsel on positivity is consistent with the best counsel from social science research and is a major factor in addressing the issue of pastoral burnout.


1 All Scripture references are from the New International Version.

2 Barbara Fredrickson, Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life (New York, NY: Harmony, 2009). -happiness/barb-fredrickson/

4 Barbara Fredrickson, Positivity, 41.

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Karen Holford, MA, MSc, is family ministries director, Trans-European Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom.

January 2017

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