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My bucket is running empty: Cumulative stress in ministry

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Archives / 2018 / July

 

 

My bucket is running empty: Cumulative stress in ministry

Claudio Consuegra

Claudio Consuegra, DMin, and Pamela Consuegra, PhD, are Family Ministries directors for the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Columbia, Maryland, United States

 

We share a very dubious distinction: both our youngest brothers were policemen—and both committed suicide. The circumstances were different, but the fact remains the same: they both ended their own lives. The trauma associated with these tragedies made us understand why Job could say, “May the day perish on which I was born, and the night in which it was said, ‘A male child is conceived’ ” (Job 3:3).1 ‘And the question is, How do chaplains and pastors minister to the pain that befalls others while coping with pain that comes to their own doorsteps?

As a young boy, Pamela’s brother was sexually molested by a man in church. The traumatic abuse caused him to developed a perfectionistic, almost manic-compulsive personality. Dressing impeccably, he cleaned and washed his police car daily and kept his house flawless. One day, while in his second marriage and facing bankruptcy, roadwork damaged his house beyond repair. Telling no one in the family and leaving no note, after his wife and her son left the house early in the morning, he turned his service gun on himself. He was 33 years old.

When Claudio’s younger brother was seven years old, their dad died suddenly of a massive heart attack. In one day their entire world turned upside down. Their mother plunged into the depths of grief, and for that first year, for all practical purposes, they did not have a mother. Claudio’s brother experienced the death of their father, the emotional absence of their mother, and later the transition of moving to the United States to start a new life in a new land with a new language, a new culture, and, within a year, a new religious faith.

After high school, he joined the Air Force, married, and had 10 tumultuous years in that relationship. He then became a police officer, divorced his first wife, and moved in with and later married his second wife. After 12 years of challenges, discouragement, and stress in police work, he became an Air Force Reserve recruiter. But he was never happy, and after a brief affair, conflict at home, and one attempted suicide, he, too, used a gun to end his life. He was 50 years old.

As we look back at the lives of our two brothers, we realize that they had so many things in common. Each had two marriages, one divorce, two children (a boy and a girl each); both were successful and appreciated in their respective jobs; both were in law enforcement; and both appeared to be generally happy on the outside. At the same time, they were both deeply traumatized and in pain for most of their lives until they made the final, tragic decision and ended their lives with a gun, a weapon with which they were both very familiar.

It was not one event that led them to the point of suicide but, rather, a series of events. Most of us would probably be able to handle a specific loss, as bad or painful as it may be. What is almost overwhelming to some is a series of such losses. Scripture gives in the life of Job one of the best examples of cumulative stress. We read in the first chapter of the book that bears his name about his first major loss: “ ‘The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, when the Sabeans raided them and took them away—indeed they have killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!’ ” (Job 1:14, 15).

As if that were not enough, “while he was still speaking, another also came and said, ‘The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you!’ ” (v. 16). In one vast sweep, the Sabeans wiped out a large part of Job’s income. The loss of income, investments, property, or savings has driven many to despair and deep depression. But if that were not enough, Job then learned of the loss of his employees, humans much more valuable emotionally than animals or property: “While he was still speaking, another also came and said, ‘The Chaldeans formed three bands, raided the camels and took them away, yes, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!’ ” (v. 17).

It is one thing to lose your employees, even if you care deeply about them; but it is another when death touches your own family members. At this point in the story, Job received the worst news of all: “While he was still speaking, another also came and said, ‘Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead;  and I alone have escaped to tell you!’ ” (vv. 18, 19).

One thing added to another and another in Job’s life until they felt like an overwhelming weight he could not lift. But because of the close connection he had with God (vv. 1, 4, 5), he turned to Him and worshiped (v. 20) so that those painful losses did not crush him, “and he said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ ” (v. 21).

One more challenge remained for Job: the loss of his health. “Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and struck Job with painful boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took for himself a potsherd with which to scrape himself while he sat in the midst of the ashes” (Job 2:7, 8). At the moment he most needed support and encouragement, his own wife, who was probably in as much grief as he was, could not help him but instead insisted, “ ‘Curse God and die!’ ” (v. 9).

Nothing can be sweeter than the gift of friendship, particularly when we are going through painful circumstances. Job had lost everything: property, employees, children, and even the support and encouragement of his own wife. He needed someone to help, to walk with him through this dark valley of pain, sickness, and despair.

The book of Job tells us that “when Job’s three friends heard of all this adversity that had come upon him, each one came from his own place—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. For they had made an appointment together to come and mourn with him, and to comfort him. And when they raised their eyes from afar, and did not recognize him, they lifted their voices and wept; and each one tore his robe and sprinkled dust on his head toward heaven. So they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great” (vv. 11–13).

Herein lies a very important remedy for a heart heavy with trauma, pain, and grief: Job’s friends, hearing of his distress, came to be with him. When they saw him, they cried with him. In their desire to help him, they sat with him seven days and nights. Silently, they simply sat there for an entire week, kept him company, and ministered to him through their presence. What a powerful lesson for us to learn. If only they had kept silent! During those painful moments, which friends or loved ones may be enduring, there are no words we can say to help them feel better, but our presence, a willing ear, and a caring heart may be a healing balm to their troubled souls.

Cumulative stress

Claudio has served as a volunteer law enforcement chaplain for most of his 35-year ministerial career. He has been with police officers and sheriff’s deputies at the site of a car accident with fatalities, the emergency response for a child who drowned in her bathtub, and at the home of a homicide victim. He spent two weeks at ground zero, in New York City, the site of the collapse of the World Trade Center after the attacks of September 11, 2001, working with the Port Authority Police department when, in a matter minutes, they lost 27 of their team, including the chief and the top brass. He also participated in 27 debriefings for the emergency personnel involved in the rescue efforts after the bridge collapsed over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on August 1, 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145. During all these years as a law enforcement chaplain, he has seen tough, battle-hardened cops continue doing their job as committed as always—but with stress eating away at them little by little.

Sergeant Robin Klein of the Long Beach California Police department said, “It probably won’t be a bullet that strikes an officer down, but the effects of chronic stress.”2 One of the factors associated with stress among law enforcement personnel is those incidents outside the range of normal activity. Such critical events may include attending to disasters (bombings, plane crashes, school shootings, multiple car accidents, etc.), witnessing death or mutilation, and dealing with abused or maltreated children. In general, police officers have rated these events as highly stressful, and yet they form part of their job, sometimes on a daily basis. While some officers may be able to deal appropriately with one or several incidents, the accumulation of such stressful events, without any intervention, can lead to serious chronic stress; PTSD; and, for many, suicide.

Cumulative stress in ministry

As a law enforcement chaplain, Claudio tries to help his officers by teaching them how to recognize the symptoms of police stress and to offer some strategies to cope with it. But cops are not the only ones who experience stress. Working for the church through-out the years, we have also learned that stress is part of life for those of us in the pastoral or educational ministry as well. The monthly board meetings and annual nominating committee meetings, the sermon preparation, the evangelistic meetings, the funeral service for a dear member, camp meeting, and on and on, all wear away at us.

Claudio remembers the day in Milwaukee when he visited a couple from the church and their newborn baby at a hospital. He celebrated and rejoiced with them as they received their little bundle of joy into their family. After leaving that hospital, he drove to another hospital where another couple’s newborn baby was declared brain dead. He was there with them as they made the decision to disconnect the machines that were keeping her body alive and witnessed her last breath. Church members may not realize or be aware of how these stressors affect pastoral caregivers, but we feel them deeply inside.

Stress in ministry is unending, and it drains and saps our energy daily. Imagine your life as a bucket being drained constantly. It would not be long until that bucket is completely empty. The problem is that many of us do not recognize it, or we live in denial that we are approaching or have already reached the bottom. The above chart shows some signs you must become aware of.

Early warning signs

Mild signs

Extended signs

Severe signs

 

 

 

 

  • Boredom
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Poor concentration
  • Memory problems
  • Increased illness
  • Relationship problems
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Performance changes
  • Fear of leaving home
  • Relationship changes
  • Personality changes
  • Becoming housebound

If you see yourself or those close to you exhibiting some of these signs, please remember that some behavior change following a crisis may be a normal response to an extraordinary situation. When you experience a serious loss, life does not just simply go back to normal the next day. For most people, behavior changes following a crisis are generally temporary, and each person responds to crisis in different ways and moves through the experience at his or her own pace. At the same time, you need to remember that you are not alone. Many others will share similar reactions and feelings. Countless pastors and educators experience stress just like yours—or even worse. But remember, it is an indication of strength, not weakness, to ask for help when needed.

What helps you deal with stress before it accumulates?

Let us go back to the illustration of the bucket. Stress in ministry is a fact of life and drains our bucket daily. The key is to continually replenish what is being drained so that we do not run dry. Activating some healthy coping strategies can ease the cumulative effects of stress. Here are some things you can do:

Create a daily routine, beginning with prayer, to help regain a sense of control. While our schedule is often unpredictable and our work  unrelenting, organize your calendar so that you have as much regularity as possible.

  • Eat balanced, healthy meals.
  • Get extra rest to let your body relax and recover. Since a lot of your work happens during the Sabbath, you need to create some “Sabbath space and time” elsewhere during the week.
  • Exercise. A daily walk, a hike with the family, and swimming at a nearby pool are all good, relaxing activities.
  • Release frustration and anger through safe, exhausting physical activity. Chop wood, lift weights, run a short race or even a marathon, or participate in a challenging competition.
  • Ask for support from friends, colleagues, and loved ones, but also seek mental health assistance when you find yourself concerned about your reactions.
  • Avoid any kind of stimulant— alcohol, drugs, caffeine, or pornography.
  • Try not to spend too much time with media; continually listening to or watching the news can be quite depressing when we are already stressed.

Be aware of the impact of your own past experiences on your current functioning. Sometimes a sad or stressful event from the past that we did not deal with at the time may come back to haunt us when a similar incident takes place.

Unlike Job, our younger brothers chose to end their lives instead of reaching out to others for help. And, unlike Job, they could not see beyond their pain and problems. Both of us have been able to come to terms with our brothers’ suicides. We will never accept their choice to end their lives, though, and whenever we think of them, it is with great sadness. Above all, we need to learn to recognize the pernicious effects of cumulative stress in ourselves and others and then take the steps to manage it before it adversely affects our lives, families, and ministries. As pastors, chaplains, or educators, we must acknowledge the sober reality that what happens to others can—and does—happen to us.

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1  Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.

2  Ronald J. Burke, ed., Stress in Policing: Sources, Consequences and Interventions (New York:Routledge, 2017), 3.

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