Stress at Work
Stress is something that will come to every ministry worker. So how can church leaders work out what de-stresses them and develop a healthy balance?
“Besides everything else, I face daily the pressures of my concern for all the churches.” (2 Cor 11:28)
Paul’s phrase comes after a long list of very stressful and painful experiences. It points to a reality many church leaders know all about; the anxieties, difficulties, challenges and pressures of sustaining ministry.
We are not exceptional in experiencing stress at work, of course. My observation is that many people feel significant pressure in the workplace. Church leaders would do well in helping their flocks be better prepared for workplace stress. The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity’s (LICC) work in encouraging a greater sense of whole-life discipleship, where each believer is serving the Lord Christ on their ‘front line’, has been tremendously valuable in supporting Christians in all of their various callings.1
But church leaders do face a long catalogue of pressures. These can build up over a period of time and lead to unwanted consequences.
Long hours, confrontations, a perceived lack of success or a definite feeling of failure. The slow rate of change, the marginalisation of Christianity, difficult working environments or poor remuneration. The uncertainty of outcomes requiring church votes, problems flowing from handling power well – either by oneself or other strong-minded people. The need to produce a great output of teaching material and the self-questioning of whether it makes much difference, the regular encountering of human ills and sins. On and on goes the list goes. Sound familiar?
And that’s not all. The temptations of the world – the abuse of sex (intimacy), money (envy) and power (self-importance/self-pity). Twin that with the onslaughts of the accuser (church leaders are often in the crosshair of his sights) and ministry life is very pressured.
In his recent book, Didn't see it Coming, Carey Nieuwhof, discusses many of the problems that arise as this workload weighs heavily on our shoulders.2 In his chapter on burnout, the signs include fading passion, little things making you disproportionately emotional, people draining you, cynicism and a lack of satisfaction, lower productivity, an inability to think clearly, and an absence of laughter, amongst others. It would be surprising, given the demands of ministry, that some don't surface in your life at some time. Perhaps they are all there now?3
So what can be done? Let's consider three areas to focus on.
First are the various personal injunctions; ‘guard your heart’, ‘watch your life and doctrine closely’, ‘flee the evil desires of youth’ (in the letter to Timothy, that has more to do with power than sex, hence the exhortations are to be gentle and patient with all). It is our personal responsibility to worship the Lord. To read Scripture. To pray, pray with our spouse, nurture our children, and so forth. We need to take ‘ownership’ of those things.
To help ourselves we need to know ourselves (Calvin’s great insight was that all godliness flows from knowing God and knowing ourselves.) This is profoundly theological. Schaeffer used to say it involves ‘bowing the knee as a creature to the creator, but also bowing the other knee as a sinner to a Saviour’.
But it is also physiological; for example, it's helpful to be aware of how much sleep you require to function well. One GP advised me to find this out on holiday. He said that after a few days of being off work, go to bed at a sensible time but don't set an alarm. Do that for several days, and what time you naturally wake up will tell you roughly how many hours you need as a norm. Then the key is to get to bed if possible at a regular time without the distractions of TV, other media, or reading in bed. And no eating late if it can be avoided – so the late-night curry has gone!
Self-knowledge also has emotional, psychological, and social components. Some find ‘recharge’ in solitude, others by being in company, or by doing chores (see the book 5 Gears for insights into that concept4). Some feel ‘blue’ after output – think Sunday night after the sermon. Others feel anxious before meetings, such as members’ meeting or office holders’ meetings, that leave them feeling exhausted. Others relish getting something done at those same meetings!
The social component is about how much I let others in to my life and thoughts. I have mentioned before the helpful Johari diagram.5 How willing am I to share deeply my fears, stresses and anxieties with others? How open am I to their insights into my blind spots so that I may change for the better?
Help from others
The second area of help for dealing with stress involves input from others. Advice can be profoundly helpful, if I am willing to heed it. ‘Take a little wine for your stomach’ (1 Tim 5:23) may have an equivalent in your life.
For me it came from my wise Sikh GP. He encouraged me to take up sport. He shared that in a busy life where people are always on his mind (that resonated), he felt a degree of freedom from pressure whenever he stepped onto the pitch and started to play a team sport (hockey). He felt he could legitimately not worry, it gave him permission to forget for a while. And the game was in any case energetically absorbing.
My immediate reaction was to think that I have not got the time for that – four youngish children, a busy single pastor, and Saturday being stressful for getting things sorted for Sunday. Added to that, I hadn’t played for nearly 20 years (I was approaching 40 when he was advising me). But I heeded it, and have benefited enormously. Work did not suffer, nor did family. It was a somewhat de-stressed husband/dad/pastor that others saw more often.
Dr Gaius Davies wrote a very helpful book on stress.6 The point he made was that it is not so much the amount of stress we are under that counts, but the de-stressors we build into our life that matter. Enough of the latter, and we can cope with the former. When he visited our ministers’ fraternal, his profile diagnostic test showed many of us to be ‘Type A – driven’. That's nothing to be proud of he pointed out, for it means that probably/on average our wives will be younger widows than others – unless we all build in some de-stressors. Sobering advice.
Another piece of helpful advice (a fairly strong directive from other church leaders) was to take a slightly longer summer holiday. Three weeks in fact. Week one – I yawn; week two – I get used to being on holiday; end of week three – I am ready to return. No ‘Week Three’ and I can resent the return as it comes too early. That may not be possible for you, but I have found it truly helpful, especially as many ministers find the rest of the year is relentless. Christmas and Easter are rarely proper breaks, are they?
It may not strike you as necessary when you are young and energetic, but don't leave it until you are worn down, resentful, and frustrated before adopting a habit to help you over a lifetime of above average stress.
Others can show you understanding and support. Often an older couple can be invaluable here. Gentle, discreet, good listeners who will pray for you. If you can tell them anything and they won’t pass critical judgement, that’s another source of coping with stress.
Leaders from other churches can help with some of the knotty difficulties you face. No situation will be exactly the same, but shared insights into awkward problems and people (see 3 John 9-10) can really help you steer a less stressful course. The key? Don't face things alone.
The third area is that you may need professional help – medical or counselling. To seek help from a trained person is not an admission of failure or defeat. It is what you might need in a tough time of life. Your GP may be able to advise you in the first instance, or a trusted senior Christian leader may be able to point you in the right direction.
Time may be a good healer too. Coping better with stress is rarely achieved by listening to one seminar – or reading an article!
Given the tension between stress and de-stressors, so that we feel appropriately challenged, where do you feel you are? Under-challenged and under-used? That can wear you down. Just as spinning too many plates may make you feel that sooner or later it will all come crashing down. Getting that tension right can enable you to both be productive and rested for a long-term life of service.
1. For example, a recently released resource is the six part video series entitled, Whole Life Preaching (available free online at licc.org.uk).
2. Carey Nieuwhof, Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges that No One Expects and Everyone experiences (Waterbrook, 2018).
3. Also see Christopher Ash, Zeal Without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice (Good Book Company, 2016).
4. Jeremie Kubicek and Steve Cockram, 5 Gears: How to be Present and Productive When There is Never Enough Time (Wiley, 2015).
5. Ray Evans, Church Leadership (10 Publishing, 2016, p28).
6. Gaius Davies, Stress – the Challenge to Christian Caring (Kingsway publications, 1988). Another edition, Stress – Sources and Solutions (Christian Focus, 2005) has been released more recently.