Definitions: Stress is a product of physical, mental or emotional strain or tension or a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal resources the individual is able to mobilize. Stress can be debilitating and a prelude to burnout. Burnout is a process that begins with excessive and prolonged levels of job stress.
Signs and symptoms of Stress/ Burnout
James Gill gave the following litany of signs and symptoms of Burn out: physical fatigue, exhaustion, insomnia, body tension, frequent sickness, backache or neck ache, increased perspiration, headaches, serious illness, worry about work or members, difficulty making decisions, guilt feelings about work performance, preoccupation with problems, griping, cynicism, feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, loss of enthusiasm, feeling of stagnation, anger, resentment, blaming others, accident prone, hostile thinking and speech, yelling, impatient, irritated, uncharacteristic behavior, loss of concern for others, treating people coldly, stereotyping people or members, communicating impersonally, reduction in time spent on assignments, mechanical performance of duties, excessive intellectualization, repression of feelings, etc.
The Nature of Stress
Increase in stress in the ministry parallels the increase in stress in the society. The number one source of stress is life itself. Stress is not only normal, but necessary for life itself. Muscles rapidly deteriorate in the absence of the stress of movement. Consequently, a difference needs to be made between normal, beneficial stress and harmful, destructive stress.
Mental and physical decline often occur in retirement due to the swift lowering of a person’s general stress level. Distress occurs when there is too much input for us to deal with, when too many mental or physical demands are made of us.
The key is keeping the creative pressure high enough to maintain the healthy stress needed for effective ministry, while managing the stress to prevent it from leading to despair and burnout.
A ministry with too many demands causes some of us to burn out. And a ministry with too few demands causes others to rust out. Stress is cumulative and the sum of the part is greater than the whole. A person may feel stress in only one area of life while neglecting the fact that all activity is stressful. The body cannot tell of the difference between conflict with a church member and the anxiety of preparing an acceptance speech for an award, even though one is positive and the other is negative. In either case, the body responds by preparing itself for the stressful event, whatever the source.
Life is stressful on the biological level. When the fluid in the body is out of balance, we become thirsty. Drinking restores the fluid equilibrium. While we are asleep our muscles are constantly tensing and relaxing in the body’s life-long battle for gravity.
Ministers as Endangered Specie
We live in a culture of hyperactivity. To be healthy is to be busy. In this age, few professions implicitly require skills in so many disparate areas as the minister. Ministers are often expected to be, both by themselves and their constituencies, a great one-on-one counselor, a skilled anchor person in large public gatherings, an erudite scholar, an innovative teacher, disciplined, thoughtful, a wise group leader, an astute financial manager, an effective fund raiser, a competent supervisor of staff and volunteers, a prophetic voice in world affairs, a facility manager and someone who effortlessly leads a model personal and family life. In fields such as medicine, the way of the general practitioner has virtually disappeared in favor of specialist, but not so in congregational life.
Many people are free to use weekends and holidays for family-centered activities, time away for couples, enjoying recreational opportunities, or vising friends or relatives. Not for most ministers. The weekend and holiday are often times of concentrated work.
In the business world, one is taught that 20% of one’s customers cause 80% of the problems. And, therefore, one should dispense with those customers or clients that take so much energy and cause so many difficulties. Unlike a lawyer, businessperson or a doctor who can refuse to take a patient or customer, ministers generally don’t have the ability to discard a member. Those difficult members, often a small group can cause seemingly gigantic problems and pressures for the minister year after year. In a culture that honors growth more than faithfulness, mobility more than fidelity, and simple numbers over stories of quiet service, life can be tough for the man of God.
One of the biggest causes of stress is that others have a nasty way of getting on our agenda when we do not want them there. We have things to do and we never going to develop professionally as we wish as long as others keep demanding our time and getting in the way. How can you write a book when people keep disturbing you about their problems? I want to take time to pray and somebody keeps barging in to ask for one help or the other. I try to be responsible about time management, but others will not just let me manage as I wish.
In an age of stress and a stressful environment, the minister is often in a strong dilemma. Because of the persistent pressures upon the his mental and emotional strength, and because his idealistic concepts of his calling fail to come to grips with the realistic pastoral situation today, his reaction often is to escape the bondage of his calling. If he does not leave the ministry altogether, he develops some specialty and take refuge in fulfilling his favorite ministerial function.
Stress factors/Inventory for the Minister
Marriage and family, occupational stresses of ministry, death of spouse, divorce, marital separation, death of a close family member, personal injury or illness, sedimentary lifestyle, ministers’ public and people oriented role that make them extremely vulnerable to many anxieties.
Ministers are the official prayers, bless-ers and invovat-ers of all manners of functions, public and private, but when it comes to the nitty-gritty of decision making, setting goals for society, or determining values and direction, they are ignored at best and ridiculed at worst.
The gap between what the church ought to be and what it is brings additional stress for the minister.
Litany of psychological problems of our age that affect the minister and the ministry: anxiety, guilt, insecurity, fear of rejection, fear of disappointing people, being vulnerable, feeling powerless, fear of confrontation, feelings of inadequacy, fear of being hurt, the problem of aging and fear of death.
Some estimates have it that as much as 85% of all illness is stress related. Headaches, arthritis, rheumatism, angina, high blood pressure, heart attack, muscular tension, stomach aches, hemorrhoids, constipation and asthma are among maladies suspected of having some direct or indirect relationship to stress. We need to become aware of what our bodies are telling us. Frequently, minsters are too caught up in their situation to be aware of the signs of stress.
Biblical Perspectives of Stress/Burnout
The service of God is a stressful vocation. Whoever doesn’t want stress should choose another kind of life, not ministry. Ministry means stress; that is a reality ministers must face squarely. No one told us it would be easy, certainly the Bible did not.
The Psalms provide an avalanche of stresses ministers and church leaders can suffer:
The Psalmist complained in Psalm 38: “I am feeble and crushed; I groan in the anguish of the heart... My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes” 38: 8,10. Ministry is stressful.
Psalm 44 is a complaint that God is not fair: “You have made us a reproach to our neighbors, the scorn and derision of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations; the people shake their heads at us “Psalm 44: 13-14. Ministry is nerve-wracking.
Psalm 69 reflects on the stress of the struggles to sustain one’s faith: Save me, O God, for the waters have come to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me. I am worn out calling for help; my throat is patched. My eyes fail, looking for my God. Psalm 69: 1-3. Ministry is hectic!
Paul reflects the stressful nature of ministry which most ministers can identify with in his opening statements of his second epistle to the Corinthians: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about the trouble we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death…” 2 Cor.1: 8-9.
Paul’s classic statement on difficulties of his ministry is found in the 11th chapter of 2 Corinthians. What I call his Resume:
“Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from the rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from the Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger in the sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known danger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” 2 Cor. 11: 24 -28. Ministry is hectic!
The writer of 2 Timothy 3 listed situations ministers encounter all frequently. Most of us minister to people who are: “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pressure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power …” 2Tim. 3: 2-5. Does this describe some or many of our congregations?
Jesus also led a stressful life: constantly harassed by the Pharisees, Herod saw him as an enemy and his disciples constantly misunderstood him. He would perform miracles before their very eye, yet their faith remains unignited. The most profound expression of ministerial stress, was the words of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There is not a person of integrity in ministry who has not lamented similarly, perhaps many times.
Capitalizing on the Paradoxes of our Vocation
In all this, we can learn from the ministry of Paul. The Apostle was also a man of conflict, ‘always going through it yet never going under.’ Without known family members, without reputation, called an ‘impostor’ and a ‘no body,’ penniless, mobbed, flogged, imprisoned, going without food, and sleep, frequently working like a slave, yet he could say, ‘we know sorrow, yet our joy is inextinguishable.’ He spent much of his time and energy in dealing with people who were trying to make life miserable for him. Yet, we never read of him wasting strength fretting and fuming. He had no time to waste mulling over irritations and resentments. When he was imprisoned, his cell became a chapel for sermon and song. When he was beaten, he used his brush with death to prove the power of God to see him through. When he was shipwrecked, he used the sinking ship to affirm his faith that nothing could separate him from the love of God. Endurance was more than a word for him; it was the vocabulary of his existence. He counted all experiences joy for the sake of the Savior.
People are complicated! Congregations are complicated. We can choose to see them as the cause of our despair and burnout, or we can choose to see them in all their complexity, a mixture of virtue, hopes, and dreams, as well as self-interest, anxieties, and hidden motivations. Building this kind of awareness can be key to help us avoid getting trapped in situations that lead to stress and burnout.
It is important for ministers to develop a healthy balance of selflessness, self-awareness, and self-care in their work. They have to cultivate a practical and soulful skill of knowing when to say, ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, and what to expect from themselves and their congregations.
They must also be able to delegate responsibilities to others in order to meet their community’s goals. A spiritual leader cannot be ‘all things to all people all the time’, and that has to be understood by all parties. The mental, emotional, physical and psychological health of the minister should be of primary concern. If the minister is not seeking proper balance, how can he lead the community in the right direction? When minsters engaged in this on-going journey of development and maturation, they are not only preventing their own burnout, they are serving as models of how to live faithfully in a perpetually changing culture and world.
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