If Only I Built Tables…..15 Sources of Stress for Church Leaders

DSC_0185Among all my autopsies (and I have performed well over a thousand), I have never seen a person who died of old age. In fact, – writes Dr Hans Selye in “The Stress of Life”. (Selye was a pioneer in the effects of stress on the human body) - I do not think anyone has died of old age yet.

To permit this would be the ideal accomplishment of medical research . . . To die of old age would mean that all the organs of the body had worn out proportionately, merely by having been used too long. This is never the case. We invariably die because one vital part has worn out too early in proportion to the rest of the body. The lesson seems to be that, as far as man can regulate his life by voluntary actions, he should seek to equalize stress throughout his being!

The human body—like the tyres on a car, or the rug on a floor—wears longest when it wears evenly.”

If stress allowed us to die, perhaps a little sooner but feeling comfortable that we, as a Christian leader had achieved our full potential for God and made a Kingdom difference, then we might think the trade worthwhile. Unfortunately it is seldom so clean and tidy, and perhaps even less so when, well before any part of our bodies give up, burnout’s devastating consequences wreak havoc in the church.

The life of a Christian leader, especially a church minister, is surrounded by more than enough stressors for any ten others. What is more, they are  often unobserved by them, their loved ones and their church board, waiting to strike. This may seem over dramatic but it is oh so real to oh so many.

The aim of this short series is to enable Christian leaders and those around them to be alerted to the risks and consequences of ministry stress and the devastation of burnout that so often follows. The series is adapted and abridged from “Freedom to Lead” by Colin Buckland.

15 Common Sources of Stress in Ministry for Christian Leaders

The first stage of managing ministry stress is awareness, so first I want simply to list some of the most common sources of ministry stress for Christian Leaders. Even as I write I am aware that lists are never really complete and so let me suggest that you add to the list those things that are missing and that cause you to be stressed. Your own list will serve you well as you seek to understand better some of your experiences in the ministry:

When the day is done . . .

The ministry is one of those occupations that does not have a set finish time each day, because the minister is often always ‘on call’. This can be taken to extremes and this never-ending day is a significant source of stress.

I don’t build tables . . .

If ministers did build tables then they would have something to view, a result to see. The nature of being a Christian leader includes not always knowing whether anything has been achieved.

Working with people . . .

This can be highly draining. Christian leaders, especially those in churches or caring ministries, often spend the whole day, listening to, comforting and interacting with people, and arrive home wondering why they are tired.

So, you’re back again . . .

Many Christian leaders enjoy working with people; for some, it may even be the attraction of the role. However, stress can result from having to give time to people who rarely act on the advice sought and just keep coming back for more and more and more of the same advice.

Black holes . . .

Not a plesant description but it is an appropriate graphical image. Stress is experienced in the Christian ministry when never-endingly ministering to needy people, who consume every last ounce of the minister’s time and energy. These people have deep-seated needs and probably require different professional disciplines, but for the good of the gospel, the minister will not stop pouring out their energy.

In the thick of it alone . . .

Another major source of ministry stress is the fact that many Christian leaders work alone, carrying a great sense of responsibility, shouldering the secret stories of the members entrusted in confidence, and feeling the burden of loneliness.

I should have been a fireman . . .

Some Christian leaders enjoy the need to be needed and encourage an ‘I’m always available’ expectation within the community that they serve. Feeding emotionally on the late night calls and the ‘it’s only me’ day-off phone calls is all very well, but the cost in stress is high. The fireman approach to ministry is ultimately destructive to the minister and his or her family. The rush and tear of the ‘emergency minister’ may be intoxicating but is dangerous.

Where he goes, egos . . .

This title stretches things a little, but ministers function in a role that may cause them to have a ‘public face’, the one they wear outside the house to depict their role. Wearing masks in public, while very common, saps energy reserves.

Where should I be now …?

Ministering in one church is stressful but a number of denominations require their ministers to serve multiple congregations. This is enormously draining and can only be survived with adequate personal stress management.

Star Trek makes me cry . . .

A Christian leader attending one of my seminars told me that he had burst into tears while watching his favourite television programme, Star Trek, and did not know why until I had said that ministers are drained of emotional energy by dealing with the joys and sorrows of their members.

A minister can typically be at a hospital bedside in the morning celebrating the joy of new birth with parishioners, take a funeral in the afternoon, and be at an eightieth birthday party in the evening. The swings of this emotional pendulum are exhausting, a vacuum sucking out those remaining emotional reserves.

Not Another Christmas . . .

Many ministers receive great joy from their preaching and from the Christian year, but in lengthy pastorates it can be stressful to continue to minister throughout the year with freshness. Preaching regularly in the same church (some-times twice or three times a week) needs to be understood as energy draining, since each sermon has a huge creative requirement. Many ministers are under stress to continue this level of regular and heavy output.

So, I’m not married . . .

It would be remiss, when looking at ministry stress, not to include the lot of the single minister. Single ministers experience additional specific stressors: Matchmaking – church members believing that they know who would be your perfect spouse!  Also you have more time so church members expect far more from you. In some church settings single ministers are paid less, creating serious ‘worth issues’ for them.

The new kid on the block . . .

High stress levels are experienced when a minister moves to a new church: the sea of new faces, the new expectations, the ‘honeymoon’, the ‘our last minister did it this way’ comments, etc. This complex group of stressors needs to be kept in mind.

From the city to the fields . . .

Any discussion on stress in the ministry needs to take note that changing ministry locations can often mean having to cope with sharp cultural shifts. This is a steep learning curve and it too delivers further stress.

Where will we put the sideboard . . .?

Moving pastorates or mission fields often means moving house. No two ministry houses are the same shape and size. Ministering families often go through high stress trying to make the ‘fit’ into the new accommodation.

The List Goes On….

The list could go on and on and these things don’t look so bad when viewed on their own – just normal stressful dynamics – but it all changes when you string a few together and repeat them week after week. Stressors accumulate and stress continues to exist in our system if no action is taken to alleviate the situation.

Reflection

Find a quiet spot and take a moment to review this list, and anything you have added. Ask yourself, “What steps can I take to reduce my stress levels?”

If you are a member of the church board, take a moment to think yourself into your minister’s situation. How well would you cope? What can you do to help reduce their level of stress?

What Next…..

I hope that you have found this article insightful and a help in understanding the scope and depth of stress that will be encountered in the ministry.

This is the first in a series of four articles that look at how stress leads to the devastation of burnout, how that can be recognised, what you can do to minimise and avoid being brought down by excessive stress and how you can help the recovery process.  This is all grounded in personal experience and many years of supporting pastors in their journey of recovery and survival, backed up by rigorous research into the state of the ministry.

The remaining articles are:

  • The Elijah-Decision: When Stress Sucks Away Your Will to go On.
  • If I Just Keep Working Then it Will All Go Away:  Responding to Burnout
  • “Hoot a Few Hoots Voluntarily, Now and Then”: 15 Things That You Can Do to Reduce Stress

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Image: Jordan Hill School Flickr.com

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