“The man who doesn’t relax and hoot a few hoots voluntarily, now and then, is in great danger of hooting hoots and standing on his head for the edification of the pathologist and trained nurse, a little later on.” – Elbert Hubbard
In the previous articles in this series adapted from “Freedom to Lead” by Colin Buckland, we have seen something of the dimensions of everyday ministry stress experienced by Christian Leaders and how, when they are a continuous and unabated experience, they burn him out, consuming all his emotional and spiritual resources.
The third article considered something of how to set about recovery, which is good. However, it is better not to burnout in the first place. This article offers insight on defending one’s self from that consuming blaze that leaves a ruin in its wake.
Stress is unavoidable, the problem comes with how we, as individuals respond. To understand this, self-awareness is the vital tool. Without it, addressing stress and avoiding burnout is like trying to mend a car without spanners. Success is unlikely.
An issue for ministers is a failure to recognise self-awareness as distinct from selfishness. This self-awareness would serve best if the information that it produced led to a commitment to modifying behaviour. That is, to change the way we live when we have discovered that some of our life habits are not helpful. As our patterns of behaviour contribute to burnout, then for our own health’s sake we need to change those patterns.
The issue of self awareness is a huge topic and as such is beyond the scope of a simple article. “Freedom to Lead” addresses the major issues which assault the church leader such as:
- The call to and the reality of ministry.
- The impact of expectations of self and others once in ministry.
- The issues of power and authority.
- Family Life and the pressures of ministry.
- Sexuality and the ministry.
- Devotional life.
Understanding one’s own motivations and drivers is key in countering the impact of stress and avoiding the very real threat of burnout.
Initiatives to counter excessive stress and burnout involve three related groups: the denomination (where one exists), the congregation, and the individual minister. These three groups must co-operate if realistic and healthy expectations and working boundaries are to be established.
Ministry Steps That You Can Take
Professional reviews can be helpful tools in the quest for healthy awareness. A review is a system of measuring whether the expectations of both the church and the minister are being met, encouraging the good and devising mutually agreed steps to address issues for mutual benefit. This kind of positive feedback is essential to pulling the teeth of stress.
The role of Christian minister is one of the few professional caring roles that do not often involve formal supervision sessions. While the autonomy may seem freeing and desirable the lack of supervision could be an oversight in two areas. Ministers are not reviewing their ministry capabilities with a trusted person to help to hone their ministry. Nor are they being accountable for safe practice and this puts both “client” (the people for whom they have pastoral responsibility) and minister at risk.
This is an important area that has, at its heart, some essential hurdles that prevent it from being the positive support that it needs to be. Many ministers are not using their ‘line managers’ as a source of support because they fear that confidentiality may not be upheld and that their disclosures will affect their future. This element of mistrust needs to be overcome for denominational support to function at its best.
Mentoring is another way of describing the process of spiritual direction. It allows ministers to explore and maintain their own spiritual journey, using the mentor as facilitator. This is a relationship of safety, one with another, where the mentor is able to offer non-directive help and advice.
Personal Steps That You Can Take
Sufferers from burnout typically find it difficult to release themselves from ‘doing’. They have generally developed a heavy regime of work that allows few others to help them. They have taken and held on to control. To avoid the dangers of stress the Christian leader needs to learn to relinquish control and delegate in certain areas of their working life.
Often burnout victims are perfectionists and want everything done to a high standard, sometimes higher than required. Typically these people find the standards of others difficult to accept and therefore rarely delegate. Before the crisis they need to learn to relax and let others help.
Fears and fantasies
One source of stress is fear of that which is unreal, or might never happen. It inevitably takes on major proportions and threatens our health. Perhaps an example of this is the paranoia, common with burnout, that someone is talking about us behind our back. It may be believed, and before long we may think that everyone is talking negatively about. Those on the path to burnout need help to face their fears and discover that they are based in fantasy, becoming the slayers of their own giants.
The adoption of a more open approach to inner feelings should be encouraged as this leads to a healthy self-awareness and can defuse pressures. This is not to suggest that one’s innermost secrets are discussed with everyone – only with trusted and selected others.
Sufferers of burnout have often held rigid views about life, God and themselves. These views are often founded in the stress and strain of life rather than in good thinking and practice. Rethinking and relaxing hard and fast views and practices can alleviate the associated conflicts and stresses.
Burnout victims have been living life at a tremendous rate. They walk, talk and eat fast. They often make rushed decisions and are always in a hurry.
Such people need to be encouraged to slow down, as it is possible to choose to slow down.
Ask family members to comment on the speed at which you eat. Choose the longest queue at the supermarket and relax while you wait. Deliberately walk and talk more slowly. Check yourself regularly and develop different patterns.
Professionals agree that physical exercise is one of the foremost stress beaters. It is good if a programme of exercise becomes a regular feature in the life of the Christian leader. The advice of a GP and/or professional fitness coach may need to be sought.
Spiritual Steps That You Can Take
Sufferers from burnout often have poor patterns in their spiritual lives. Commonly they have set and reset plans to address this but have built in a sense of failure, as their speeded up lives will not allow high quality spiritual devotion. God must become a trusted friend again and not an angry parent, employer or headmaster. Slow down and make quality time for God.
Unrealistic goals, spiritual and otherwise, are a direct path to stress accompanied by a sense of failure because too much is expected of self and others. Realistic goal setting is vital and may require the help of a mentor.
The failure to set realistic boundaries is a cause of stress for many. Time has no meaning for some and double bookings abound as do unrealistic considerations about the time required to fulfil them. Being contacted by anyone, at any time, regardless of the inconvenience of the interruption ruins family times and study periods.
Setting realistic boundaries around work and family is an essential process – boundaries like the number of hours one should work each week or how many evenings each week should be reserved for family and leisure, and how much time to set aside for one’s personal devotional life.
Such boundaries around life become the ‘walls of freedom’. They draw a line around positive and negative behaviour and they allow life to be lived with a degree of good planning.
This may also involve a wider grasp of the skills of time and project management as the ability to know how much to do within what time frame, and with whom, is essential to healthy ministry.
Humour and fun
As the effects of continued stress increase, those on the path to burnout tend to feel low and depressed. They may not have found much to laugh about nor found fun in their lives for some time. Involve humour in life, learn again the extravagant nature of God and enjoy life for life’s sake. As per Hubbard “hoot a few hoots voluntarily, now and then”
Skill improvement and Gifting
It is often assumed that the Christian ministry is the same role wherever it is carried out.
This is a mistake and fails to take account of the differing needs of both church and minister.
Ministers who do not have the necessary skills to meet the need are placed under incredible pressure. Dependent upon the situation delegation is one means of dealing with this. Have someone who can, do the job. Another is to develop the necessary skills but this is not always possible.
Many Christian ministers are fulfilling a pastoral role when they are evangelists, and others are required to be evangelists when they are in reality pastors and so on. The misplaced minister will agonise over this since his or her gifting is unable to be seen to be fruitful. This leads to a sense of failure and increased pressure that pushes the minister down the path to burnout.
There is no ready answer to this however; increased self-awareness may help those who are seeking their next church.
Take a few moments and reflect upon the things you have learned from this series. What insights have you gained about yourself? What do you need to do in response to that insight?
The other articles in this series are:
- If Only I Built Tables…..15 Sources of Stress for Church Leaders
- 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
You can also read more about managing and minimising ministry stress here: Minimising Stress and Avoiding Burnout
If you have discovered that you recognise your situation in all of this and need assistance now, then please contact the One Another Ministries team on +44 1543 878 656 or email info@OneAnother.com.
Image: Lee J Haywood Flickr.com