Stress is part of every ministry leader's experience. There's just no avoiding it, so we have to learn how to manage it.
Recently I was with a group of church leaders discussing our experiences with stress: how we handle it, how we prevent unnecessary and unhealthy stress and how we keep stress from leading to burnout. Stress and burnout affect more than just leadership—they can impact every member of our team all the way down to the volunteers. So we have to stay on top of the problem. But to do that, we have to fully understand just what stress is and how to handle it.
Stress is more than an annoyance. It might seem like a minor inconvenience, but it can be a big deal. In physics, stress is described as the application of sufficient force on an object to distort it. In human beings, that distortion can look like a flight-or-fight response, depending on whether we're angry or afraid. Or it can cause us to freeze up and do nothing. Whichever one we experience, our body is on high alert.
Keeping the body stressed too long or too often can lead to serious health issues. It can send us to the doctor and can cause any number of diseases. Whenever a pastor struggles with drug abuse, alcoholism or other serious problems, the issue can often be traced to poor stress management, and ultimately to burnout.
No one can lead a team without experiencing stress at some point. Sometimes it's good stress. That kind of stress can spur us to reach our goals and drive hard when we really need that kind of motivation. Stress can lead to joy, fulfillment and achievement. Many biblical figures come to mind—Joshua or Paul, for example—who endured stress as they faced persecution while fighting for their beliefs. That good, necessary stress is what kept them in the game. It's the prolonged, frequent stress—the bad kind—that's not healthy.
Here are just a handful of things that can stress us in the ministry world: unmet expectations, lack of clearly defined boundaries, incomplete tasks, feelings of incompetence, unclear goals, misplaced identity, poor time management, poor diet and exercise, conflict between church expectations and family needs, and unrealistic role expectations.
It's helpful to evaluate ourselves and our teams when it comes to potential stressors. How much of the stress we're feeling is due to external circumstances, and how much do we bring on ourselves?
Burnout comes when we reach a breaking point due to emotional exhaustion or compassion fatigue. We've cared so deeply and so long for so many others that we've neglected self-care and have nothing more to give.
There are lots of signs you're headed toward burnout: the belief that you're no longer effective as a pastor, cynicism and negativity, detachment and withdrawal from responsibility, distancing yourself from social situations and colleagues, defeatism, decreased energy, dramatization of minor incidents and a decreased sense of reward for the job you're expected to do.
At the core of burnout is a clash between expectations and reality. As church leaders, we're often put on a pedestal. Sometimes those we lead place us there, and other times, it's our own doing. Either way, it's unfair and unbiblical. We're expected (or we expect ourselves) to perform superhumanly—to be more God than human—and we just aren't. We're bound to fail, and that can mean burnout. So what can we do to maintain healthy leadership lives and keep burnout at bay? Here's what I recommend:
- Find fresh spiritual disciplines.
- Eat well, exercise often and get enough sleep.
- Rest regularly and observe a Sabbath.
- Join a group of ministry peers where you can be honest and receive spiritual direction. You'll want to establish this habit before you need it, because you probably won't be able to do so when you're in the midst of stress and burnout.
- Change your thinking. That might mean auditing yourself, reassessing your goals, improving your attitude, learning healthy assertiveness, knowing your gifts and your limits and facing your fears.
- Have fun! To belong to the kingdom, we have to be like little children, so develop a few interesting hobbies—and don't forget to laugh!
- Give your team a little TLC. Celebrate volunteers. Take the blame, but not the praise. Observe birthdays and anniversaries. Give high fives generously. Make your ministry a place where people want to work and serve.
Ready to manage stress and give burnout the boot? Look at your own ministry team and see where you can better manage bad stress, regularly encourage good stress and put an end to burnout.
Chris Brown is a pastor and dynamic speaker carrying the message of intentional living nationwide as a Ramsey Personality. Host of the "Life, Money and Hope" podcast, Brown provides biblical wisdom and practical advice for life's everyday questions. Follow him online at stewardship.com, on Twitter and Instagram (@chrisbrownonair) or on Facebook (chrisbrownonair).
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