Sunday, August 14, 2011



The National Church Life Survey's 1996 Leader Survey (Kaldor and Bullpit) studied the answers 4,400 senior ministers/pastors/priests in 25 Australian denominations gave to questions about stress and burnout.

Some of their findings:

* Stress is highest for those under 50, who are raising children, have less support for their ministry in the home, are 'blue-collar', between 6-20 years ordained (then it declines), are task- rather than people-oriented, and have poor physical health

* Those who are 'poorly trained' have a higher risk of burnout

* Regular devotional habits and a growing faith are important

* Having friends and supportive family are important, as is the ability to separate work and home life (belonging and boundaries)

Stress can be defined as the body's reaction to any demand placed on it. Our primitive ancestors got stressed when they fought off wild animals and other threats. These days we are more likely to experience stress when we face overwhelming responsibilities at work or home, or fear losing things which are important to us, such as our jobs or friends. So we all experience stress, to one degree or another, every day. Stress is the body's reaction to an event that is experienced as disturbing or threatening. When we are exposed to such an event, we experience a 'fight or flight' response. To prepare for fighting or fleeing, the body increases its heart rate and blood pressure, sending more blood to our heart and muscles, and our respiration rate increases. We become vigilant and tense. Our bodies end up on full alert.

The real difficulty occurs when we are unable to solve an important problem and we continue to expose ourselves to the stress of it all. Then, stress becomes a negative experience.

Negative stress is demanding on our bodies and our emotions. When our bodies are in a constant state of fight/flight readiness for prolonged periods of time, we may experience heart palpitations, increased blood pressure, sweating, high stomach acidity, stomach and muscle spasms. There is evidence that prolonged stress can lead to heart disease and a damaged immune system. And those who experience unresolved stress are more prone to self-destructive behaviours like substance abuse.

Stressors come to Christian leaders in four categories. (1) Bio-ecological factors related to poor diet and poor exercise habits. They also include noise and air pollution. (2) Vocational factors include career uncertainty; role ambiguity (a lack of clearly defined and mutually-agreed ministry functions); role conflict (between church expectations and personal or family needs); role overload (too many real or imagined expectations); lack of opportunities to 'derole' and be yourself, for a change; loneliness (most Australian pastors do not have a spiritual director); time management frustrations - and many more. (3) Psychological factors relate principally to the great life-change stressors - from the most stressful (such as the loss of a spouse), through divorce, death of a close family member, personal injury or illness, all the way to getting ready for Christmas or being handed a speeding fine! (4) Spiritual causes of stress may include temptations of all kinds (sexual, despair if your church isn't growing, jealousy of the success of others, anxiety over financial problems, anger - 'close to a professional vice in the contemporary ministry' says Henri Nouwen - and any other way the devil can get at us). Even prayer can be stressful according to one study!

Psychologist Archibald Hart has distinguished between 'stress' and 'burnout' Burnout, he says, is emotional exhaustion, 'compassion fatigue'. So even less-competitive Type B Christians can suffer burnout. And the most conscientious people-helpers are most vulnerable. Researchers like Maslach, Freudenberger and others from 1977 onwards gave the name 'burn-out' to the special stressors associated with social and interpersonal pressures. Dr. Hart says burnout symptoms may include demoralisation (the belief you are not longer effective as a pastor); depersonalisation (treating yourself and others in an impersonal way); detachment (withdrawing from responsibilities); distancing (avoidance of social and interpersonal contacts); and defeatism (a feeling of being 'beaten'). He says people can become addicted to the high of adrenalin: leaders often experience post-adrenalin depression after heavy ministry or relational demand. That's why pastors often feel depression on Monday after preaching on Sunday.

Stress comes in many forms. Generalized anxiety disorder occurs when a person has endured for at least six months a state of being excessively worried, being on edge continually, having sleep difficulty, and finding it hard to experience pleasure and relaxation. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder happens if a you have been through a serious, life-threatening event, leading to months or years of nightmares, hypervigilance, and angry outbursts. Phobias are intense fears that occur when a person is exposed to situations like the dark, or heights, or snakes, or the sight of blood, or certain social situations like public speaking. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders happen when stress or chaos in one's world causes a person to think and worry repetitively about something (obsessions) or else to engage in repetitive behaviours, like hand-washing or checking on things excessively (compulsions). One of the most debilitating manifestations of stress is the panic attack. These dramatic episodes of stress seem to come out of the blue and happen even when there is no real danger.

Much stress, especially these days, comes from biting off more than we can chew. This relates back to family-of-origin and initiation issues. Uninitiated males have to prove their worth by out-performing their peers - a very stressful way to live the one short live God gives you!


First, make sure your life has a sabbatical rhythm of work-and-withdrawal (retreat from work). A sabbath is the day on which, from when you wake until you go to sleep at night, nothing reminds you of your vocation. (Wednesday or Thursday may be best for preaching pastors). And: all the great leaders in Scripture spent a disproportionate amount of their lives in deserts!

Most important: seek support from friends, counsellors, self-help groups, etc. Finding a friend to 'talk it out' with can be the biggest help in managing stress.

Cultivating a social network serves us well when we are dealing with stressful situations. Recognise that faulty thinking may be the cause of your stress. Make a list of all the positive aspects of a situation on one side of a piece of paper and a list of the disturbing or annoying aspects on the other half of the page. Learn to recognise your own strengths and weaknesses and how to use them to best advantage. Develop the ability to say 'no' (remember that there are several ways to say 'no' without saying 'no'.)

Develop psychological toughness--take on some stressful challenges.

Find a hobby or two. I met a pastor who goes skydiving ('You don't think about anything else doing that!'), another makes stained glass objects, another joined the Country Fire Authority ('putting out other kinds of fires!'), another restores old furniture. Others read a novel, play golf, go to a movie. Take a sabbatical after six or seven years, and insist your leaders 'rest' after six years in office (write that into your constitution). Every day 'waste time with God' as Sheila Cassidy suggests (Prayer for Pilgrims). You spend time helping clients, parishioners; you give time to those whom you love. Someone said: 'We tend to worship our work, to work at our play, and to play at our worship...'

And, finally, learn to relax! Regular physical exercise helps reduce stress, and it also raises self-esteem. It primes your immune system and plays a crucial role in preventing disease. Physical exercise need not be strenuous. Walking at a brisk pace for 20 or 30 minutes daily decreases stress just as effectively as vigorous jogging. Find things you enjoy that make your spirit soar. This could include listening to music, meditation, prayer, sports, dance, painting, visiting nature, hiking, or writing. Take time for recreational and spiritual pursuits on a regular basis. Get enough sleep.

And remember the famous prayer: 'Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.'


Rowland Croucher
July 2002
A Pastoral Survival Guide [7] -

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