Managing Leadership Stress


Question: Why do so many people complain about stress?

Answer: People feel more stressed because they are more stressed. In a survey of full-time American workers, 69 percent said job stress has made them less productive; 35 percent left their previous job due to stress; and 34 percent think they will burn out on the job by the next year or two. [Poll conducted by Northwestern National Life Insurance Company.]

Some of the causes:

Two out of three executives work more hours per week than they did five years ago. The typical husband and wife spend 26 more hours per week in their employed and domestic duties than in 1975.

Medical researchers say the average number of hours Americans sleep each night has fallen below the level required to stay physically healthy, think clearly, remember accurately, and maintain a positive attitude.

Paid and volunteer church leaders are not exceptions to those stressful circumstances. One pastor said, “God put me on earth to accomplish several things. Right now, I’m so far behind, I’ll live forever!”

Like most other people, volunteer and paid church leaders must choose, not between good and bad but between good and good. If two wrongs don’t make a right, what do two rights make? For most church leaders, choosing two or more right ways to spend their time makes constant feelings of chaos and stress.

Transcending Circumstances

Denzell Washington plays Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in the true story made into a movie titled “Hurricane.” The boxer was wrongly imprisoned for twenty years. Finally, a federal court uncovered the fabrication of lies that had put him there. They set him free. During his prison years, Hurricane commented to a visitor on how he dealt with his unjust circumstances, “It is very important that we transcend the places that hold us.”

How can church leaders transcend their stressful circumstances? Most people answer that question in one of two ways:

A few people settle for a fatalistic answer: “Overcoming stress is impossible. I’ll have to wait until the kids are raised. I’ll have to
wait until I get a new boss… or a new job… or a different church.” Rather than reducing stress, these answers declare it normal.
Most of the people who try to reduce stress take a self-blaming approach. They say, “I just need to try harder!” “I should try harder at managing my time.” “I should try harder in caring for my spouse and children.” These answers do not work because they use a flawed method. Successful stress management requires a compass, not a clock.

Steven Covey tells a now-famous story about the instructor who was lecturing on time management. He set a wide-mouth jar on the table next to a platter with some fist-sized rocks on it. “How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?” he asked.

After class members offered several guesses, the instructor put a rock in the jar. Then he put in another, than another, until he filled the jar. Then he asked, “Is the jar full?”

Everybody agreed. The jar was full. The instructor reached under the table, brought out a bucket of gravel, and started dumping the gravel in the jar. It filled the spaces around the big rocks. The instructor grinned and asked, “Is the jar full?”

“Probably not,” the class said. The instructor reached under the table, brought out a bucket of sand, and started dumping the sand in the jar. It filled the little spaces left by the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked, “Is the jar full?”

“No!” the class roared. With this he started pouring a pitcher of water into the jar. He got something like a quart of water into that jar. When he asked the class for the point of his picture parable, someone replied, “If we work hard at filling the gaps in our lives, we accomplish more.”

“No,” the instructor said. “Here is the point: Put the big rocks in first. Otherwise, you’ll never get them in.” [Steven Covey, First
Things First (New York: Simon & Schuster)]

Someone suggested another way to phrase that punch line: Put the big rocks in first. All the rest is sand!”

To improve your stress management skills, stop beating up on yourself. Select the big rocks. Put them in first. Stay focused on them. The rest is sand-important but not essential.

Three Weeks to Transcendence

The following formula has helped thousands of people do what they previously believed impossible:

Week #1-Focusing: Spend five minutes per day for five days developing
your life compass-in other words, selecting the big rocks.

The first day, write on paper the answers to three questions: What are my lifetime career goals, family goals, and spiritual goals?

Jot down one or two goals in each category. Warning: Do not write more than three goals in each category. If you write more than three goals in each category, you do not have any real goals. You are mixing so much sand with the big rocks that you cannot find them.

Imagine your funeral ten years from now. What would you like people to say about you? What would you like your obituary to say you accomplished? What would you like your children to remember about you? Your answers to these questions create the compass that defines your destination-your major lifetime goals, the big rocks.

Write these goals on paper. A thirty-year study of Harvard Business School graduates found that people who write their goals on paper are ten times more likely to accomplish them. If you do not list your big rocks on paper, you lose them in the sandstorms that periodically blow through your life.

Week #2-Barnacle Cleaning: Ocean-going ships collect barnacles on their hulls that impede their progress through the water. To remove the barnacles, ship owners periodically put them in dry dock.

Spend five minutes a day for five consecutive days with a second sheet of paper:

The first day, list everything you do each month in your work, family, and church (everything, large and small, into which you put time).

The second day, put a star beside everything that fits with your big-rock list from week one.

The third day, review the items that have no stars beside them. Ask yourself two questions: (a) If I were willing to delegate this to
someone else and teach him or her how to do it, would it get done almost as well as if I did it? (b) Is this item something that no
longer needs to be done at all, by anyone?

The fourth day, write the items that you and you alone must do to achieve your lifetime goals. No one else can do them.

The fifth day, put on paper the first steps you will take to (a) train someone to do some of the non-starred items on your list and (b) stop doing altogether the nonessential items on your list.

Week #3-Fine ‘lining: Five minutes every morning for five days, pray these five prayers:

Give thanks for three personal blessings of which you are especially conscious today. This helps you move toward God by moving away from a sense of your own self-sufficiency.

Ask God to help three people you feel need God’s help today. This moves you toward God by moving you away from self-centeredness.Ask God to forgive pain you caused other people and specific sins from yesterday and give you the strength to forgive others the pain they caused you.

Ask God to help one person you find it hard to like. Ask God to provide that person insights into his or her personal problems. Ask for the power to let God’s love flow through you to him or her.

Ask God to help you achieve your lifetime career, family, and spiritual goals.

Week #4 And Beyond-Staying Focused: Travelers in the North Atlantic frequently observe icebergs moving forward against strong winds that try to blow them in the opposite direction. With eight-ninths of their bulk under water, the great bergs move in the grip of a mighty ocean current that carries them forward, no matter which way the wind blows. People who daily thrust their souls into the deep places of God transcend their circumstances in ways others can only marvel at and wish for.

Refusing Violent Behavior: Thomas Merton writes, “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence which is activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit ones self to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism … destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom, which makes work
fruitful.” [Thomas Merton, The Violence of Over-Involvement]

Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). Is that true? It depends on what cause you give to. You can give to causes that do not bless you. Giving your life indiscriminately to too many of those things does violence to your soul.

The Bottom Line

Do you want to manage stress? Select the big rocks. Fix them on paper and in your mind. Stay focused on them through daily prayer.

All the rest is sand.