How Do You Cope With Stress?
By: Wayne Jacobsen
The physician looked up from studying my chart. “Have you been under a lot of pressure lately?” he asked. This was the first indication of the verdict I was waiting to hear. For the last 30 minutes, he had poked and probed only opening his mouth to ask what hurt.
Shooting pains in my chest had forced me on this breezy June day into a rare doctor visit. And since my doctor was out of town, I was seeing a referral. “Just a little,” I answered sarcastically. Pressure! Is there life without it in ministry?
“Well, I don’t know what you do, but I recommend you start looking for another job.” After my stunned pause, he explained. My problem was stress-nothing physically wrong yet-but something surely would be if my present course continued. “You’re too young for that,” he pleaded.
His words stung more deeply than the chest pains I’d weathered for two days. “What sort of work are you in?”
“I pastor a church here in town.” I had never felt more ashamed for my life; for the gospel. Not that I was surprised. My flesh thrives on pressure. I have often joked about being Type A-aggressive, active, achieving. I believed we were the real movers in society. An ache or a pain now and then was just part of the price.
Now I was past mere aches and pains. My body forced me to face the facts: I was doing what I sincerely felt was the Lord’s choosing but at 29 was listening to a doctor tell me to find another profession. To my dismay, I discovered that my Type A personality also spelled agitation and anxiety.
As I drove home I thought of many ministry professionals in a variety of churches and ministry organizations. I knew they battled stress-related illnesses-ulcers, heart problems, hypertension, burnout. I mulled over a statistic someone had given me a few years ago that ministry professionals rank second in the incidents of stress-related illnesses among all occupations.
When I got home and shared the diagnosis with my wife, she nodded in that way of hers that told me she was saddened but not shocked. After a restless night-stressed about my stress-I went for a long morning walk beside a creek near our home. “Lord, I don’t understand. You called me to pastor, but I can’t go on if it’s going to tear my body apart.”
During our encounter by the creek, God reaffirmed my calling to ministry. Stress was not reason enough to walk away; but neither could it stay. It must be conquered. The pressures of ministry were not responsible for my stress; but how I handled them was. And that mishandling was ultimately caused by my mistrust of the God I was trying to serve. “Lord, forgive me, and please do whatever You have to in me so that I can serve You even in great pressure and do so in peace!”
That morning of prayer and the responses that followed it ushered in a year of transformation that has revolutionized my life and ministry. I’ve found great peace and joy in ministry and the symptoms that had become a daily reality in ministry are gone. Even others notice the change. Parting from a brief meeting with two friends I hadn’t seen for two years, their last words were, “You have changed since we last saw you. You used to be so restless. We’ve never seen you so at peace with yourself and your ministry.”
My journey took me through four stages: rejecting stress as an occupational hazard, repenting of its root causes, building a new intimacy with the Lord, and daily disarming any seedlings of stress.
Part of the Job?
“It is the calling of a pastor to live on the edge of an ulcer.” Those words were spoken to a friend of mine by his Midwestern pastor and sadly enough reflect the mentality of too many ministers. I used to wear my chest pains, sleepless nights, and jam-packed schedule as merit badges of my selfless sacrifice to God and my indispensable value to His kingdom. But not anymore. The lie collapsed that June morning two and a half years ago.
That’s not to say that stress is nonexistent for the ministry professional. Never was a job created with more conflicting expectations. To minister well one must be honest, to minister in existing structures one must be well-liked. Rarely do these walk hand in hand. A pastor is expected to be an exciting teacher, able administrator, compassionate counselor, friend to all, and available at a moment’s notice. If he’s not all of these he hears about it.
The diverse concerns of congregation, staff, community, peers, and denominational leaders all press in different directions. Often success is measured by statistics over which one has little control or responsibility. Where he is successful statistically the potential for stress only grows. Decisions, demands, and expectations increase, and preserving success is often more stressful than gaining it.
Ministry abounds with situations where one may have responsibility but no authority to act. Institutional pressures and power-plays are in-famous. As one minister recently put it, “The name of the game is survival of the institution and that only comes by compromise.” Does that sound like the vocation of a man called to lead people into the glorious life of God’s kingdom?
To these major concerns, we must not overlook day-to-day decisions, particularly in a job that defies set hours, concrete goals, and automatic results. A recent study on stress concluded, “Daily hassles are more closely linked to and may have greater effect on our moods and our health than the major misfortunes of life” (“Little Hassles Can Be Hazardous to Your Health,” by Richard S. Lazarus in Psychology Today, July 1981).
It’s no wonder that ministers fight feelings of inadequacy, guilt, loneliness, and pride; all of which produce stress. Pressure is so inevitable that it would seem only fair to count stress as fellowshipping in His suffering.
After all, Paul spoke constantly about the sufferings the ministry created for him-shipwrecks, stonings, deprivation of food, dangers in his travels, rejection by people, and even from the “daily pressure” of his concern for all the churches. But look closely. He wasn’t speaking of inner tension, stress symptoms, workaholism, or mental exhaustion. In fact, when Paul spoke of his mental and physical state he always spoke of peace, “contentment in every situation” and sufficient provision. His conflicts always came from without. Mine were coming from within.
Stress is not sharing in His suffering. It is a self-inflicted disease. Time magazine called it a national epidemic. “Two-thirds of all office visits to family
doctors are prompted by stress-related symptoms.” Stress is a byproduct of 20th-century living. “It is a sorry sign of the times that the three best-selling drugs in this country are an ulcer medication (Tagamet), a hypertension drug (Inderal), and a tranquilizer (Valium).”
My congregation didn’t need another victim, but an example of freedom. If I couldn’t conquer stress, the doctor was right. I needed another vocation.
So I rejected stress as a way of life consistent with Christian ministry. Without that commitment, I would never have faced the difficult decisions essential to deal with it. Toleration is always easier than transformation.
Symptoms become battle calls: churning in my stomach; disgust when the phone rings; a racing mind; difficulty in getting to sleep; over-tiredness; apathy; sore jaws from clenched teeth; backaches, headaches or neck aches; indigestion; recurring sicknesses; emotional burnout. We can overcome stress before it exacts its price in the major complications of ulcers, heart trouble, exhaustion, or hypertension.
With this fresh desire for freedom, I looked for my way of escape. What needed to change? Certainly, I needed more time off. People’s expectations would have to be confronted and changed. Others would have to shoulder the burdens I was carrying alone. My list ran on and on.
My list didn’t last very long once I began to pray over it and share it with others. I was asking everyone else and everything else to change. How wrong I was! The answer to my stress could not be found in rearranging circumstances and structures. And thank God it couldn’t, or I’d never find freedom from stress. The circumstances of a ministry professional will always be full of pressure and conflicts. Healing was not to be found in changing circumstances, but in changing how I responded to them.
That’s how I came to repentance. I saw my stress as a sin against the peace, freedom, and joy God provides in Christ. Every symptom was not a physical problem to be prayed for but a call to repentance. Each pointed to a place where I was not trusting or following my Lord.
I poured out my heart to Him in repentance and found Him full of compassion. Though my stress wasn’t part of my fellowshipping in His sufferings, I knew He was fellowshipping in mine.
My repenting began with generalities-“Forgive me for giving in to stress. Help me find freedom.” It didn’t stay there long, however. Every time I read the Word it exposed ungodly thoughts and motives. My high-tension lifestyle squirmed under such revelations, but repentance began to root them out and set me free.
My craving for busyness and long hours (after all, shouldn’t we give our best for the kingdom of God if others do it for the world?) was disarmed by God’s call to rest. “For anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his” (Heb. 4:10, NIV). I saw that my labor stemmed more from my insecurity about how others perceived me than from my zeal for His kingdom.
My restless mind had long excused itself on the premise that the kingdom of God brings conflict-the sword that divides. If you’re going to be involved in conflict with people and issues, you will forfeit peace of mind. Tranquility is only for those who run from conflict. But I didn’t find any biblical exception to the promise, “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in You” (Is. 26:3).
My sleepless nights and tense days weren’t all my doing. After all, I was bearing the burdens of others caught in desperate need. Who could care more for another than to give up sleep and peace of mind for their needs? “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength” (Is. 30:15). Caught again! There is a difference between bearing burdens with people before God and taking responsibility for their needs and responses. Only God can do the latter, and I wasn’t giving Him the opportunity.
My excuses crumbled. Toward the end I even grasped for the view that tension is a positive motivator, calling me to action where others were lazy. Couldn’t anxiety, correctly channeled, make one do great things for God? “Do not fret-it leads only to evil” (Ps. 37:8). Stress cannot motivate me to do what is right. How often my anxiety about another person has compelled me to a conversation that only made matters worse!
A tension-filled life is not the result of diligence, conflict, compassion, or zeal. It is the result of a mind-controlled by anything other than God’s Spirit.
“The mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6, NIV). Don’t get me wrong. I wanted nothing more than to serve God and be obedient to Him, but other motives ran beneath the surface of my actions that polluted my prime objective and created anxiety. I want God to use me successfully and there’s a part of me that wants others to think of me as successful. The two can easily blur together. No greater danger exists in ministry than when one pursues his own aims convinced that they are God’s.
God’s Word pointed me in another direction-a lifestyle of peace in the midst of conflict, rest in adversity, diligence without self-effort, success based only on obedience to God.
The peace of Christ can only “rule our hearts” when we completely abandon our personal desires in order to obey His will. Thus my repentance eventually led to a new pledge of allegiance. As long as I sought to fulfill my desires for affirmation and success by pleasing others or myself, stress would remain my ever-present tormentor.
Paul reminds us that this conviction must rest at the heart of spiritual service. “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 6:10, NIV). If I would trustingly follow His mind in whatever circumstances I found myself, stress would be disarmed.
How do we do that, though, when His desires seem less real than the press of immediate circumstances? Oswald Chambers, author of My Utmost for His Highest, answers: “The great solution is the simple one-‘Come unto Me.’ Whenever anything begins to disintegrate your life with Jesus Christ, turn to Him at once and ask Him to establish rest. Never allow anything to remain which is making the dis-peace. Take every element of disintegration as something to wrestle against, not to suffer.”
Intimacy! I wasn’t walking close enough to know His will or, if knowing it, close enough to follow when the consequences of doing so were painful. Those failures were the breeding ground of my stress. Freedom came as I gave diligence to developing a more intimate relationship with Jesus, releasing His leadership and grace into all situations.
This is not to say I wasn’t at the time already having daily devotions and prayer- but that demands on my life had outgrown the depth of my personal relationship with the Father. That intimacy needed to deepen by giving Him more time and more concentrated attention.
For me intimacy with the Lord is summed up in these three simple truths: First, Jesus has a will about everything in my life. He alone can balance all the priorities of family, ministry, and personal growth. I don’t have to live out my ministry with my faltering guesses of what is best for me to be doing at any given time. All I need to do is please Him.
In the past two years that simple truth alone has set me at rest in the midst of many anxious moments. How often it has come to mind when demands were great and the week was short. And it helps me in counseling sessions when I worry whether I can truly offer help. I literally feel the stress drain out of my body when I remember my calling.
Second, He wants me to know that will. The first truth is only a false hope if we can’t know what His desires are. Living our lives by guidelines and priority lists simply doesn’t work. Some weeks I need 12 hours on my Sunday morning sermon, on others, it comes together in only two or three. I can minister effectively only if I know daily what the Lord calls me to do. Knowledge of His mind and will is available to me if I seek Him and feed on His life regularly through prayer and devotional Bible reading. I find that as I center all my thoughts on Him, submit my plans to His will and listen to Him, His wisdom replaces pressure as my constant companion.
I don’t mean He hands me a list every morning. But throughout the day I have inner convictions of where I need to be, what I need to be doing, and how long I ought to be doing it. Occasionally they flow with my routines and plans. More often they don’t. But when I follow His leading the results amaze me.
One Thursday afternoon as I nestled down in my study to finish my Sunday morning message I received an emergency call. A couple was in the middle of a marriage-threatening conflict and wanted help now. I told them I’d see what I could arrange and call them back in five minutes.
I looked at my half-completed sermon notes spread across my desk. Friday and
Saturday were booked solid with meetings and appointments. I could feel the
anxiety rise as I tried to figure out what to do.
Then I caught myself, leaned back in my chair, and simply prayed, “Lord, where do You need me, here at my desk or at their house?” Deep inside I felt I should go and give up my study time. The next morning I was informed both of my Saturday meetings had been canceled. There would be time enough for my sermon!
Other times I’ve felt as directed to stay at my desk and have found the situation beautifully handled by others in the congregation.
Third, God gives enough grace every day to follow that will. Often God’s will means I have to give up things I want to do, and sometimes following His will creates conflicts I’d rather not face. But when I’m seeking to please Him I find peace, strength, time and energy sufficient for the task. Even major conflicts lose their sting when I’m walking close to Him. But when I get out of that closeness to Him, the smallest things trigger anxiety and worry.
A new pattern of discipline has evolved out of this commitment to intimacy. The first 45 minutes of every day are given to devotional reading and prayer-sorry, no study allowed here for upcoming sermons or articles. One day a week I fast and especially give that day to discerning what His priorities and assignments are for me personally first, then as regards my congregational ministry. I also have a weekly “staff meeting” with the Lord set aside just to pray.
I find many insights rising out of these times that shape my whole week. They also disarm my frustrations with time constraints and measurements of success. If I’m pleasing Him, that’s all I need to know.
There’s another key here to my freedom I cannot omit. Our church has been committed to wholesome intimacy in relationships between believers. We have sought to build supportive and caring relationships for every member of the body. How important these were in my transitional time! Both my “house church” and our elders listened to me and contributed to my insights. They received my confessions with forgiveness. They helped me affirm God’s direction-particularly in those instances where my obedience might cause problems. And they supported me when it did.
What I’ve gained through this transformation is only an approach to stress, not the ridding of it. The war goes on.
When I drift away from intimacy with the Lord, all my anxieties and desires to please people come rushing in like a flood. Those times are humbling because I realize that I’ve not changed so that stress no longer affects me, rather I am secure from stress only when I’m walking close to Him.
I know now what to do when my stomach begins to gnaw or my jaw tightens, or I feel like throwing out the phone. The first place I look is not at the crisis but whom I’m pleasing.
Each symptom is now a warning light on the dashboard of my life. It calls me back to the throne for “repairs.” Where am I failing to listen to Him? Where am I failing to trust His work in me? Where am I failing to follow His will? I always find answers at the throne, if not alone then with my co-pastor, an elder, or my “house church.” The problem can be identified, isolated and eliminated. For two years I have found freedom from the stress that used to drive me and the physical symptoms that plagued me. When I begin to feel the chill of its icy tentacles, I deal with it. In quietness and rest, I go before Him. That is at once both the most effective moment of my life and also the hardest. It’s so easy to skip or abbreviate, especially in the midst of tension or busyness.
Not long ago I lay awake in the middle of the night as a result of pain from an injury suffered in recreation earlier in the evening. As I used some of my old techniques to get back to sleep when sleep doesn’t come easily, I suddenly realized how long it had been since I had needed those techniques that once had been quite regular for me. I stretched out on the bed and gave thanks to God for the freedom from the stress I now enjoyed.
I’ve noticed too how easy it is to pray, study or counsel without a thousand anxieties battling for my attention. “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in You” is now more than an abstract, unbelievable hope. It’s a reality!
Wayne Jacobsen has spent 10 years in pastoral ministry serving two separate congregations, one as senior pastor and the other as associate pastor. He
presently is pastor of The Savior’s Community in Visalia, California. As a freelance writer, he has been published in several Christian magazines.
(The above material originally appeared in Ministries Magazine.)
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