Stress and Ministry

By Carl A. Trapani WDN Editor

Stress is a topic of everyday concern and one of great importance to those in the ministry. Contrary to the idealized notion of ministers living secluded, calm, and peaceful lives of study and prayer, most ministers face ever-mounting stress and demands on their time. Because they typically offer assistance to others with little regard for their own needs, ministers are at greater risk to the harmful effects of stress than those they serve are. In therapy, clergymen frequently share their frustrations of having so much to do and too little time to do it. They carry a double burden of dealing with their own personal stress, and of trying to assist their stressed-out church members with their problems. Because ministers typically are overworked and are reluctant to delegate responsibility to others, many have increased their stress load to the point of exhaustion and burnout.

The word burnout was first used to describe a common state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion derived mostly, but not entirely from pressure from one’s job or occupation. But the word also can be applied to non-vocational stresses, such as the demands one feels with an important for ministers to understand chronically-ill relative or demanding what stress is, its dangers, and proper children who need constant care. In every case, the burned out person feels trapped by the demands of others, isolated, unappreciated, and unable to find time for rest or relief. There is a constant awareness of the difficulty of one’s job. Morale drops, self-motivation and efficiency goes down. An increase in conflicts with others is common. Sometimes burned-out people get physically sick and for many there is a tendency to withdraw emotionally from other people and from the demands of
work. Stressed-out people can be cynical and complaining. And for those in the ministry, stress to the point of burnout results in dramatic changes in once compassionate, sensitive, and caring persons. Burnout can even lead to apathy, anger, depression, physical illness, and sometimes even the abuse of alcohol or other drugs. Stated briefly, burnout results from the excessive demands that other people make on a person’s energy, strength, time, and resources. Because of these pressures, many ministers have broken down physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. In light of this, it is important for ministers to understand what stress is, its dangers, and proper ways of dealing with it.

Much of what is known about stress can be attributed to the pioneering research efforts of two men, Walter Cannon and Hans Selye. Walter Cannon was a noted physiologist employed at Harvard Medical School during the early twentieth century. He was the first to describe the body’s reaction to stress. He described a scene somewhat like this: You’re walking down a dark alley at night, all alone, when suddenly up ahead you spot a big, burly figure, standing in your path with a baseball bat in his hand. Other than praying, “Dear Lord, please deliver me! ” what else happens?

Cannon observed that in such a stressful situation the heart would begin to pound and speed up, there would be a shortness of
breath, sweat would appear, the muscles would tense, adrenaline and other hormones would increase, and a lot of other bodily changes would occur. Dr. Cannon identified this reaction to stress as the “fi glut-or-flight response.” When threatened, the body automatically prepares itself to either stand ground and fight, or run away. This fight-or-flight response automatically begins whenever a person feels insecure or threatened. In a physically dangerous situation this response might make the difference between life and death, but when the threat isn’t physically life threatening, the response itself can be harmful to our bodies.

Hans Selye was a Canadian physician who became intrigued with WalterCannon’s findings on the fight-or-flight response to stress. Selye, an endocrinologist, conducted his own research and wrote two classic works, The Stress of Life, and, Stress Without Distress. Based on his studies, Selye discovered that stress is a natural part of life. Everyone has a certain necessary amount of it; and to have no stress at all would mean to be dead! Selye defined stress as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it. ” Selye also discovered that stress is produced by negative and positive events. Happy events such as the birth of a child, a promotion, a raise, or fulfilling a long-term goal, can be just as stressful as negative events such as an accident or an argument with our spouse. Dr. Selye named the stress that results from positive factors “eustress” and the stress resulting from negative factors “distress. ” Most interestingly, Dr. Selye showed that the physical reaction to all stress whether it was positive or negative–is always and essentially the same, with identical biochemical changes taking place. He discovered that our bodies couldn’t tell the difference between “good stress” and “bad stress.” Any stress produces some degree of the fight-or-flight response in our bodies. And this can be very bad. Selye’s work showed that no matter whether the stressors were good or bad – the unused chemical by-products of stress could eventually lead to a breakdown of the body’s health and the development of emotional problems. Stress is known to be a factor in causing bleeding ulcers, high blood pressure, strokes, cancer, and heart disease. All of these are killers – thus it is acknowledged stress can kill.

Every time a minister stands to address an audience, chair a meeting, or counsel with troubled individuals, he must deal with
stress. In most cases, thankfully, the preacher is in no physical danger from his audience. But, his emotional and psychological well being is most definitely at risk. Whenever he speaks, his self-esteem is on the line by the possibility of being embarrassed by what he says and how he says it. The preacher knows that his appearance, clothing, posture, and demeanor are being meticulously observed. He realizes that every word he speaks, every gesture of his face and hands, every tonal inflection, reveals to his audience what he knows about his subject and how he feels about it. And all this is subject to the scrutiny and approval or rejection by the members of his audience. Hence the minister’s self-esteem is on the line. This is why speaking front of others is considered the most stressful and dreaded of all human activities–too much at risk.

This issue isn’t new, the Old Testament records that Moses, Jeremiah, and Jonah were reluctant to preach or prophesy because of the threat it posed to their own obviously low self-esteem. Standing in front of the Israelites at just about any point in their history was truly a fight-or-flight experience for any prophet. Today, it seems reasonable to believe that it was primarily due to the divine impression they felt so keenly, that they faced the hostile and negative reactions of their audience.

Today, ministers aren’t in jeopardy of losing their lives after preaching a Sunday morning message, but they do raise their stress levels just by standing in the pulpit.

Here are a few suggestions to help ministers reduce their stress level.

Get plenty of rest and exercise. Take a short nap after lunch if necessary, and walk briskly for at least half an hour each day. Keep
your weight down by downsizing your portions and avoiding second helpings. Get a physical checkup once a year. Plan your time to include one day off each week (that’s even biblical!). Take a good 2-week long vacation each year. Take mini-vacations of 1-3 days off and away from regular church duties every month or so. Plan for some quiet time in each day’s schedule. Listen to good relaxing music. Slow down. Realize that you can not and should not do everything – and quit trying to do so. Delegate authority to others. Open your pulpit to frequent guests – This will allow you a rest and a chance to hear God’s voice through another of His servants. Hug your wife and family members several times a day.

Learn to laugh at yourself- lighten up and don’t be so grim and serious. There is plenty to smile about if you will look for it.
Preach with the unction that comes from above rather than from personal motives of trying to force change upon your audience. Enjoy life to the fullest. Remember, some day will be your last day – so live each day with a sense of making it joyful and pleasurable for yourself, as well as others. Take time to smell the roses now, before you are buried prematurely with them tomorrow.

Rev. Carl A. Trapani pastors the Apostolic Faith Church in Eau Claire, WI.

He is also a psychotherapist at Heinz Psychological Services. For counseling information call (715) 834-3171.