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Coping With the Kingdom of Stress

By H. Robert Rhoden

As a junior in Bible college, our son Rob proudly said, “Dad, when I get into the ministry, I want to have high blood pressure.”

I asked, “Why?”

His response surprised me, “Because many of the successful ministers I know have high blood pressure.”

What is it about ministry that creates stress? I am not suggesting that ministry cannot be fun, rewarding, and fulfilling, but too often the monster of stress beats pastors down and the joy and significance of ministry evaporate.

After visiting all 315 churches in the Potomac District, I can identify six agents of stress. What can a pastor do when he faces these stressors?

Congregational Expectations

Jesus knew about unrealistic expectations. A mother wanted her sons to have the two most prominent positions in the Kingdom. His followers thought He would use force to set up an earthly Kingdom. He was expected to restore the Kingdom immediately.

On arrival at a church, a pastor must understand the written or unwritten mission, and the core values and vision of that church. The Family Church (1–50)1 expects the pastor to be more like a chaplain to their families. If the membership grows, they fear outsiders will damage the church. Matriarchs and patriarchs may equate growing numbers with reduced spirituality or other smoke screens when the real issue is loss of control. Family members will say, “We are losing our church,” or “These new people are not proven.” The stress factor for the pastor rises quickly as he sees a confusing mission, core values, and vision. In this situation, pastors must be nice to everyone and keep adding members until the church has enough members to create a “tipping point.”

The first rule in a storm is to outlast it. While riding out the storm, remember you are not alone. If you cannot locate someone to confide in, find another pastor who has been where you are and ask him to share his story. If you cannot find someone, ask your presbyter or district superintendent to connect you with someone. Next, clarify the issues. You may have inherited a situation that is bigger than you are, but it is not too big for God. In prayer, call the names of people who need to be changed. Finally, do not try to walk on water. Like Peter, you will sink. Stay in the boat and keep loving people. Do the natural, and let God do the supernatural.

In the Pastor-Size Church (50–150),2 the pastor is the central leader and replaces the patriarchs and matriarchs in the church. People enter the church through relationships with the pastor, the pastor’s ministry, and the pastor’s influence. When a church reaches 150 in attendance, the pastor can no longer know everyone, and begins to become overwhelmed with ministry duties and demands. The pastor must change his leadership>

In the Program-Size Church (150–350),3 the pastor is still central, but his role shifts. The pastor clarifies the mission, core values, and vision of the church and helps people arrive at consensus. The stress level is contained in the fact people expect more professional staff leadership than the budget can support. This may be the most difficult size church to pastor. Before making significant changes in the structure and organization of the church, ask for help from someone who has successfully navigated through this stage of growth.

As you develop a pastoral team, select leaders who will be pastors of people not directors of programs. Continuing education will improve your leadership skills and a sabbatical (See sidebar Sabbatical for Potomac District Ministers.) will help you deal with the stress of this size church.

The Corporate-Size Church (350 and above)4 has a lead pastor and a pastoral leadership team. The stress factor is usually related to creative and excellence fatigue. Each week, month, and year there is pressure to do something bigger and better. How do we overcome that pressure? Ministry relationships, mentors, and mini sabbaticals are necessary for the entire pastoral team. One pastor I know visits a professional Christian psychologist once a month to get advice on various parishioner counseling needs. Additionally, he talks with the counselor about his own needs and seeks spiritual and professional advice. This has been an invaluable tool for him in managing stress and maintaining emotional health. They pray together each month.

Attention to personal spiritual formation is important at every church size, but at this level it is essential. The more people one serves the greater the temptation to rely on boilerplate spirituality. (See sidebar Vocational Ministry or Spiritual Ministry?)

Personnel Selections

Pastors often ask about the criteria for selecting volunteers as well as paid staff. The agony of trying to work with people who resist training and who represent power bases in the church is the bane of any pastor.

When you inherit staff, begin with a review of their job description. If there is no written job description, prepare one. A clear understanding of what is expected provides a good basis for evaluation.

Apply Bill Hybels’ model of character, competency, and chemistry in selecting new staff and evaluating current staff. Integrity is an essential element of character. Does the person do what he promised to do? Is he trustworthy? Competency is determined based on ability. Can he lead his area to a new level of growth? Chemistry is about fitting in. This is subjective, but important. A person may have good character and be competent, but not fit your leadership>

In Luke 6:12–19, Jesus gives the model for selecting people to be ministry-team members. He prayed all night, selected His team, and then they did ministry. The results were phenomenal: “Those troubled by evil spirits were cured” (Luke 6:18). Many pastors begin ministry, decide some people are needed to help, and then resort to prayer when things are not going well. This is the opposite of the model Jesus gave: He prayed, selected, and then ministered.

Ubiquitous Temptations

Without question, the most difficult task given a district superintendent is dealing with ministers who yield to temptations that take them out of the ministry for a season. Unfortunately, some violations require dismissal without opportunity for restoration to ministry. Great stress emanates from loss of position and income. The collateral damage to family, congregation, and friends exponentially increases the pain.

Stress created by choices is especially difficult. Most often, these choices are made in a dry spiritual season. However, at times, these decisions are made after a spiritually high experience. One pastor finished a week of fasting and prayer and made poor choices the next month. He later said that the stress of ministry was the genesis of his temptation. What an oxymoron.

This ubiquitous battle must be fought at every season of life. The path to victory is clearly marked, but often becomes opaque from daily stressors. In Luke 4:1–13, Jesus outlined the path for dealing with the stress of temptation. These temptations are symbolic of the cravings of the flesh, the allurement of power and money, and testing God (asking Him for a sign greater than He is willing to give). Jesus met these temptations successfully by relying on the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and by appealing to and applying the Word of God. Ministers who experience moral or ethical failures often acknowledge that they neglected regular prayer and Bible study.

Limited Resources

In a recent survey conducted by Enrichment journal, 47 percent of pastors said they struggled with limited financial resources. A letter I received from some concerned members of a particular congregation provides one snapshot of this struggle:

“We are writing this letter because we are concerned about our pastor. Our pastor has led the church nearly 4 years and is doing a tremendous job. The Body is in unity and loves him and his family. We have been members for some time, but are concerned because we know our pastor struggles financially. We have asked the board to prayerfully consider blessing our pastor financially, but this has not happened. We asked the board if the pastor received a raise this year, which he deserves, but he was not given one. The church has doubled in size since he came, and our finances have more than doubled.

“We do not know what to do. It is sad to know that our pastor cannot take a vacation, buy his children school clothes or parts to fix their vehicle when the church has thousands of dollars available. For the pastor to move at this time would be devastating for their daughter who has 2 more years of high school to complete.

“I do not believe it is right for the church board to control this decision when the board does not represent the feelings of the congregation. We ask for your help.”

Some people in the congregation believe the compensatory feeling provided by being in the ministry should be considered part of a pastor’s remuneration. Another common subliminal attitude is the need to help the minister incarnate sacrifice. Both compensatory feeling and sacrifice are legitimate observations about the ministry. Nevertheless, these should not be used to create stress for a minister’s family by withholding adequate salary and benefits.

The Potomac District offers to meet with boards and pastors to openly discuss the salary, housing allowance, and benefit package for the pastor. One suggestion that resonates with boards is to compare their pastor’s salary and benefits with other public servants in the community such as high school, middle school, or elementary school principals.

There is no easy answer to this agent of stress, but Jesus did tell us not to worry (Matthew 6:25–34). The combination of learning good personal budgeting skills, providing training for the church board, and seeing God as our faithful provider will carry pastors through stressful seasons.

As this article is being prepared, the pastor referenced in the letter is still leading the church and the problem of his financial situation is being addressed.

Unresolved Conflict

In the same survey mentioned earlier, 31 percent of pastors struggle with unresolved conflict in the church. Conflict is endemic to the church. Pastors cannot avoid it, but they can manage it and find help in resolving it. Most pastoral stress emanates from some form of conflict.

Most church conflict centers on methods and goals that have become values. Several years ago, a church split in the Potomac District because the youth group was selling ham sandwiches in the church basement to raise money for Speed the Light. There were other surrounding problems, but this event brought the church’s conflict to a head. Raising $1,000 for Speed the Light by selling ham sandwiches mitigated against the value that the church is a holy place where merchandising should not be allowed. Jesus clearing the temple in John 2:13–17 was the scriptural basis for those who embraced this value. We may not agree with how the church applied this text to create such a value, but the disagreement was a waterloo for the pastor.

If conflict is a major source of stress, then learning how to manage and resolve it is critical for every pastor.

Norman Shawchuck has an outstanding model for understanding conflict and insightful suggestions for managing and resolving it. The conflict cycle is represented using a clock face. The 1 o’clock position is tension development; 3 o’clock is role dilemma; 5 o’clock is injustice gathering; 7 o’clock is confrontation; and 10 o’clock is adjustment. Unless the conflict cycle is broken through intervention and written agreements (Acts 15:1–35), it will be repeated. I suggest a more in-depth review of Shawchuck’s material to help with the stress of conflict. (See the spring and summer 2005 issues of Enrichment journal for a comprehensive discussion of managing church conflict.)

Tex Groff said that pastors face issues and problems in the ministry. Issues often cannot be solved. Music>

Sorting Priorities

Two levels of priorities must be sorted out if pastors are to cope with stress in the ministry. When Joan and I planted West End Assembly of God in Richmond, Virginia, we had three small children; limited resources; a small, but growing congregation; and a large vision. The challenge of growing a congregation and leading a building program resulted in two short hospital experiences for me. After receiving negative results from every test, the doctor came to my room one day, sat on the edge of the bed, and said, “It’s stress. You need to make changes in your lifestyle if you hope to live a long, healthy life.”

That experience along with a dream got my attention. I dreamed one night that I was leaving the church building and saw a young disheveled teenager smoking pot on the front lawn of the church. Approaching him, I asked him to leave the church property. He stared at me and said, “Don’t you recognize me. I’m your son, Rob.” I awakened from the dream crying and thanking God it was only a dream.

Over the next couple of months, I made some strategic changes in my schedule. Our kids’ activities were placed on my calendar as appointments. It was important to communicate to them by my actions that being a father to them was a priority in my life.

The following priorities have worked for our family and our ministry: God first, spouse next, children next, and then ministry. I am pleased to say that our three children and their spouses serve the Lord. We fumbled and stumbled as parents, but God was faithful as we tried to deal with the stress of ministry by incarnating these priorities.

A second challenge is to clarify ministry priorities. A pastor called one day to ask for help in forming a policy manual for his church. He had been at the church 15 years and was looking for a way to lead 35 people to a new level. I asked if the church had a mission statement. After a prolonged silence, he replied, “No.” He quickly focused on the stress of the ministry and his temptation to resign. His next comment was telling, “I don’t know what to do next.” He was obviously looking for some trigger to create a fulfilling, successful ministry. Developing a policy manual was not the answer.

Ministry priorities center around four Whats.

Some people in ministry feel stuck in their calling. They are not sure they are serving in their gifts, but are reluctant to make a change. How does a pastor make a change at age 30, 40, 50, or even 60? The stress of feeling stuck can be overwhelming. Sorting out these priorities is the first step. If everything does not line up, then it is time to make a change. This is the only answer for this stressor.

Finally

In the ministry, pastors will have stress. Unmanaged stress can lead to burnout. Some day, pastors may have more time to think about fewer things,5 but until then coping with stress will remain on the front burner.

H. ROBERT RHODEN, D.Min., Glen Allen, Virginia, is an executive presbyter and former Potomac District superintendent.

Notes

1. The naming of these church sizes and some of the observations are borrowed from Arlin Rothauge, Sizing Up a Congregation for New Member Ministry (New York: Episcopal Church Center, 1983).

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. A statement made by Tom Brokaw when he retired.

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