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Dealing with the Stress of Ministry

So you are the person who has decided you are just doing fine in this battle against the stresses of ministry — no ulcers, no coronary disease, no allergies, no hypertension, no headaches; just the usual little inconveniences of living. It’s one of the hot subjects of our day and is called by many names: burnout, stressed-out, distress, or depression.

The pressures of life and ministry are inescapable. No matter what you do, you cannot entirely avoid them. There was a day when life was less complicated and moved at a slower pace, but times have changed.

Here’s a thought: The bathtub was invented in 1850, the telephone in 1875. That means if you’d been living in 1850, you could have sat in the bathtub for 25 years without the phone ringing.

A moderate level of stress is a necessity. A violin would give forth no music if it were not for tension on the strings. How much is too much? The evidence is accumulating that too much stress will produce physical symptoms and disease if not handled correctly.

What is stress?

The term comes from the discipline of physics and engineering. It has a precise meaning: “The action on a body of any system of balanced forces whereby strain or deformation results” (Random House College Dictionary).

Hans Selye in his book, Stress Without Distress, points out that “stress is the consequence of any demand made on the body.” Without stress there would be no spice in life. Exercise stresses our muscles; thinking stresses our minds. Without stress there is no stretching or growing. Our problem is not stress itself, but the amount. Too much stress results in distress.

Events, problems, or situations in themselves do not produce strain. It is our perceptions, our appraisals of these things that can make them stressful.

For example, you may have come from a disturbing board meeting. One of the members has threatened to call for a vote of confidence because you are not performing up to his standards. If the chairman of the board has made the suggestion, you know he is capable of carrying out the threat. Thus, lots of stress, no sleep.

Or perhaps you have a lightweight who is always spouting off. You simply dismiss it as another of his unsupported ideas that will receive no merit. The difference is in perception.

How can I recognize stress in my situation?

The best way is through your own personal awareness. It is like listening for a knock in your car. You drive it every day; and when it begins to make strange noises, you can immediately recognize something is wrong.

You believe you are not really bothered because you do not have any of the big diseases related to stress. But what about some of the minor symptoms: more colds than normal, hives, memory-slips, finger or toe tapping, waking up at 3 a.m. and not going back to sleep, eyelid twitching, anticipating the worst, cold hands, rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, indecisiveness, anxiety, feeling trapped or nervous?

Perhaps you are bothered by only two or three minor symptoms and feel you are doing a good job of coping. Even if you have more, do not conclude you are the next candidate for an ulcer. Listen to the built-in early warning system God has created within you.

What can I do about stress?

Experts in this field generally conclude there are four techniques you can use in coping with stress: relaxation, exercise, diet, and time management. When you make changes in these areas, make them gradually. Do not get caught up in another 3-day crash-program to alter your patterns of life; it will only add more stress.

Lets’s go back to an ancient named Job for some direction in stress management.

Before we do, consider the Social Readjustment Rating Scale created by Drs. Holmes and Rahe of the University of Washington Medical School. They inventoried and rated 43 life-change events that are powerful stressors. No. 1 on the list is the death of a spouse, at 100 points. No. 20 is a mortgage over $10,000, and on down to No. 43 at 11 points for a minor traffic violation.

On this rating scale, Job experienced a total of 744 points in 1 day. A score in excess of 300 within a year means the chances are 8 out of 10 that person will develop an illness over the following 24 months. How did Job handle it?

He ventilated his grief: “Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head” (1:20). Too many of us tend to keep our stress bottled up. Not Job — he ventilated it.

He worshiped: “and fell down upon the ground, and worshiped” (1:20). In worship we can change our perspective.

He expressed self-control: “In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly” (1:22). It is easy to lose it all at this critical juncture. Discipline is one of the things we must retain if we are to cope with stress.

He was careful about what he said: “In all this did not Job sin with his lips” (2:10). If you keep your tongue under control, the rest will come easier. This is a moment in which some things are best left unsaid.

On the other side of this coin, Job talked with his friends. They sat together for 7 days without saying anything, then attempted to reason it out. Finally Job was able to move to a posture of praise to God. (Read chapters 38 through 42.) In today’s terms, he used his own support system.

He experienced restoration: The Lord also accepted Job” (42:9). God came on the scene and “the Lord turned the captivity of Job” (42:10).

In dealing with stress and worry, an excellent devotional reading is Psalm 37:1–4,7,8. Let’s break this stress spiral before it breaks us.

Robert J. Strand, Springfield, Missouri

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