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Are You Fit To Be Tied … or Fit To Serve? Staying Emotionally Healthy in the Ministry

By Richard D. Dobbins

Nothing is more critical to the mental health of the church than the mental health of the pastor. Healthy churches are led by emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy servants of the Lord. Just as a family is no stronger than the marriage on which it is built, a church is no more healthy than its leader. This article takes a brief look at what makes a pastor emotionally healthy.

Healthy Pastors Must Be Mentally Healthy

The helping professions — including the institutional church and pastoral ministry — are among the most stressful in the world. Stress can be defined as the rate of the wear and tear of life on a person; the black lung disease of the helping professions. And while God’s work and His call on your life are never stressful, the institutional church can stress a pastor to death: of a heart attack, stroke, or occasionally, even suicide. Healthy pastors leading healthy congregations don’t die of stress-induced conditions.

Sources Of Stress For The Minister Are Internal, External, And Professional

A landmark Menninger Foundation study in the 1970s found three common sources of stress for Protestant male clergy that still hold true today:

The minister himself. A pastor’s own personality may make it difficult for him to relate to himself or to others. Some ministers are narcissistic. They need to be looked up to and admired by others, but they experience enormous difficulty being really close to anyone. The distance they put between themselves and others is often seen as part of their devotion to God. Other ministers try to deal with their own neurotic, crippling guilt through ritual religious behaviors. None of these problems are beyond the touch of God’s healing power if we are willing to see and know ourselves “as others see us”1 — especially as God sees us — and seek His help so we might become more like Him.

Every minister in that study perceived himself to have a painful, unhappy marriage. Divorce was seldom an option, because in most instances, it would end the minister’s career. Neither the minister nor his spouse were willing to take such a drastic step. I cannot overstress the importance of taking good care of your marriage. Be willing to seek help if you need it and determine to meet the needs of your marriage. It’s an invaluable investment for your emotional health and the overall health of your ministry.

Ministers perceived their greatest stress came from demands made on them by their duties within the local congregation. Much of this stress originates in the many roles a pastor is expected to perform: he is preacher, confessor, teacher, administrator, and shepherd to his congregation. Most ministers are more comfortable in some roles than others, yet feel the need to excel in all of them. Some are best in interpersonal, one-to-one, or small-group situations; others shine brightest in pulpit ministry; still others are best at administration and organization. No pastor is equally skilled in all the duties assigned to the leader of a church. He needs to compensate for this by surrounding himself with staff members who are strong where he is weak so there is competent leadership in all areas of ministry.

Burnout — One Sign Of Being Overstressed

On fire … or burning out?

One sign of emotional burnout is the loss of our usual energy level and the loss of a sense of idealism and purpose. Some who are experiencing burnout are troubled by physical problems such as ulcers, frequent and/or debilitating headaches, backaches, frequent colds, or sexual problems. These are early warning signs of impending burnout. No one in the ministry is exempt from stress, and its effects will spill over onto your spouse, your children, and inevitably onto your congregation.

One of burnout’s early predictable stages is overenthusiasm — unrealistic goals with unrealistic plans for achieving them.

Stagnation is also symptomatic of burnout: ministry loses much of its thrill and becomes a mundane task.

Frustration is stagnation’s twin brother: the pastor begins to feel incompetent. In this mental condition, he may lash out at others and act or speak inappropriately to his spouse, children, and/or members of his congregation. When this happens, much of the mental energy he has must be used to mend fences. Everyone involved is diminished in ministry potential until the issues are resolved on both sides. One side must seek forgiveness; the other side must extend it.

Apathy is common in burnout: ignoring and avoiding ministry tasks. From returning phone calls to preparing sermons, nothing can engage your attention. You just don’t care about the mail, phone messages, or the Sunday morning worship service.

Finally, there is intervention: the decisive action — at any point — to break the cycle.

Two important characteristics of burnout

Burnout is, first of all, highly contagious. Your staff and your congregation are at risk of catching burnout symptoms — unrealistic goals can cause them to burn out. If you are frustrated, stagnated, and/or apathetic in your life and ministry, you will soon find yourself at the head of a frustrated, stagnated, apathetic church.

Second, the stages of burnout are neither linear nor inevitable. A person may go through the same two or three stages several times on any given job — like going through a revolving door over and over — and never experience all of them.

Burnout: The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

Burnout can be the terminal illness of one’s ministry: the beginning of the end. Or it can lead to the birth process of what God has really called that minister to do: the end of a false start and the beginning of “rest for your souls” under a yoke that is “easy” and a burden that is “light” (Matthew 11:29,30, NIV).

 Winston Churchill cautiously defined one of the turning points of World War II as “not the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”2 Determine to put an end to the beginning signs of burnout before they consume you and your ministry. Here are some ways to grow through and out of burnout so God and His kingdom are glorified and enlarged through the ministry of an emotionally healthy pastor and a healthy church:

Enthusiasm needs to be tempered by realism. Encourage people you trust to administer reality checks when the situation warrants. In your devotional prayer life, ask God to help you be realistic about what you can and should do.

Stagnation is best met by roiling the waters. Further education and mental activity — formal or informal — often do the job and present creative new ways to approach ministry tasks.

Frustration creates energy. Learn to recognize frustration in your life and ministry and determine to channel the energy it creates toward positive, needed change.

Apathy can be turned into involvement. Ask God and a trusted friend or two to help you rediscover your love for pointing people to the love of God.

It is difficult for men to admit they need help. Everything from asking directions to admitting we have a family problem confronts us with our need for other people — but we prefer to think we are self-sufficient.

This is an even bigger problem for pastors. They isolate themselves from other ministers — the very people who would understand them best — because they are in competition with them. Don’t be afraid to seek out one or two other ministers with whom you can have a mutually supportive friendship. I heard one pastor say he often drove to a town about an hour from home and went into the confessional booth of a Roman Catholic church just to have that kind of conversation with a fellow cleric. We should not be that frightened of each other. We need each other’s moral, professional, and spiritual support.

Manage Stress Before It Reaches Burnout

Keep your balance.

A limited amount of pressure is necessary in life. This optimal level of stress — eustress — keeps us at peak performance levels. Eustress is clinically defined as, “A balance between selfishness and altruism, through which an individual develops the drive and energy to care for others.”3 We must learn to worship, work, play, love, and care for our personal and family needs in balance. The stress of an all-work-and-no-play lifestyle not only “makes Jack a dull boy,” it leads to spiritual, physical, and emotional bankruptcy—and burnout.

Cast your cares on the Lord.

One of the most effective stress-management tools you can develop is “casting all your care [your stressors; your anxieties] upon him [God]; for he careth for you” (1 Peter 5:7, self-translation). Many years ago God helped me formulate a way of casting my cares on Him that has taken immeasurable ministry stress out of my life.

First, ask yourself whether you can do anything about the particular situation. If you can, then pray about your course of action and initiate whatever action needs to be taken.

If you can’t do anything about it now, but believe you can take action in the future, make a note in your appointment calendar on the date when you can take action. In the meantime, commit the matter to prayer.

If you can’t do anything now or in the future, consider who else might be able to do something. Contact him or her about it.

If you cannot do anything about the problem and cannot find anyone else who can, then commit it to the Lord in prayer and move on to issues you can do something about.

This is how you cast your cares into the Lord’s very capable hands. Teach your congregation to approach this Scripture in this way. Without breaking anyone’s confidence, give examples of how others have cast their cares on the Lord. Explain how you have had to cast some impossible situation into the Lord’s hands—and the peace it ultimately brought.

Learn how to pray through the “slings and arrows”4 aimed at you.

God’s Word, prayer, and meditation are your God-given weapons against becoming consumed with and/or bitter over the hurt and anger that often come with pastoral ministry. There are four steps to praying through your emotional pain.

1. In prayer, focus intellectually on the event or relationship that is causing you pain. Tell God honestly what you think. He already knows—but you need the healing that comes from verbalizing your innermost thoughts in the presence of One you can trust; One who loves you.

2. In prayer, focus emotionally on the painful event or relationship. Allow the feelings originally generated by the hurt to surface and be expressed. You may find yourself weeping as you express these deep feelings, so find a time when you can be alone. Continue this until the burden lifts and you are emotionally relieved.

3. Meditate in the presence of God for a new interpretation of the event or situation that will hurt less. The Holy Spirit will bring appropriate passages of Scripture to your mind. The words of a trusted friend may address your need. The words of a beloved hymn may come to mind. You may realize the level of pain being experienced by the person who caused your pain and find both relief and God-given compassion for the one who has hurt you. Test all options against what you know to be true in God’s Word. Anything that is of God will be life enhancing and healthy for you and your congregation in the long run.

4. Determine to replace your old, hurtful interpretation of the event with the new, less hurtful interpretation gained by praying through. Write it in a journal and date it to help fix it in your mind. Praise God for the new insights He has given you.

You may need to repeat these steps several times in the process of praying through, but the end result is worth the effort. You will know when you have prayed through when the new meaning for an old hurt is mentally and spiritually comfortable. You can act and react appropriately and productively in your life.

The emotional strength that comes from your close relationship with the Lord will help you manage the fact not everyone in your congregation is going to like everything you do. Not everyone liked what Jesus did. Many were threatened by the truths He taught and still others dismissed them as unimportant. Some publicly jeered and taunted Him. He knew before He came to earth that would happen, and His close relationship with the Father supported Him when others failed Him. He also knew — and reminded others — that He had to be busy with the task His Father had given Him (Luke 2:49). He stayed focused on His relationship with the Father and on His kingdom tasks.

The above is still good advice for God’s servants. Focus first on your relationships with God, yourself, your spouse, your children, and family; then on the ministry task to which God has called you. This ordering of priorities will help you maintain the balance necessary to be the stress-free, healthy spiritual leader of a healthy congregation.

Guard your thought life.

Men of God by the thousands have become trapped in pornography, especially on the Internet. This is the most common temptation facing believers in the new millennium. It is of staggering proportion. Never assume that as a minister you are beyond the reach of the thoughts, ideas, urges, and fantasies that Satan directs to the mind of each believer. Be careful of all your entertainment choices.

Filter your thoughts through the strainer Paul offers: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

Through this filter come only those thoughts, ideas, urges, and fantasies that God through the Holy Spirit brings to your mind. They are creative, productive, life enhancing, ministry enhancing, light rather than burdensome, and easy to bear rather than causing pain and heartache.

Stay in touch with God every day through times of personal prayer and Bible reading in addition to the time you spend studying God’s Word and praying on the job. Guard your mental health against the devastating effects of stress, unresolved guilt, or difficult personal and interpersonal issues by leading a balanced life. With God’s help, learn how to pray through life’s hurtful times, and cast your cares on the Lord. In this way, you equip yourself to be a joyful, healthy pastor whose life and ministry lead others in growing healthy churches for the glory of God.

Finally, remember what He has lovingly promised you: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:30); He assures us of a “sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7), and His prayers on our behalf (Luke 22:32). He does not send us into the ministry unequipped. Rather, He promises to meet all of our mental health needs and more. When we are in a right relationship with Him, ourself, our spouse, our children, and our work for Him, we are in the best possible position for healthy ministry—to grow a healthy church for His glory.

Richard D. Dobbins, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and founder of EMERGE Ministries, Akron, Ohio.

Endnotes
1. Robert Burns (1759–96), Scottish poet. Excerpt from closing lines of, “To a Louse: On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet, At Church” (1786). Burns’ poem is about the lice on a woman’s bonnet and in her hair; and the fact she is unaware both of their presence and that every time she turns her head, they are being flung onto others around her. “O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us! … What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us, An’ ev’n devotion! [sic].”

2. Speech at the Lord Mayor’s Day Luncheon, London, November 10, 1942.

3. Kenneth N. Anderson, ed., Mosby’s Medical, Nursing, and Allied Health Dictionary, 5th ed. (St. Louis: Harcourt, 1988), 595.

4. Hamlet, 3.1.57

 

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