Stress Management Series
“Ten Ways for Ministers to Manage Stress” (SL#96)
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack®
Vol. 11 – Stress Management

Article Objective: To develop and practice sound strategies to cope with ministry stress in a life-long healthy manner. The most pertinent question for each one of us to ask and answer is, “What am I going to do about the stress in ministry that I encounter, and, also stress that I generate?” Ministers have a unique set of stress challenges, but also unique outlets for managing the stresses that are peculiar to the work of church leadership. This article will attempt to make you aware of ten ways to help manage the stresses of ministry, and even to turn them into positives for your life and leadership.

1. Faith: Practice what you preach.

Faith Resources: The beginning and ending place to manage your stress in life and in ministry is to live out on a daily basis your own Christian faith. Let’s put it into a personal commitment: “I try to manage stress by practicing what I preach.” A few “preaching points” may help apply this concept:

    • Love one another: John 13:34–A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
    • Daily life: 2 Corinthians 5:7–We live by faith, not by sight.
    • Example of Christ: 1 John 2:6–Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.
    • Fruit of the Spirit: Galatians 5:22-23–But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. . . .
    • Prayer: Philippians 4:6–Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
    • Follow His Word: Psalm 119:105–Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.
    • Positive Confidence: Philippians 4:13–I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
    • Trust in the Lord: Proverbs 3:5-6–Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight

Have you ever humorously made this boast?–“I don’t have stress; I give it.” Or, have you often claimed this promise?–“Cast all your anxiety [stress] on him because he cares for you”–1 Peter 5:7.

2. Approaches: Define your stress response.

As a minister, and as a person, you may choose one of several approaches to managing, or mismanaging, stress. Pick out your dominant approach you most often turn to, and how well are you doing? “Coping” may often be the most useful approach.

    • Denial: “I send stress underground; I don’t acknowledge it even exists.” This may feel desirable, but stress will surface and be felt.
    • Avoidance: “I run the other way; my flight from stress manages me.”
    • Attacking: “I fight back; I hit stress head on, even if it worsens the situation and escalates the stress.”
    • Thriving: “I welcome stress, even invite it into my life. I perform best under high stress.”
    • Reducing: “I stay away from stressful situations, those I am not able to handle right now.”
    • Coping: “I face up to stress, usually with acknowledgment, reflection and proven skills.”
    • Reflection: For helpful treatment of “experience analysis,” see pp. 129-132 of A Manager’s Guide to Self-Development
      (3rd edition), Mike Pedler, John Burgoyne, and Tom Boydell; London: McGraw-Hill, 1994.

3. Analysis: Examine the stress situation.

As a minister, you face a continual flow of significant situations: ones that are challenging, difficult, or worrying. Why not use “situation analysis” to help cope with the stress involved? Here are some of the components of  stress

    • Focus on a particular situation that needs stress analysis, one you have recently experienced or one coming at you right now.
    • Identify the people involved, including yourself.
    • Then try to recall your feelings, thoughts, actions, and behaviors–before, during, and after that stress situation.
    • Reflect as carefully as possible on the experience of Person #1, #2, etc: their feelings, thoughts, actions, and behavior. Though difficult, this is valuable in stress analysis.
    • To validate your judgment about the experience, check with the other persons involved. Did you misidentify their feelings, or incorrectly assume their thoughts?
    • Do you understand one person better than another? Do you better assess their actual behavior than their feelings?
    • Continue this “stress analysis” before, during, and after the event. Did your behavior authentically reflect your own stress level?
    • An approach can be chosen to match the situation.

Benefits of analysis: improving your skill at self-understanding; focusing on the true experience of others; dealing with the substantial issues rather than creating new ones; understanding the behavior and feelings of others; reducing stress or at least coping better; and bringing a calmer, more responsive presence to such a significant experience.

Reflection: Can you say, “I understand myself and my stress-load pretty well; my strengths, limitation, values, and feelings.”
Examine four stress skill-sets needed as you practice stress analysis:

    • Awareness: “What causes you stress?”
    • Acceptance: “What causes can you not change?”
    • Coping: “What stress managing skills do you have?”
    • Action: “What can you change?”
      [For helpful treatment of “experience analysis,” see pp. 129-132 of A Manager’s Guide to  Self-Development (3rd edition), Mike Pedler, John Burgoyne, and Tom Boydell, London: McGraw-Hilll, 1994. Also review the Study Resources in other Stress Articles.]

4. Structure: Set healthy boundaries.

Setting clear, healthy boundaries protects you and your interests in a relationship while still valuing the other person. Unhealthy relationships generate frustration and stress. By creating “rules” and within limits, you can eliminate unhealthy habits and stop letting others take advantage of you. Since a relationship is give-and-take, applying boundary rules consistently steers away from disruptive behavior and benefits positive behavior.

One of the surest ways to succumb to stressors is by organizing your day/time on the adrenaline rush of the “has-to-be-done.” The life and work of the minister must have some structure that will keep the pressures of being
on call “24/7” from overwhelming life. Remember, as a minister, you are no good to anyone if you are in the throes of emotional and physical burnout. The boundaries you set and live by will determine whether the stresses
of ministry are managed effectively or not.

    • Time: Do your meetings have ending points scheduled, as well as beginning points? Do you set aside time for long-and medium-range thinking and planning? Do you plan for time alone and with your family, or do you and your family just get the left-overs?
      (See #3 Study Resource: Priority Time Management in SL#97)
    • Privacy: This is one of the hardest issues for a minister to face: your work potentially involves meeting the needs of every part of a person’s life. Crises can and often do arise at times other than “regular business hours.” Do you have sufficient boundaries in mind, and in practice, that respect your and your family’s privacy? Stresses begin to take over once you realize that you are not in control of any part of your life. Setting boundaries of privacy for yourself within reason is not abandoning your ministry. It’s a way to give your ministry a chance to succeed.
    • Authority: Are things set up in your church so that you are responsible for nearly everything? Work together with your church to set boundaries for responsibility and authority. Delegate, delegate,
      delegate. Trust others to handle important responsibilities and make clear everyone’s role, so that you no longer have to be the filter for every inquiry and concern. This is no license to pass off responsibilities that are yours, but successful delegation will empower your volunteers and staff members, and will focus your leadership and streamline your church organization.  Disorganization and lack of focus can be a key stressor in any leadership position.
    • Goals: Do you sometimes feel as if your church is trying to do some of every imaginable thing? Are your efforts spread thin by ambition, honorable as it may be? When your goals are boundless, knowing how and where to start, much less how and where to stop, can be an enormous stressor.  Work with your church and staff to set manageable goals of achievement and areas of involvement for your congregation’s ministry.
    • Relationships: In a copyrighted Internet article, Lisa Brock provides the following clues for setting relationship boundaries–
      • A successful relationship with boundaries (rules, limits) is one in which both parties benefit.
      • Each member helps the other in times of need, supports the other in the relationship.
      • When conflict arises, you work through it together toward a beneficial solution.
      • Answer the question, “Why do you let others take advantage of you?”
        • I just feel so guilty.
        • I need others to depend on me.
        • It’s really my fault.
        • I don’t deserve any better treatment.
        • I seem to choose bad relationships.
      • Carefully consider and apply consistent and appropriate boundaries; it’s worth the effort.
      • Boundaries can be a way to increase the depth of friendship and respect with those who matter most.

Reflection: Can you say? “I practice good interpersonal skills in relating to others.” How good are you at setting boundaries?
Where should you start? (See also Study Resources in Article SL#97.)

5. Attitude: Set your inner thermostat.

The church community should be a healthy, inviting place. Leading with a light heart and a gentle spirit can keep your stressors in check, as well as those around you.

    • Perspective: Developing some perspective on problems may not help you solve them, but it does keep them from debilitating you.  So, learn to laugh at yourself when you need to. Learn to focus your concentration on those things you can control, rather than fretting over those you can’t.  Learn to distinguish the big things from the small things . . . and don’t react the same way to both.
    • Humor: Use humor in your sermons; tell jokes on yourself if it will help! Experts tell us every year that laughter is good for our health. It’s good for your church’s health as well! See Article SL#95.
    • Relaxation: Use prayer, meditation and breathing techniques to keep you on an even keel, and not just when things are tough but every day. Being assertive is often useful in leadership, but being angry almost never is. Quick, crisp decisions can help keep your church moving and confident in your leadership, but rash frustrated decisions almost never do.

Reflection: Remember, stressors are not good or bad in themselves. How we manage them dictates whether stress will have a negative influence on our health and effectiveness as leaders. In short, stay in control of your own leadership attitude. It is one thing you know you can control, even if it seems nothing else is in your charge. And what is #1 among attitude priorities? “Be positive.” It’s contagious, and breeds success.

6. Community: Seek out support relationships.

Ministry work can be tremendously isolating if you allow it to be (many of you are nodding your heads, I can tell!). The demands on your time and your psyche, and the expectations of godly performance at all times will be magnified ten-fold as stressors if you retreat. Building community both inside and outside of your congregation, folks with whom you can divulge all your concerns, is an essential element of warding off negative stress responses in yourself. Where can ministers go for this kind of rejuvenating community?

    • Personal Confidant/Mentor: Sometimes a single relationship can be the most important  combatant you have in managing stress. Is there a person in your life, a spouse, a best friend, a sibling to whom you can disclose your thoughts? Someone you can likewise listen to and trust? Talking to people who know you best is a powerful life force, a perspective on your place in life and leadership that extends beyond the horizon you yourself can see sometimes. Strong relationships are one of God’s greatest gifts to all of us. Ministers are no exception.
    • Professional Confidant/Mentor: Is there a colleague in your association, a former teacher you trust, someone you have worked with in the past? Someone whose experience you trust? Talking with people who know your situation because they’ve been there before can provide professional perspective and help you learn from the mistakes or successes of others.
    • Ministry Team: Your own ministry staff, the immediate community for your leadership challenges, should be a trusted group. This team can be the first line of defense in helping you and your church address potential stressors and manage them effectively. Do you try too hard to keep stressors locked behind your office door? With the exception of occasions when privacy concerns demand it, closing off your leadership team is rarelyif ever a positive stress management strategy.
    • Ministers’ Support Group: Do you meet regularly with other ministers in your neighborhood or association? There is a good chance they are dealing with similar stressors you are! Even if no one has
      all the answers in your support group, it can be helpful, relieving and insightful, just to talk it over with others and know you are not the only one!
    • Reflection: Of the 4 groups listed above, in which do you find the strongest, most helpful sense of community? Which should you spend more time cultivating? On the flipside, are you being a part of a
      helpful community for other ministers?

7. Assertiveness: Maintain healthy

Many of us have experienced the need to reduce stress by assertive behavior; so let’s take a look at these suggestions:

    • Build your own healthy self-esteem–value your thoughts, feelings, schedule, and goals.
    • And, place a high value on the thoughts, feelings, rights, and expectations of others.
    • Listen to others, really hear what they have to say and give honest, clear feedback.
    • Take the risk of asking for what you want or is expected; don’t be defensive, permissive, or judgmental.
    • Say “no” persistently and with respect; do it as soon as you know; but get right to work on your “yes.”
    • Schedule your time with a sense of purpose, goals, direction, and outcomes.
    • Relax: plan some slack in your mental and physical activity.
    • Carry work or leisure material for inevitable “while you wait” periods.
    • Look for the humor, the joy, the surprise, the lesson in experiences.
    • Remember to love yourself and your family as you love others.

“Assertive Management Overcomes Stress” (Key suggestions from Burley-Allen, Managing Assertively)
Assertive management or supervision may improve your skill in dealing with stress or anxiety. Consider the building blocks of managing assertively:

  • building your self-esteem, a self-image
  • knowing how to listen to others
  • taking risks by asking for what you want
  • giving constructive feedback–not permissive or judgmental
  • saying “no” persistently and with respect
  • handling criticism by being your own best critic
  • giving and receiving positive feedback, praise, and strokes (See Zuker,
    The Assertive Manager, pp. 162-183; and Burley-Allen, Managing Assertively. Also: See SkillTrack® #7.4–Assertive Leadership)

8. Family: Keep your family in central focus.

The family of the minister, whatever size or shape, is at the very core of the minister’s life. It is both a resource for coping with stress, and also a source of stress. When your stress spills over into your family experiences it sometimes escalates; so what can you do to provide “stress help”?  Since you cannot, and should not, keep your own “stress” bottled up, your attitude and actions can help set the tone in stress reduction and coping within the relationship. How?

    • Cope with your own stress in the several ways and means we are considering here! • Help to set reasonable boundaries between your family and your ministry; seek the congregation’s help.
    • Be an understanding, caring minister to members of your family–but not the resident expert on all issues.
    • Together set family goals, expectations, and values; don’t be overly detailed.
    • Work together as a family on selected mission/ministry tasks. Be intentional about family time and schedule. I had to learn and return to this in every season of family life.
    • “Practice what you preach”; the family relationship is one of the most significant, and difficult, arenas to live as an authentic example.
    • Honor the needs and values of each individual family member; healthy members contribute to a less stressful family.
    • Be a calm presence in the midst of family life; don’t let “blowing off steam” become your norm.
    • Keep growing together in faith, in purpose, in self-understanding, and
      in family skills.
    • Reflection: On this aspect of the minister’s life,

Robert Dale has an excellent discussion in Pastoral Leadership, pp.213-224.

9. Presence: Overcome stage fright.

One of the most common experiences of stress is “stage fright”–a very real, often acute, kind of work-related stress: a nervousness, dread, or fear before and/or during a public performance before an audience. “Stage
presence” is an appropriate response to overcoming “stage-fright.” “Presence” refers to the fact of being present and also the bearing, behavior, and performance of a person. In this context, “presence” is the quality of  elf-assurance and effectiveness that permits the speaker/minister to achieve a rapport with the audience–eq. “stage presence.”

Your ministry often requires preaching or teaching to your own congregation, making a presentation to a business conference, addressing a college chapel, or reading a paper at a professional meeting. Some nervous response can be normal, even energizing you to face the audience event. Severe nervousness, called “stage fright,” creates a form of fight or flight response: dry mouth, sweaty hands, rapid heartbeat, upset stomach. What presence can you be and do to avoid or cope with such stage fright? We are going to summarize a set of proven practices:

    • To begin with, prepare thoroughly; know what you want to say and how.  Prepare an outline of major ideas and organize support material. Is your message born of faith and dependence on God?
    • Review the speech, even rehearse it on location if possible; tape your voice for quality, and rate.
    • Greet members of the audience as they arrive; demonstrating friendliness can build confidence.
    • While you wait for the time to speak, practice stress reduction such as deep breathing; convert your nervous energy into enthusiasm.
    • Use positive self-talk: that you are prepared; that what you have to say will help the audience; that they are on your side.
    • Begin with a pause; don’t rush; start with a sentence spoken from memory.
    • Maintain eye contact and move naturally around the speaking area; use body language to express your message.
    • Stay on message; avoid digressions or adding unplanned content.
    • Focus some attention on selected visuals so that verbal delivery is augmented; don’t dawdle over the obvious.
    • Close your message with a summary (brief) of your main points, and warmly express appreciation to the audience.

Your “stage experience” could become energized by normal stress rather than frozen by stage fright. (Helpful concepts have been included from Business Communication, 4th ed., by Mary Ellen Guffey. Mason, Ohio: Thomson South-Western, 2003, pp. 506-508.)

10. Mission: Live and minister on

You are a messenger of God’s love to those around you. He has called you to assist Him in the mission of broadening and strengthening His Kingdom! What greater cause could there be? What greater motivation? As great and unique as the stressors of ministry can be, there is an equally great and unique power and support available. (See SL#97
Study Resource: Servant Leadership)

When stressors threaten to overwhelm you; when time is short, demands are high, and resources are low, remember your calling. Your purpose is noble, indeed heavenly! God does not ask you to do it alone, or to be more than the human you are. He needs you to be strong and healthy, in mind and in spirit.
He needs you to be in a position, both internally, and as a part of a community, to do the best work you can do. This strength of purpose can be one of your greatest allies in managing stress. God has called for your service to others.  When stress has taken a toll on your motivation, remember your calling and
purpose. Will that one thought manage all your stressors for you? Of course not! But it should empower you to seek the strong tools needed to answer God’s call in the best way you can.

Your Reflections:

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© 2009; hosted and copyrighted
by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership