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 the shape of leadership

Five Ways to Manage Stress in Ministry

Finding rest and relief for your soul

Rebecca Burtram on October 9, 2018

More than one-third of pastors are at high or medium risk of burnout, and three-quarters know at least one fellow pastor whose ministry ended due to stress, according to a 2017 Barna report.

How can this be, especially in light of Jesus’ promises for His followers? In Matthew 11:28–30, He says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus didn’t say we would never face stressful situations when following Him, but He did promise to provide rest for our souls. This means that as leaders, we are taking on burdens we don’t need to carry.

The challenge is learning to embrace the easy yoke and allowing the other weights to rest on God’s shoulders. Thankfully, God, in His infinite wisdom, knew we would struggle with this, and He has given us insight in His Word on how to deal with stress.

Find a Mentor

Trying to manage everything on your own leads to stress. By everything, I mean the majority of the physical, mental and emotional tasks of ministry.

Proverbs 13:10 says, “Where there is strife, there is pride, but wisdom is found in those who take advice.” Mentors are an important resource for leaders. A mentor can help carry some of the mental load and provide input as you navigate ministry issues and pursue your God-given vision.

Community is a mathematical phenomenon; it multiplies our joy and divides our grief.

Mentors are often less emotionally invested in the areas you are making decisions about and can help you to see each challenge from an objective standpoint. A mentor with a few more years of experience can be an invaluable source of insight and encouragement.

Seek Counseling

Because church leaders are often highly compassionate individuals, they are at high risk of developing compassion fatigue. We frequently see and hear of the suffering of others. Over time, we may feel worn out from carrying the emotional weight of the challenges those we care about and minister to are facing. Empathy is a great ministerial trait. The danger is not in the caring. The risk comes when we, whether consciously or not, allow our pride to prevent us from seeking a place to release some of the weight.

Counseling is a wonderful resource for pastors, as it allows us to go to someone outside the church and process through all the emotions that come with the job. God didn’t design us to minister alone. He encourages us to carry one another’s burdens.

Make Friends

We need friends. We need people with whom we can share the highs and the lows of life. Community is a mathematical phenomenon; it multiplies our joy and divides our grief. No wonder Scripture says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9–10).

Many in ministry find it difficult to invest in meaningful friendships because they have been burned by friendships within the church. Others feel incapable of sharing their emotions and stories because their lives revolve around the church, and they don’t want to appear unprofessional in front of members of the congregation. Still others struggle with authenticity because they are pursuing an image of perfection they can’t live up to. However, God designed us to be in relationship.

Personally, I have decided that although friends from church can abandon us or hurt us, I am not going to allow past experiences to prevent me from future friendships. Relationships are messy, and they teach us about grace, forgiveness and love.

Some of the best advice I’ve received in ministry is to have thick skin and a tender heart. We have to know that some things are going to hurt and be strong enough for that, but we can’t let those experiences prevent us from remaining open to deep, meaningful relationships. After all, the “heartfelt counsel of a friend is as sweet as perfume and incense” Proverbs 27:9 (NLT).

Take a Break

God didn’t just model hard work followed by rest; He commanded it (Deuteronomy 5:12–14). Like all the commandments, God gave them to protect us and provide us healthy environments and lifestyles. God’s church will not fall apart if you take a break. He is in control, not you. Take the breaks you need before your stress leads to burnout.

I heard one speaker compare Sabbath to tithing. She said, “If you trust God to make the 90 percent of your finances go as far as 100 percent would have, why don’t you trust Him to do the same with your time?”

I have tithed my entire life, and I have never had a financial need that God did not meet. Yet, I have struggled to make time for Sabbath. I have always felt there was not enough time. However, that is deficit thinking, and lacks faith in God’s ability to fill in the gaps. It is my job to be faithful and obedient — and then leave the rest to Him. 

Pray

Paul said to pray about everything and worry about nothing (Philippians 4:6–7). When we’ve done all we can do, we can trust God to do what only He can do. He calls us to work diligently, but He doesn’t want us to take on anxiety and stress.

Paul told the Philippians to pray “with thanksgiving.” Thanking God for all He has done reminds us of His faithfulness. As we give thanks, we recall the manner in which God has come through again and again for situations just like the ones we are bringing to Him. It is hard to worry when you are giving thanks.

God did not intend for us to be frazzled, overworked and overstressed. He called us to follow Him, not try to replace Him through feeble effort and fearful handwringing.

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