At the time this article was written, the music video for the song “Stressed Out” by the band Twenty-One Pilots had reached just shy of 2.5 billion views on YouTube. The song has a catchy tune, but I believe the song’s popularity is due to its message more than anything. The chorus repeats the line: “Wish we could turn back time to the good ol’ days when our mommas sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.” The sentiment of being “stressed out” strikes a chord in people’s hearts today.
Stress is defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” Like everybody else, we as pastors often find ourselves in “adverse or very demanding circumstances” and get “stressed out.” Is the stress we face as pastors unique, though? Is it different in any way from the stress faced by all who fill leadership roles?
Paul Thought So (And He Felt It, Too)
In 2 Corinthians 11:23–27, Paul lays out a litany of troubles he had faced writing:
“Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”
While most of our lists are likely to never include anything from Paul’s other than “sleepless nights,” every one of us deals with the final stressor he mentions: “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). Apart from all the stressful things we face in life and ministry, there remains a special type of “anxiety” for the church’s wellbeing.
What makes this anxiety unique? Is it the fact that we have to be proficient in such a wide range of tasks (preaching, communication, management, finances, visionary leadership, counseling, officiating funerals and weddings, etc.)? Is it the fact that we are completely insufficient in our own strength to accomplish our goal of transforming lives? While both factors contribute to the uniqueness of the stress we face, there is another that sticks out as the main distinguishing factor of pastoral stress.
The Main Factor That Distinguishes Pastoral Stress
The main factor that makes pastoral stress unique is the spiritual reality of pastoral leadership. While every Christian exists within the context of a spiritual war (cf. Eph. 6:20), pastors stand in a uniquely vulnerable position.
If an enemy force sees an officer riding to the front lines, every soldier will be commanded to take aim at the officer. This comparison is not meant to overestimate the significance of a pastor’s leadership, as if the church cannot go on without him (every pastor is an interim pastor, in a sense, and it is the people of the church that keep the mission going through pastoral succession). This comparison is meant only to make sure we do not underestimate the significance of pastoral leadership either. God has affirmed the importance he places on the pastoral office by making it one of two ordained offices in the local church (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).
The pastoral charge to shepherd the flock is a call to lead the congregation into a spiritual battle. It should be no surprise that opposition arises. Pastors are front-line officers in a fight-to-the-death spiritual battle, and our enemy has no Geneva Convention for ethical warfare.
Here are three ideas for managing the stress that arises from the spiritual reality we face:
1. Wield the Right Weapons
Fighting a spiritual battle demands a spiritual approach. “Flesh and blood” weapons will not prevail. You know this. You know that you should combat spiritual stress with prayer and the Word of God. Nevertheless, our natural tendency is to turn to human solutions. The broader culture has no framework for the idea of a spiritually-sourced stress. As a result, the most readily available solutions for managing stress only address the material realm. Suggestions like “Get more sleep,” “Take your vitamins,” “Exercise,” and “Pick up a hobby” are helpful and important. They simply do not address the whole problem.
By God’s design, we are complex beings. We are physical, psychological, and spiritual beings. A complete stress-management effort demands attention to all three. Take care of yourself physically and psychologically but be sure not to neglect self-care in the spiritual realm either.
Because our work deals so heavily in the spiritual realm, it is easy to neglect our private spiritual lives. We studied God’s Word to prepare a sermon for ten or more hours this week, so what is the big deal if we miss our personal time in the Word? It is a big deal because pouring yourself out spiritually is drastically different than being poured into spiritually. When you do not take time to re-fill yourself, it is like charging into battle half-awake without armor.
Do not neglect your daily personal time in the Word for the sake of getting to sermon prep. Preach the gospel to yourself first. You have to be a child of God before you can raise up children of God.
2. Walk with Others
As pastors, we are good at obeying the command to “Bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2) on the giving end, but most of us are terrible when it comes to receiving.
There are lots of reasons we struggle with receiving help. We feel like we have to be strong people with the answers. We fear the consequences of showing weakness, worried that people will question our fitness to lead if we are honest about our own burdens.
When we fail to let others bear our burdens, we not only steal their blessing but also block ourselves from experiencing the power of God in our lives. Paul’s declaration, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10), shows that the gospel has turned the human logic of weakness and strength inside out. To experience God’s strength, we must adopt a posture of weakness. Allowing others to bear our burdens is one of the most practical postures of weakness.
In our attempts to bear our own burdens, we isolate ourselves and end up walking alone. Even when surrounded by people, we walk alone because conversations are never allowed to veer into the reality of our own struggles.
To whom do you need to make sure you are walking with in ministry?
Walk with your family. Yes, you need to protect your family from the stress of pastoral ministry. But do not let your good intention of guarding your family’s spiritual well-being cause you to overcorrect and miss out on the power of your wife’s prayers. She loves you more than anyone else in the world. The burden of ministry will weigh heaviest on her when you share your burdens only to complain or “vent.” But sharing burdens in a genuine request for prayer draws her close to your heart and ultimately strengthens you both.
Walk with faithful church members. I guarantee there are at least a handful of members in the church ready to help bear your burdens in prayer. Of course, be careful not to share confidential information, but at the very least, you can ask for prayer without giving specifics. In my last church, one precious elderly woman scheduled a meeting each month to update her prayer list for me and my family. I cannot express how powerful it was to know she was daily bearing our burdens in prayer.
Walk with friends in the ministry. If you do not have pastor friends, get on Google Maps right now, search churches in your area, and send emails until you find someone willing to have lunch or coffee. If you do have pastor friends, do not neglect the grace of meeting regularly with no agenda other than to listen to and pray for one another. No one will understand the stress of pastoral ministry quite like another pastor.
3. Walk with God
Finally, be sure that you are walking with God. While this point is closely related to the first, walking with God is more than making sure you have personal time with God. Walking with God is about your heart’s knee-jerk reaction to stressful situations in the moment in real-time.
The Spirit of God dwells in you as your Helper and Comforter. Talk to him. Stay in conversation with him. On those days when it feels like one mess after another, talk with God through every struggle, every interruption, and every frustrating situation. Real-life rarely goes as planned. Church work is often messy work. So, when it gets messy, turn to God. It is as simple as a “Jesus, help me” under your breath or running a memorized Scripture through your head.
This week, as you step up to lead in the spiritual battle of pastoral leadership, remember Paul’s declaration from Colossians 1:28-29:
“Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
Pastor, as you work to lead people to maturity in Christ, do not forget that Christ himself is powerfully working his energy within you. Even though you are facing a unique type of stress, Christ’s presence is more than enough to see you through.
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