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Somebody Find the Off Switch

Dealing With Stress in Ministry

Joann Butrin

If you find yourself saying, "Hand over the chocolates and no one will get hurt." If you find yourself looking forward to your dental appointment so you can relax for 30 minutes. If your need for Rolaids is exceeded only by your need for chocolate. If the nervous tic in your eye causes strange men to wink back and ask you for your phone number. If the music you listened to the last time you had time for yourself was Barry Manilow on an eight track, you are probably dealing with stress.

I have no formulas on how to get rid of stress. But I do have tools that might help you manage stress a little better and perhaps reduce its effects on your health and on your relationships. Some common things that cause stress, especially in ministry, are: not enough time, demands of congregations, money or lack of money, schedules, guilt, lack of meaningful friendships, gender issues, problems with children, aging parent issues, hormonal stuff. All of the above can bring negative feelings.

What is stress? Defining stress is like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree. It’s like happiness. How do you define it? I had to search for a definition. This is from the Idiot’s Guide To Dealing With Stress: "What you experience when you feel you cannot cope effectively with a threatened situation." Stress is a noun and a verb. We possess it and we react to it.

What stresses you may not stress me. What stresses me today may not stress me next week. Our personal perception of the threat has to do with exactly how much stress we actually experience. Because of my hectic schedule, time is a huge stressor for me. My friend and coworker, Peggy, and I have lived and worked together for many years, but our time concept is very different. Her time concept stresses me. Mine stresses her. I want to be 15 minutes early to everything. Peggy believes that’s a waste of time, and one should arrive at the time or a little after. That is my personal perception, and I become threatened.

Also our personal perception of control or lack of control has a lot to do with how much stress we actually experience. When we feel like we have little or no control over a situation, it can be extremely stressful. When we find ourselves under the leadership of someone who is going in one direction and we can’t quite grasp what that direction is, we feel out of control. Our stress level goes way up.

A lot of good things can be said about stress when it comes to this flight or fight mechanism. What happens when a woman is casually walking down a street and suddenly around the corner comes a wild barking dog? Stress becomes a good thing. Her body responds when her cortisol level goes up in her bloodstream and allows her to do amazing things. She becomes a marathon runner. Our body takes over and prepares us with this spurt of cortisol or adrenaline, and we can do amazing things as we react to stress. How about deadlines? Most of us say we work best under pressure. The adrenaline that goes along with that acts as a motivator to push us.

Stress keeps us on the edge; it keeps us motivated. When I was doing my doctoral work, it was four years of craziness. I had to produce. I dreamed of the day when I would be done. But that summer was one of the most down summers of my life because of the drop in metabolism, the drop in adrenaline. What we have to do is find the balance. Our bloodstream is like the strings on a violin – too much tension when you strike it and it will snap; not enough tension and it will be out of tune.

What is our usual reaction then to being overstressed? Irritability. Emotional outbreaks. Reduced function. Impatience. Anger. Resentment. Overeating. And do we want fruit and vegetables? No, cheesecake, candy bars, and ice cream are the comfort foods we like. There is a physiological reason for that. The cortisol causes a physiological response that makes us crave sweets and comfort foods.

There is a difference between feeling stressed and becoming distressed. When we are distressed, the first thing to go is our ability to sleep. We go over and over and over the things that are bothering us. When we are unable to cope, that’s a sign of distress, usually accompanied by feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. We feel defeated. We develop spiritual apathy; we simply feel like we can no longer communicate adequately with God. There can be a loss of sexual desire. At this point we may need some help from a professional.

When stress becomes chronic, we begin to experience an impact in our health. Our blood pressure can be affected. We can develop muscular problems – stiff neck, backaches, back pains, headaches. Studies continue to show the correlation between stress and increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and reduced immune response.

Stress impacts relationships. You start fighting over small things. You withdraw emotionally. And occasionally paranoia sets in. Unfortunately, the person closest to you often becomes the target.

So, how do we deal with these things? How do we manage? The first step in stress reduction is figuring out why we are stressed. When we figure out the stressors, we need to look at our perception of them. How accurate is our perception? Is it really a stressor or is it a pattern that we have developed of the way we view things?

Then look at guilt. Guilt is probably the No. 1 thing listed by women as causing them stress. Usually guilt stems from our perceived failure to meet our own expectations or what we perceive are somebody else’s expectation or God’s expectation. Or we perceive somebody else is thinking something that isn’t accurate. Are those expectations realistic? What do your kids really want? Sometimes all they want is to have you available when they need you.

Start with the Lord. It is relatively impossible to meet the demands of the day without Jesus. There is no negotiation on this. It’s incredibly important that we renew our strength daily, and yet time becomes a factor. We can’t get up any earlier. We can’t stay up any later. What do we do? I suggest we practice the presence of the Lord throughout our day. Worship and praise God as you go through the day. Put the worship tape on in the car.

We need to lay at the feet of Jesus the things we cannot change. We must learn to say, "Father, I have no control over this situation. The choices that are being made are not mine. I wouldn’t want them; I don’t want them. But, Father, I give them to You."

My parents were evangelists. Thousands came into the Kingdom through their ministry. At the age of 50, my father became mentally ill. At the age of 52 he took his life. It was a situation over which my mother and I had no control. Somebody said at that time, "Joann, don’t you want to just curse God and stop serving Him? Here your dad was a divine healing evangelist and he was not healed. Because he was not healed, he chose to end his life." My response was, "I need God too much." We would never have chosen to lose husband and father in that way. We survive through the grace and power of Jesus Christ and by giving Him control of something we cannot change.

Use positive self-talk. We can choose to be impatient and irritated and angry and upset, or we can choose to simply think about something else and talk ourselves into it.

Organize. Try to organize your day into chunks. Sometimes you will never get to No. 1 on your to-do list, but it does help you to have a perspective of what has to happen in a day.

Reduce clutter. In Stephen Covey’s book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he says, "Only handle paper once."

Find a reciprocal relationship that builds. In Larry Cobb’s book, Inside Out, he writes how we in ministry are constantly surrounded by VDPs – very draining people. Somebody always wants something from us. Somebody always wants to tell us his or her story. That’s part of our work. But we need people in our lives who build us up.

Find time for yourself. Take 10 minutes, even if you just sit on a stool and drink a cappuccino.

Exercise at least 15 minutes three times a week. Studies show this will elevate your heart rate and can reduce the risk of breast cancer, not to mention cardiovascular disease.

Set boundaries. Sometimes we need our spouses or significant friends to be the intermediary to help us set those. I know missionaries who had open-door policies in their homes and finally left the field in a total state of nervous collapse, because they were proud that people were free to have access to them.

Associate with people who make you laugh. When we can pick ourselves up from an embarrassingly stupid situation and laugh our heads off, it really goes a long way in reducing the impact of that stress on our lives. Look for humor in every stressful situation.

Stress is not going to go away. Find out what’s really behind that stress. Clear the clutter, organize, find time for yourself, find people who can build you up, and laugh. Then you can really move down the road to reduce stress in your life.

Joann Butrin

Joann Butrin, director of Assemblies of God World Missions HealthCare Ministries.