The Double-Edged Sword of Ministry Stress

It’s early morning, and you wake up with a knot in your stomach. Thinking about the difficult conversations from the day before has you reeling. You head over to make a cup of coffee and check your phone. Attempting to resist the inbox and get your mind on something else, you check the news for a few minutes. But soon enough, you give in and check your email. Two messages in there get your attention. The first is a cryptic request for a meeting from a person with whom you suspect there is trouble. And the other a summary of the giving trend, reflecting a substantial deficit for the year. You take a sip of coffee and wince. You want to return to bed, and the day hasn’t started.

And right here, you have a choice to make. You may not realize it, but it’s an important decision. How are you going to respond to this?

What’s going on? You’re experiencing the stress of pastoral ministry. If you want to endure long-term, you have to be able to identify if and properly deal with it.

A Description of the Problem

Stress is our body’s response to difficulty. These are often undesirable circumstances. And if you think about it for a minute, pastoral ministry has many of these types of situations. 

Any of the following would be considered normal or routine in a 6–12 month span of ministry:

  • Seeing a church member fall into sin leading him away from Christ.
  • Watching a marriage implode over sin.
  • Trying to bring healing after abuse.
  • Counseling a grieving family after the death of a loved one.
  • Having key families leave your church.
  • Enduring uncharitable and untrue characterizations of your motives.
  • Watching church members argue about peripheral matters.
  • Receiving the estimate for the repair project in the church.
  • Looking at the calendar and seeing Sunday getting closer.

This is the pastor’s life, week after week, month after month, year after year. Like waves bringing debris from the sea, the pastor’s life is a steady wave of the residue from the fall.  

Any one of these, by themselves, gets our attention. But what if you get them in pairs or triplets or more?

In some seasons, this is the case. 

Trails are part of the Christian life. But how do you deal with them as a pastor? How do you respond to the stress that ministry brings?

Dealing with the problem

Part of dealing with the problem requires some perspective. 

Don’t be surprised. The entire Bible is filled with examples of leaders facing difficult situations. From Moses to the Apostle Paul, the leaders’ lives are full of thorns. Paul tells young Timothy not to be surprised when facing difficult people and hard situations (2 Timothy 3–4). This isn’t in the fine print. It’s all over the Bible.

You shouldn’t work in the emergency room if you have a weak stomach. You shouldn’t be a cop if you hate conflict. You shouldn’t be a fisherman if you don’t like the ocean. Don’t be a pastor if you want a low-stress job. 

Remember the doctrine of providence. In addition to this being par for the pastoral course, they aren’t random sand traps. Nothing is outside of God’s sovereign control. God in his infinite power upholds, directs, disposes, and governs all creatures and things.” (2LCF 5:1) The trials are not merely permitted; they are ordained, for our good and his glory (James 1:2–3Rom. 8:28). Far from being accidental, random, or pointless—they are, like everything else, according to the counsel of his will, to the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:11–12). 

Respond in a healthy way. If we forget either the doctrine of providence or the perspective of ministry, we might be tempted to respond in an unhealthy way. 

We feel the hardship. Sometimes trials feel like a gut punch or a sucker punch. It’s easy to respond to a few of these improperly. Naturally, we run to created things to bear the freight of our pain, disappointment, or fatigue. We can easily run to people, food, entertainment, alcohol, or other things to make us feel better. But these are functional saviors that cannot deliver what we need. They can’t bear the weight of ministry. There is only One who can do this. He is the reason why you are in ministry in the first place. He is the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). He is your pastor. Jesus is the One who delights to hear from you and heal you. 

And these trials in your life are neither a surprise nor a frustration to him. He can deal with them and you. Will you turn to him? Pastor, take your own advice.

Conclusion

We automatically think of stress as a negative thing. I think this is because we don’t like discomfort. But stress can be a positive. It can get your attention, motivate you to do something, and make you focus. It’s all in how you respond. 

If I could go back in time 20 years and tell myself something on the verge of going into full-time ministry, I would include a conversation about stress. I would explain to a younger me that I should expect hard things, see them as providential, and respond in a healthy way. 

We have to know how to respond to the double-edged sword of ministry stress.

Pastor, if you want to stay in the race, you need to adjust your expectations to be in line with God’s revelation. Then by God’s grace, we’ll begin to respond in a healthy way that serves Christ and his church.

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