Stress Management Series
Identifying Seven Stress Factors in Ministry (SL#91)
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® Vol. 11 - Stress Management

Introducing the Seven Factors:
The seven stress factors in this article are reported and summarized from research, experience, and observation. Reflection on such findings support the following primary stress factors.

This article seeks to explore seven of the stressors and stress issues that seem particular to those of us in Christian ministry. There will be suggestions for your own reflection as you respond to each stress factor with a thoughtful, personal evaluation of your stress experience and susceptibility level.

Reflection: How many of these categories fit your experience as well? Would not the list of stressor be different in 2008, as compared to 1991? The most significant model for our response is our Lord as He encouraged his first Century disciples:

"I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you."--John 13:15

Factor in Ministry #1: Role Model Stressors
Leading in an institution whose mission revolves around a moral life, ethical relationships, and a commitment to follow the path of Christ can subject a minister or lay leader to very high standards: in personal life, and in relationships with staff and congregation. High standards, or the perception of them, can easily become the preeminent stressor in the life and work of a church leader, paving the way to a myriad of personal and organizational problems if mismanaged.

In the rush not to disappoint those who have entrusted you with this status, the true inner self of a minister can quickly become lost while constantly juggling the needs and images others have of church leadership. If you have ever found yourself:

then you may be placing yourself under extraordinary stressors, even if you don't feel it--yet. The Apostle Paul understood the reflected example of Christ in his own service to others: "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ."--1 Corinthians 11:1

It is often assumed, if not believed, that ministers, as "Holy Persons" of the church, have achieved a connection with God that is greater, more authentic, or more important than that of any other person in the church or community. Often, this can even become the minister's own self-perception. When accepted, these expectation levels and assumptions will undoubtedly lead to feelings of failure and inadequacy; the flip side of the danger is that the minister may come to "think more highly of himself than he ought to think."

When handled improperly, high expectations will become a debilitating stressor, rather than the opportunity we hope it will be--not because of what is being done to the church leader from the critics outside, but because of what the self-image stressor does on the inside. You will know the role-model stressor is taking its toll when striving to be a Godly person and leader begins to feel like a burden. You feel the people in the church and community placing this burden on you, and even more heavily, you feel it from yourself! The responsibility to be open, accountable, ethical, moral, and holy is greater in the ministry than in any other vocation; and perhaps rightly so! Simon Peter cautioned 1st century pastors about this, writing: ". . . not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock." --1 Pet. 5:3

Reflection: Living and leading as an example required is a first responsibility of the church leader; it can also become the first step toward unhealthy stress. So, an antidote offered by the Christ is clear:

"No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."--Matt. 6:24

Factor in Ministry #2: Financial Stressors
Financial stressors of one kind or another are a fact of life in virtually every leadership occupation. As a minister, you take on additional financial burdens. Two major elements of financial stress dominate the life and work of the church leader:

Reflection: Finances, personal and congregational, are often among the top three stressors faced by ministers. How about you? At times, do the valued injunctions of Scripture only add to your stress load?

"Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; . . ."
--1 Peter 5:2

"But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."
--Matthew. 6:33

Factor in Ministry #3: Kingdom Mission Stressors
Stress: Good and Bad: From some perspectives, the role of minister is of greater impact than "life-and-death." Your mission concerns the very core of your congregation and community, and it comes as a calling from God. The stakes of duty could, in this respect, not be higher. The stress of doing the work of God, and stamping that occupation right on your nameplate or business card, can be daunting if not managed properly. Is it not awesome? Yes, the pressure of kingdom stressors seems to multiply: to grow the church, to minister to your congregants' spiritual needs, and to fulfill the will of God--and to do so in the very place where the will of God is the primary topic of discussion and prayer--it is awesome. Such kingdom issue may become hazardous stressors to your physical and emotional health, especially if you take each invitation and aspect of your ministry as a personal referendum.

Conflict as Cause: By the same token, a church staff is often entirely made up of individuals who feel a similar calling, and similar occupational responsibility to the will of God. Working with a ministry team with this same strong sense of kingdom duty can be truly elevating when there is agreement and things are going well; but it may also be a source of great conflict and stress when there is disagreement among those who feel strongly as to God's will. This stress of conflict can emerge within the church staff, within a church body, within a denomination, and all with potentially devastating results on the institution and the leaders within it. To be sure, no cultural realm has produced more stress and conflict in the history of the world than that couched in religious, theological, or spiritual disagreement!

Reflection: Discover and identify kingdom sources as stressors, but begin to look within your purpose for living wisdom and strength for you response:

--From John Wesley's live motto: "I will do the best I can with what I have, where I am, for as long as I can for Jesus' sake today."

--From the Apostle Paul's resolve found in Philippians 3:13-14: "Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."

Factor in Ministry #4: Counseling Stressors
Church ministers have the responsibility to speak not only on a congregational level, from the pulpit, but also on a more personal level in counseling sessions with members. He or she must lead with the organizational whole of the church in mind, but must also lead for the sake of the individual well-being of each congregant. Looked at this way, it's quite an awesome responsibility! Rarely do ministers feel completely comfortable and competent in both the institutional and the interpersonal roles.

The stress of counseling, or stress transferal, can be caused by any number of important factors:

Reflection: Take stock of this stress factor among those that most often nudges you into a pattern of stress overload.

Factor in Ministry #5: Family Stressors
The families of ministers often experience stress; and when it happens, knowing that the minister contributes some ways, it exacerbates the stress level within. Let’s look at a couple of the most prominent categories:

Reflection: Do members of your family find it difficult to get an appointment with you concerning their needs; or do they resort to create "crisis" in order to get your attention? You may not only see, but have experienced, the damaging spiral that inadequate responses to this stressor might create for you and the people you love the most.

-- In John 9:4, what Jesus said of the needs of mankind is equally true of the minister's own family: "As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work."

--1 Timothy 5:4 states clearly the religious responsibility we have to family members: "But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God."

Factor in Ministry #6: Job Performance Stressors
Setting aside the high expectations, the Godly calling to do the work of the church, and the magnitude of the life-issues at stake, just doing the work from week to week can be a tough task! Being a minister requires:

Factor in Ministry #7: Our Human Frailty Stressor
Throughout the naming of the several stressors above, there is at least one common thread: a minister of the gospel is subject to the same frailties as those "ordinary people" being served.

Article Reflection and Action: Identify stress factors that have been most acute in the last three months. Be specific and be looking for help. "What are you actually going to do about stress factors in your ministry?"

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© 2008; hosted and copyrighted by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership