Stress Management Series
Ministry Stress Factors: Study Resources (SL#92)
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® Vol. 11 - Stress Management

The following three study resources seek to support and enlarge the examination of both common causes and ministry factors that become stressors. Repetition, or a different viewpoint may enlarge your understanding of the stress you experience and the response you may want to consider.


#1 Study Resource: Church Triangles Cause Stress
From a review of several sources, including Creating a Healthier Church:
Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life
. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996

What is a human triangle, or "triangulation"? Briefly, it is when one person in a conflict with a second invites a third to enter the conflict and take responsibility for its resolution. Richardson (p.116) explains: "Generally, triangles serve two purposes: (1) absorbing anxiety, and (2) covering over basic differences and conflicts in an emotional system."

Let's give this an actual ministry situation: The diagram below represents three parties. Edward Education (A) has an ongoing conflict with Mildred Music (B) over the Wednesday night church schedule. As the conflicting issue escalates into emotional anxiety, Edward (A) seeks to get Pete Pastor (C) to take his side and become responsible for resolving the issue. A and B is a one-to-one (dyadic) relationship, which normally could and should manage the situation. C joins A to form a triangle of two against one B. In emotional systems, like families and churches, that increases--rather than decreases--anxiety (stress) for A and B and adds stress to C. C may also secretly side with B, confusing A completely. Resolution does not come easily, if at all (see Richardson, pp. 114-130).

(adapted from Creating a Healthier Church, Richardson, p. 116)

Since triangulation causes anxiety rather than resolving it, it is worth your careful forethought. Richardson (p.129) provides some clues about responding to people triangles; these are adapted:

Reflection: How often do you get tangled into triangulation? What changes should you consider in your responses in order to nurture a healthy, calmer environment within the experience?


#2 Study Resource: Major Event Assessment
adapted by Lloyd Elder from "The Social Readjustment Rating Scale"
by Thomas H. Holmes & Richard H. Rahe; Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 1967

The following test is based on the premise that good and bad events in our lives can increase stress levels and make us more susceptible to physical and mental health problems. It also weaves together personal and work events and situations. Directions--check the following major life/work events which have taken place in your life in the past six-to-twelve months. Then calculate your stress level index by adding up the points for each event or experience. Remember: this is not to substitute for medical consultation; however, it may indicate its time to see your medical doctor.

Major Life/Work Events or Experiences

_____ 100 Death of a spouse
_____ 73 Divorce/separation
_____ 63 Death of close family member
_____ 53 Personal injury or illness
_____ 50 Marriage
_____ 47 Fired from work/ministry position
_____ 44 Change in family member's health
_____ 40 Trouble with the congregation
_____ 39 Employment change/retirement
_____ 38 Change in financial status
_____ 36 Change to a different line of work/ministry
_____ 35 Change in number of marital arguments
_____ 32 Change in work responsibilities
_____ 29 Trouble with in-laws
_____ 28 Outstanding personal achievement
_____ 27 Change in church activity
_____ 25 Change in living conditions
_____ 24 Revision of personal habits
_____ 22 Change in work hours, conditions
_____ 21 Change in residence
_____ 18 Change in social activities
_____ 16 Change in sleeping habits
_____ 15 Change in eating habits
_____ 13 Vacation
_____ 12 Christmas season

______ Calculate Your Total Stress Score and Use for Assessment.

Life/Work Stress Assessment

This Life Stress Assessment shows some life pressures that you could be experiencing. Depending on your coping skills, this index may indicate the likelihood of stress-related illnesses. Potential stress-related illnesses could be mild such as frequent tension headaches, acid indigestion, or loss of sleep to very serious illnesses like ulcers, migraines, and cancer. After calculating your total score in the left-hand column, apply to the following stress levels.

0--99: Low susceptibility to stress-related illness; about 10% likelihood of mild stress-related illnesses. Relaxation and stress management skills can help you cope with minor life stressors.

100--249: Mild to moderate susceptibility to stress-related illness; about 30-50% likelihood of illness. Learn and practice relaxation, stress management skills, and a healthy lifestyle.

300 and above: Major susceptibility to stress-related illness; about 80% likelihood of mild to very serious stress-related illnesses. Daily practice of relaxation and stress management skills is very important for your wellness before a serious illness erupts or an affliction becomes worse; professional consultation may prove helpful.


#3 Study Resource: A Minister's Time Analysis
Adapted by Lloyd Elder from pp. 16-18 of Time Management for Ministers
by Mark Short; Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987

A Minister's Survey: A survey conducted by the Baptist Sunday School Board reported in 1985 that seven of the top ten stress factors identified by ministers were related to time--particularly the lack of it. The other three stressors among the top ten related to expectations for productivity and leadership. Approximately the same amount of stress was reported by the various classifications of ministers, but the causes of stress were not the same.

For pastors, the two items with the highest percentage of stress were too many demands on their time (21.5%) and inadequate retirement plans (18.8%).

For ministers of education, the top two stressors were too many demands on their time (21.7%) and administrative responsibilities (10.5%).

For ministers of music and ministers of youth: the two highest stressors were too many interruptions and too many demands for their time.

The top ten stressors for pastors were:

Much has been written about stress that leads to burnout in ministry. These ten stressors point to that type of growing frustration. One of the better solutions for dealing with burnout is to draw support from the church leadership in an act of shared responsibility. Other strategies are presented in succeeding articles.

Stressors for the Minister's Family: The minister's family is not exempt from time pressures. A 1983 survey (conducted by D. G. and Berlie McCoury and reported by Jim Hightower in "Proclaim") asked 250 pastors' wives to establish the major stressors in the parsonages. Eight stressors were clearly identified in this order: (1) time pressure, (2) the husband's needs and expectations, (3) financial pressures, (4) church pressures, (5) parenting pressures, (6) lack of friends and family needs (a tie), and (7) personal expectations. In this helpful editorial, four helpful suggestions were given to the pastor's family: be yourself, encourage your wife to be herself, schedule weekly time for your wife and your children, and expect love, care, and affirmation from your people and give it freely in return.

Such surveys point to the management of time for the minister and minister's family as a major problem in the church. Careful evaluation of time robbers might aid in corrective scheduling and therefore--less stress to all involved.

Reflection: Where do you see yourself in the time picture? If you were to update these surveys and add yourself to the picture, what would be your findings? Your time-use planning almost always merges the concerns of personal, family, and work issues. Each ministry role is both common to all and unique of itself. Reflect on your unique ministry stressors.

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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