Pastor Stress: Help for the Burdened, Burned-out, or Depleted.

When I get stressed, I don’t like asking for help. My brain floods with a barrage of reasons: I should just tough it out. I can solve my own problems. My eye twitch is a natural feature that looks good. I don’t have time to ask anyone for help. No one will understand what I face anyway. Thoughts like these seem to rattle around my brain until I finally submit to the unavoidable truth. When I experience a prolonged period of stress: I need some help!

We all face Stress

Some stress can actually be a good thing in your life. It is a natural response when we encounter situations that make us uncomfortable. These biological mechanisms are designed to protect you. Stress can serve as an early warning system that tells you something needs to change. Stress can help you focus and heighten your level of alertness. Under the right conditions, stress can even boost your physical and mental well-being. However, prolonged periods of stress are a different matter.

The Danger of Prolonged Stress

The effects of prolonged stress can wear us down like a bad disease.  Lengthy periods of stress can have devastating consequences on our physical health and mental wellbeing.  Our bodies can respond to prolonged stress with signs that warn us when we are not doing well.  Signs of stress can vary widely.  Grinding your teeth, indigestion, headaches, hair loss, heartburn, sleep problems, or a twitching eye are only a few signs of stress. Prolonged stress can impair your ability to handle new challenges and deplete your coping mechanisms.

How Stressful is it being a pastor?

Is it really stressful to be pastor? Few people outside of this calling will ever understand the unique nature of pastoral stress. Data indicates serving as a pastor can be extremely stressful. There are numerous reasons why pastors may experience high levels of stress. A pole completed by Lifeway Research sheds some light on some of the most common stresses faced by pastors:

  • 84% indicated they are on call 24/7.
  • 80% expected to experience some type of church conflict.
  • 54% advised that serving as a pastor is often “overwhelming.”
  • 53% indicated financial security is a significant concern.

These are only a few factors that can generate stress. Stress can also be brought on by spiritual warfare. It’s difficult to collect data on spiritual warfare. However, some pastor believe spiritual warfare plays a significant role in the challenges they face. Other common sources of stress may be a lack of training or education, family problems, or the pressure of leadership during uncertain times. Serving as a pastor can be stressful work. In fact, one national news network listed ministry on their list of “stressful jobs that do not pay well.

The Wrong Responses to Stress.

Is the way you are dealing with stress working? I’ve noticed some bad patterns in my own life and the lives of other leaders who are stressed.  Here are the highlights:

1.We get irritable.

We love to be around irritable people, right?  Irritable people are like a bad rash; they demand attention and don’t do anything good. When I get really stressed, I have to guard against being irritable. Those closest to me (my spouse, children, and immediate staff) are usually the first to notice. When I am irritable, there is a shortness in my tone. My life is not marked with the grace, patience, peace, and care that should be present. Irritability may seem like a minor thing. However, irritability is an easy way to damage relationships. Plus, as an irritable leader, I force people to deal with me when I’m not at my best.

2.We get distracted.

Can you imagine being on a plane that is landing with distracted pilot. That is a disaster waiting to happen. As leaders, we cannot afford to be distracted. When you get distracted, you miss out on life. You will miss opportunities to play with your kids, have a deep conversation with your spouse, or do something really awesome. Plus, we can hurt those we love when we remain distracted. Your spouse may start to feel neglected. Your children will become discouraged and stop asking for your attention. You team could begin to question how much you care. Being distracted causes some of lives most important moments to slip by.  

3.We Medicate.

Why not have a drink? There are all types of things that can take our minds off of stress. Unfortunately, many of these things are not healthy or good for our souls. Drinking, porn, or eating too much are a few common ways to medicate. None of these things will help us overcome stress. Stories of pastors falling into vice are all too common. Growing ministries are destroyed. Families are shattered. The reputation of Jesus is tarnished before a watching world.

4.We breakdown.

Stress takes its toll on my life. When I am stressed for an extended period of time my thoughts get negative. I don’t have my normal level of joy or optimism. I start to feel new aches and pains.  My energy falls and I feel exhausted. My attitude toward life, ministry, and others begins to erode. In short, stress causes the things that should be thriving in my life to breakdown.

The Right Way to respond to Stress.

1. Share the load.

Do you share your stresses with others or keep them all bottled up? We all need a band of brothers. Find people that can keep confidence.  A group of close friends, an accountability partner, former classmate, or mentor are great people to start with.  Plus, sharing the stresses you face can have a powerful effect. Not only will you gain new perspective, you might even find the answer you need to resolve a stressful situation.  We were never called to live life alone. Don’t wait. When you are stressed share the load with someone you trust.  

2. Go practice a passion.

Are you doing anything you really enjoy? One of the best ways to deal with stress is to do something that is good for your mind and soul.  God gives each of us passions and things we love to do.  A hike in the woods, an afternoon reading a good book, or enjoying a good game may be great places to start.  If you cannot remember the last time you did something you loved, it is time to make some changes.

3. Separate and Rest.

When was the last time you turned off your phone and got some serious rest? If Jesus had a cell phone, I think he would turn it off on a regular basis. God’s perfect design for Adam and Eve never include the constant use of a computer, cell phone, or social media. So, turn off your technology, stop checking emails, quit scrolling through social media, and learn the art of resting well. If you want to function at your best, you are going to have to learn how to rest. Jesus made it his practice to go to desolate places to rest (Mark 6:31). In fact, the practice to retreat even frustrated those around Jesus on occasion (Mark 1:37). We could all learn from this example. Jesus made time to get away, get alone, and rest. We should do the same.  

4. Get your Health in Check.

Are you eating junk food and binge-watching TV every day? Trust me, habits like these will not lead to success. They might lead you to a heart attack! A bad diet and lack of exercise only compounds the effects of stress in your life. Your body needs the right type of fuel and activity. For most of us, that means, eating natural foods, getting good sleep, and some type of regular exercise; no exceptions.  Pastors are often terrible examples when it comes to physical health and wellbeing. Even if you hate salad and despise exercise, you need some type of plan.  A minor change in diet and exercise can have a really positive effect. In fact, the chemical endorphins released during exercise can help reduce stress and can fend off anxiety  Diet and exercise are some of the best tools to help combat a stressful season. 

5. Get expert advice.

When is it time to seek expert advice? Probably sooner than most of us are willing to admit. We all need expert help from time to time. If the stress you face remain unchanged in your life it is time to get some help.  Getting advice from a biblical counselor or trusted MD can save you untold amounts of time and frustration. Many leaders hesitate to get help from experts. This is a big mistake. Try waiting for the engine in your car to blow up before you go to the mechanic. That is a costly move. Why not do some preventative maintenance instead? Getting advice from an expert is not a sign of weakness, it’s a mark of wisdom.

Don’t let prolonged stress wreck your life. You can start by taking action today. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to get your life back.

Dace Clifton

Dace is a pastor in central Texas. He is married to his wife Jacque and has two children. Dace holds a Ph.D. in preaching and pastoral ministry. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Arlington Baptist University. Dace is a family man who loves adventure, travel, hunting, and anything related to the mountains.