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Optimal Stress

Stress is part of life and it’s certainly part of ministry to others. Most of the pastors, ministry leaders, and caregivers that we talk with have a lot of plates they’re trying to keep spinning in the air!

The statistics on Pastor Stress are alarming. For instance, one study showed that on average a pastor leaves the ministry after five years. The vulnerability that pastors and leaders have to burnout relates to how they deal with ministry stress.

We might think that stress is bad, but that isn’t necessarily so.  Stress is an inevitable part of living.  In fact, I’ve found that people who from time to time are not experiencing and growing through some stress — challenges, struggles, conflicts, pain — probably aren’t living a very active or full life in Christ. They’re not experiencing enough stress. They may even be depressed.

Maintaining an Optimal Stress Load

We all need what could be called optimal stress. What is optimal stress? It means that your stress level is within a moderate range, not too high and not too low. You’re not racing around anxiously and you’re not out of gas and depressed either. Nor are you depressed and anxious, spinning your wheels in futility and frustration. Instead you’re energized and focused as you move down the road of life.

We need to be alert to accomplish what God has for us.  And we need to “take courage” as we dare to dream, make sacrifices, work hard, resolve conflicts, overcome obstacles, recover from hurts, and bounce back from disappointments. Stresses like these are the price of success.  And they are the fires that forge good relationships and challenge us to become better people.

We actually function best in life and in ministry to others when we are under moderate stress levels. Optimal stress can help to activate our concentration and energy. It challenges us in ways that require that from deep within ourselves we take a hold of the hand of God in order to move forward. And as we venture on God into the challenge, following his lead and relying on his help, then his grace meets us and help us to perform better in life and in our leadership of others.

How I Got Overloaded

Achieving a balanced stress level can be difficult. If you’re like me your tendency isn’t too little stress – it’s too much stress! Most of us go through seasons in our lives in which we’re overloaded with too much, often too much of a good thing.

Sometimes the fall can be one of those stressful seasons for me. Times of family vacation from the summer are but a memory and it seems that wave after wave of stress crash on top of me and threaten to knock me down. School starts for my kids and that means my wife and I need to help them with emotional adjustments, monitor their homework, and drive them to and from school and various activities (all on schedule!). The church calendar fills up. And before I know it, it’ll be time to make plans for the holidays, buy gifts for friends and family, and attend parties. These are all good things, but sometimes they can be too much – especially if an unexpected crisis hits!

During a busy season in the fall of 1995 a crisis did hit for me. My family and I were overwhelmed by a crisis. Briana, our baby, girl got very sick with whooping cough, the RSV virus, and pneumonia. She was in intensive care from Thanksgiving until New Years. She almost died twice.

I thank the Lord she is fine now and the picture of health and happiness. But that stressful season took a toll on us.

It wasn’t until after Briana was well again, my other kids recovered from the flu, and family tensions eased that I really felt the effects of all the stress we went through. I found myself emotionally drained and physically exhausted. I was restless and agitated. I was fortunate that I was not knocked off of my feet with an illness and put into a forced time of rest and recuperation.

It took a few months, but I recovered and get back in balance.

Are You on Stress Overload?

You’ve surely had your own stressful seasons from time to time and experienced the negative effects of that stress. Maybe you’re going through that now. The Life Events Stress Test helps you look at the changes and challenges you’ve experienced in the last year and rate the stress points on each one.

Research from this test suggests that those who are over stressed for six months or longer are liable to experience a negative consequence to their physical or emotional health. Problems like sickness, headaches, ulcers, digestive problems, insomnia, family conflict, panic attacks, compulsive behavior, drug addiction, eating disorders, and even some severe medical illnesses like heart disease and cancer can be partially caused by chronic stress.

Pastors, leaders, and others who are responsible to lead or care for others are especially prone to stress overload or burnout. They tend to do too much. There are so many people with needs and so many good things that can be done. How do you say no to doing more of God’s work? To helping people in need?

Take our Stress Overload Inventory to see how well you’re coping with the demands that others and you place on you.

Learn to R-E-L-A-X

In my experience pastors, caregivers, and other Christian leaders have the hardest time relaxing! If you’ve been overloaded with stress for too long then you need to take steps to lower your stress. Doing so will help you function at a higher level in your work and in your relationships. It’ll also help your health and well-being.

How can you reduce your stress level and achieve that balance of optimal stress?  The key is to make some important lifestyle changes – one at a time, starting today. You need to learn to relax, to “make every effort to enter God’s rest” (Hebrews 4:11).

Jesus shows us how to face stress in God’s strength. No one had more pressure and responsibility than Jesus and yet he was relaxed. Jesus offers us his “easy yoke” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Here’s some ways that to help you R-E-L-A-X in Jesus’ easy yoke to help you go from stress overload to optimal stress:

R est regularly

If you’ve been overworking and then you relax then at first you’ll probably be bored and fidgety, but stay with it and learn to use times of rest to recuperate and re-energize yourself. You might be going through adrenaline withdrawal.

One of the best things you can do to rest is to get enough sleep! Try to get at least eight hours of sleep to de-stress. Or take a nap — Jesus took naps! Put margin in your schedule by planning to arrive early for appointments, pause during a busy day to take a deep breath, take vacation time. We need to learn to rest in God’s care by keeping a Sabbath.

E njoy yourself

Have fun with your friends. Visit places of beauty. Make time for your hobbies.  Exercise regularly. Laugh! “The joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10).

L earn to say no

Some stress is inevitable, but some can be limited! Many of us take a lot of stress on ourselves. We may get so weighed down by the burdens we’re carrying or so “stressed out” from trying to do too much that it seems we just need to quit our job or shut ourselves off from people. This is all-or-nothing thinking and I commonly see it in people who are in stress overload.

If you’re truly burned out then you may need to make a dramatic change, but otherwise try to dial down your internalized stress level. Remember the key is moderation. Don’t try to do it all – do what you can, what God puts on your heart to do. Don’t try to do things perfectly – do the best you can let that be “good enough.”

As a counselor, pastor, and parent I have struggled with the problem of doing too much. One thing that helped me was looking closely at Jesus’ life in the Gospels and observing how Jesus Set Boundaries. This kept him refreshed and vibrant to preach, care for people, and lead. It seems Jesus was always relaxed and interruptible. That’s because he accepted his limitations and kept himself replenished through regular, extended times of solitude and silence with the Father.

All of us, but especially we who are pastors or ministry leaders, need to emulate Jesus’ Rhythm of Life.

A ccept yourself

You’re not perfect, but you’re loved by God and others.  So practice receiving care, asking for help, believing compliments, and saying thank you. In these Bible Verses on Perfectionism it might surprise you to see just how generous God’s grace is with us!

X -ray and X-press yourself

Follow the example of the Psalmist. Talk to God and safe friends about your feelings regularly.  This is the biblical prescription for anxiety. Find a Psalms Prayer that expresses how you feel.

Growing in God’s Peace

It is possible to be under stress and not to be overloaded, not to be suffering from anxiety. Even under stress we can be at peace with God’s help.

The Apostle Paul was under tremendous stress in his ministry, but he did become overwhelmed. He said, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

Paul was a great psychologist and he taught us to deal with the stresses of life in the way that he had learned:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).

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