What Makes Ministry Stressful

What follows are some reflections on chapter 2 of “That Their Work Will Be a Joy”, by Cameron Lee and Kurt Fredrickson.  (Amazon link:  http://a.co/0lWeM08).  It’s part of my first Doctorate of Ministry class at Fuller Seminary.  All quotes are from the book.  I wholeheartedly recommend it to everybody in ministry and seminary!


What Makes Ministry Stressful

“Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me.” Psalm 54:4

“Sustain me, my God, according to your promise, and I will live; do not let my hopes be dashed.” Psalm 119:116

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” Hebrews 1:3


The image that comes to mind is that of two hands holding me up.  Or an unseen force that doesn’t let me fall through the wayside.  Even when I’m struggling with the vocation and job of pastoral work, this word has brought me hope that Something is keeping me up and going.  

I hit a wall last year that I could no longer sustain.  My work is primarily doing pastoral rounds and initiating conversations.  I had this inner pressure to see 600 people every month.  I hit a breaking point and had to re-evaluate how much the bridge could sustain.  I was neglecting my own spiritual formation and was not feeling “myself”.  I kept asking myself, “Is this all there is?”  It was a question of exhaustion and boredom, all at the same time.  My hope and comfort came from the verses above.  I began to take more time to cultivate self-care rhythms of prayer, exercise, rest, and saying no to extra-curricular things.  I also started journaling about times that I felt alive doing the work and times where I felt low.  What came out of the reflections were that I needed to focus on people who were hurting and needed time and attention.  I also wanted to make sure that I was offering some space for those who wanted to grow personally and spiritually.  Lastly, I really enjoy putting events together that brings people of different backgrounds into the same mix for the sake of compassionate works.  

The readings from ch.2 on stress and burnout can be lifesavers for those who are in ministry.  There are three variables the book references that can cause undue stress on a ministry leader (see p.31-36 for more extensive info):

  • Role expectations: the ministry leader wears multiple hats which can cause role overload, role conflict, and role ambiguity.  
  • Intrusions on a ministry leaders private and family life:  this is the “on-call syndrome” where WE feel obligated to be available to the needs of those we serve 24/7, but also where congregants might not respect the private life of the ministry leader.  
  • Isolation and loneliness:  many ministry leaders feel isolated and lonely because they don’t have significant life-giving friendships with others where they can just be themselves (and not be pedestaled).  

The authors go into detail with each variable and have great insights into these dynamics.  All of this causes an amount stress that is hard to cope with.  I thought of the family systems theory of self-differentiation–the concept of being able to have a healthy, non-anxious self in proximity to others whether near or distant.  It has been a gift to learn more about becoming a health non-anxious self that can be present to others, self, and God.  I can manage stress and anxiety as normal in my life and have a sense that God is sustaining us through the ups and downs.  

The money section is on burnout and the concept of “mismatch”.  It was insightful to learn that burnout is more about a systemic issue rather than just the ministry leader.  If a ministry leader gets burned out, “…much of it has to do with the conditions of ministry…” (p.37).  

“…burnout [is] a gradual process of loss in which the mismatch between the needs of the person and the demands of the job grows ever greater.” p.37

Some ministry leaders are more prone to burnout such as some who struggle with low self-esteem.  I’ve struggled at times with esteem and have learned to reach out to friends and loved ones for affirmation.  

IMG_7641.jpgThere are a few variables of mismatches with the ministry leader and the her workplace demands that instigate burnout (see p.38-39):

  • Workload:  too many demands and unrealistic ones
  • Control:  do I have the authority and resources to executive change and vision?
  • Reward:  am I being compensated fairly and feeling appreciated?
  • Community:  how do we deal with conflict?  Is there mutual support?
  • Conflict of values:  a clash of values (possibly ethical)
  • Fairness:  respect and inequities (i.e. women in ministry)

You’ll have to pick up the book to read details on each mismatch.  It’s so good!  

The last striking description on burnout were three primary symptoms to be aware of (p.40-41):

  1. Emotional exhaustion
  2. Depersonalization
  3. Ineffectiveness

I can’t say that I’ve experienced burnout.  I know that I grew up with an inability to process stress and anxiety well at times.  I’ve had to learn to rearrange meaning and not overreact to situations.  I’ve also struggled with people pleasing at times which moves me away from being a non-anxious presence.  I’m learning to state what I need and want, to focus on my strengths as a ministry leader and my passions.  This has been a journey and I’m grateful for my core group of friends:  Jeff, Mike, and Cory.  There have also been some great spiritual directors in my life:  Celia, Susan, Larry.  Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s