Adverse or demanding circumstances can result in mental, emotional or physical tension…stress. It comes from the Latin word “strictus,” to draw tight. And that’s what stress does to us. It causes a tightening in so many ways.
Dr. Hans Selye is known as “The Father of Stress.” He was the one who coined the term “stress.” In the middle of the twentieth century, he researched and wrote extensively about the subject. Selye described two types of stress: negative stress – distress, and positive stress – eustress.
A life with distress is painful. A life without any stress is boring. A life with a desirable amount of eustress is exciting.
Negative stress is unavoidable in pastoral ministry. It can come from striving to meet the unrealistic expectations of congregations, church leaders, or the pastors themselves. Or it can come from criticism, failure, overwork, fatigue, financial needs, and the emotional demands of caring for people, often in difficult and painful situations. Negative stress can even come from the aftermath of ministry victory.
In 1 Kings 18 Elijah experienced a great victory against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. They held a prayer contest. The 450 prophets of Baal prayed to Baal. Elijah prayed to the Lord God Almighty. The Lord heard Elijah’s prayer and consumed the sacrifice with fire. In the midst of the conflict Elijah was brave, bold, and full of faith. That’s eustress, positive stress, excitement.
Yet in the next chapter, 1 Kings 19, Elijah ran in fear from the threats of Jezebel. He went by himself into the desert, sat down under a broom, and prayed that he would die. That’s distress. Negative stress following a great success.
The Lord did not leave Elijah alone to suffer and die in his desert stress. First, the Lord met Elijah’s physical needs. An angel provided bread and water. After eating and drinking, Elijah slept.
Then the Lord sent Elijah to a place away, to Mount Horeb, the Mountain of God. There Elijah was told to ignore the noise of the wind, earthquake, and fire and listen to the gentle whisper of the Lord. That’s serious prayer. Elijah told the Lord how alone he felt. The Lord told him there were 7,000 others who had not gone the way of Baal, including a protégé named Elisha.
Then the Lord sent Elijah back down the mountain with a restored purpose.
May you experience eustress in ministry, experiencing excitement as you strive and serve. May you have many days of courage, strength, and faith. May you rise to challenge after challenge and enjoy ministry success. Pastoral ministry should be exciting.
But pastoral ministry is also filled with distress. The Lord’s care of Elijah provides several insights for dealing with that type of stress. Elijah’s recovery from stress included physical needs, a place away, a time of prayer, people who care, and a return to his purpose.
To effectively deal with stress, physical needs must be met. That includes food, sleep, and exercise. As a pastor it is easy to abuse your body by eating too much, too little, or the wrong stuff. And a lot of high-achieving people, including pastors, think they can cheat on sleep and be more productive. They can’t. Sooner or later it catches up with them. Pastoral ministry involves a lot of sitting. Be sure to include exercise. Take care of your physical needs.
A place away is also important. For Elijah it was the Mountain of God. For you it might be a walk in the woods or a backyard retreat. Find a place that comforts you. And when you pray, shut out all the noise and listen for the gentle whisper of the Lord.
People are also important in recovery from stress. Some people will drain you. Some people will fill you. Some people are neutral. When you’re recovering from stress, hang around those who fill you. Then when you’ve recovered, return to your ministry purpose, renewed and ready to serve.