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Being a Pastor: A Perilous Profession, Part 2

One needs to know the warning signs of burnout and look to ways to activate support and self-care and to discern a clearer alignment with God’s sustainable calling.
Being a Pastor: A Perilous Profession, Part 2
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Yesterday, we talked a bit about the uniqueness of being a pastor and the stresses involved. We ended saying, “One needs to know the warning signs and look for ways to activate support and self-care and to discern a clearer alignment with God’s sustainable calling.” Today, we address those.

What are the warning signs?

  • Emotional numbness/reactivity. This might include pastors who have compassion fatigue and are quick to control or get angry. Questions to ask include: How are your staff and family responding to you? and Are they cautious and tentative? If the answer is yes, this might be a sign of emotional numbness and reactivity. How are your loved ones experiencing you? Do you have the reserves to meaningfully engage them?
  • Relational distance and escapes. Spending longer times at the office, in your study doing sermon prep, and not answering/returning your phone calls and emails are all signs of avoidance. Other more significant escapes are substance use, emotional/sexual affairs, and escaping into technology.
  • Physical symptoms. This can include sleep changes, unhealthy eating, digestive difficulties, headaches, and diffuse physical symptoms.

So what’s a pastor to do?

There are concrete things that pastors, and each of us, can do to counteract the stress that bombards us. A start would be focusing on the following five suggestions.

First, take good care of your physical health.

Take good care of your body. Prioritize visits to your physician and work to build in heathly exercise routines. There are significant benefits of a “daily constitutional” related to stress and emotional well-being. Create the space needed to take care of your physical body. This will require difficult decisions, trust in the process, and perhaps vulnerability.

Second, engage a strong, supportive social network.

Availability to at least one strong, loving relationship can be a very potent buffer against stressful situations.

John Gottman, a relationship researcher, has identified that five to seven positive interactions are required to counteract one negative, stressful situation or interaction. We suggest, in addition to your family and spouse, that you have a group of three or four people you meet with regularly for support.

We have intentionally built this community into our professional and personal lives. As professors, we formed a support group of professors (modeled after the inklings) to discuss life and work in a relaxed setting.

We understand the challenges of the work and are able to be supportive, to listen, and also to hold a mirror up to each other in gentle confrontations. One of us has a tendency to do whatever is needed to accomplish a goal. The other constantly challenges and reminds that this often is delving in his shadow side, creating undue stress and being ‘god-like.’

It is a gentle and needed rebuke. The combination of care and gentle challenge embedded in trust is essential for the effectiveness of this support. This does take time and intentional effort.

Third, seek margin.

Say “no” to good things, but not to your family! Within Christian ministry and our work lives there are more opportunities and needs then we can possibly address.

We encourage each other to say no to good opportunities in order to have margin for our families and creative projects. Saying no is difficult, but it provides an example to our families and communities that we recognize our limits and we need to depend on God and not our own over functioning.

Naturally, there will be disappointments and things undone. Although not comfortable, this is okay. God’s plans will not be thwarted by our limitations. In developing proper margin, clear structure is particularly important.

Without deliberate structure, things will fill in the time and the quiet necessity of the margins will be sacrificed or avoided. Set aside time and space to consider this and to quiet your mind. To help with this, when considering a task, quickly ask yourself if something should be:

  • Deferred to a later time,
  • Delegated to another person,
  • Deleted all together, or
  • must it be done personally.

Fourth, seek true alignment with calling and ability.

Ministry of any kind often leads to over-functioning.

Some form of “it won’t get done right unless I do it” is ever present. We all need to first know our reasonable capacities and limits.

This does not mean that there are not seasons (like Christmas and Easter) where there is need for extra time and long hours from the pastor. However, this should be a season and not the norm.

In addition to knowing your limits, aligning your skills, ability, and giftedness with your ministry is necessary. Pastors cannot and should not meet all the needs of the people. Delegation is helpful in managing time, but also in involving and developing others in their unique abilities, gifts, and perhaps calling.

This act of delegation can build up the church by giving others opportunities to learn and grow.

With regard to alignment, Augustine’s notion of rightly ordered loves is a helpful guide.

But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally. (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)

We are suggesting that a rightly ordering might look like:

  • Our spiritual formation. This is being in Scripture, prayer, loving accountability and supportive relationships. We tend to spend a lot of time on airplanes and the oxygen mask message is relevant here … put the mask on yourself first so that you are conscious and able to be there and help others.
  • Love family first. Our marriages should be a model of Christ’s love and our parenting should focus on guiding our children in meeting their needs within the rules from Scripture, our family, and society. This first love models the gospel, and as we know people LISTEN to what we do more than/equal to what we say. If we are preaching relational health that we see in Christ, we should be living it out in the most important place—our families.
  • Parishioners. Pastors often feel the pressure and prioritize the parishioners over their own family and well-being. This is not a model of a healthy relationship. If you want your congregation to have a commitment to Christ, their marriages, and their relationships, then you need to model it as well as preach it.
  • Evangelism (invite to the banquet)

Finally, seek out professional resources.

If you are feeling stressed, or struggling with emotions and relationships, we encourage you to seek professional resources. There are many resources through marriage and family therapists, psychologists, and counselors that can come alongside to remediate significant problems and help prevent situations from becoming clinically significant.

David J. Van Dyke, PhD, LMFT is an associate professor and director of the Marriage & Family Therapy master’s program at Wheaton College. He and his wife, Tara, own and run With U Parenting to provide family support and training for life’s biggest transitions.

Ben Pyykkonen, PhD is a clinical psychologist/neuropsychologist, associate professor and director of the doctoral program in Clinical Psychology at Wheaton College. He is also a practicing clinician and director of neuropsychology at Meier Clinics of Wheaton.

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Being a Pastor: A Perilous Profession, Part 2