Stress Management Series
As High Human Stress


by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® Vol.
11 – Stress Management

1. Article Objective and Introduction
Objective of this article: to establish practical
ways to discover and to guard against excess stress in life and leadership.
The term "burnout" actually comes from the process of a
rocket engine flame going out, because its fuel–which is burned to create
the rocket’s firepower (literally)–has been used up, exhausted, or shut off.

Before getting to the good news, it has to get even worse
first. Understanding the very bottom incurred by stress mismanagement will
hopefully be a strong motivational tool in encouraging you to manage your
own stress consciously. Burnout is the ultimate, downward spiraling result
of ignored stress, like the condition of a car run for too long, too hard,
and with no maintenance. In The Platinum Rule, Tony Alessandra says:

"When people strive too hard and too long to reach
a goal, they burn out. Burnout is a state of fatigue and/or frustration
brought on by an intense pursuit of a goal or devotion to a cause. It brings
on a series of physical, emotional, and psychological problems."

The apostle Paul seemed always on the verge of burnout in
every respect; spiritually, emotionally, and physically. He comments to
the Corinthian church:

2 Corinthians 4:7-10–"But we have this treasure in jars of
clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not
in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life
of Jesus may also be revealed in our body."

Three Progressive Burnout Stages
A helpful description of progressive burnout
symptoms has been created by George Everly, published in his article, “Occupational
Stress Management.” (For more detail, see #1 Study Resource later in this
article.) Everly identifies three major stages of burnout which may be adapted
to your experience as a minister:

  • Stage 1: Stress Arousal–includes many
    of the elements of stress that have already been introduced. These are physical
    and emotional stress responses that are experienced by all of us at times:
    anxiety, increased heart rate, irritability, lack of concentration, sleep
    deprivation, etc. If persistent and left unaddressed, these common stress
    responses will lead to burnout. Reflection on your own

  • Stage 2: Energy Conservation–When your mind and body recognize
    the jeopardy they (you!) are in, the instinct to hold back and conserve energy
    kicks in. According to Everly, this stress response can include: procrastination,
    cynicism, lateness–for work or with work production–withdrawal from others,
    etc. But finally because of mismanagement, the fuel supply is shut off completely
    and burnout sets in. Your Reflection:

  • Stage 3: Exhaustion–The burnout stage of stress sets in:
    inconsolable sadness or depression, persistent digestive problems, chronic
    physical and emotional fatigue, the desire to completely "drop out"
    from work, family, society in general, and in the worst instances, the desire
    to commit suicide. Your Reflection:

Ministers Also Face Burnout:
Research and studies:
These have shown that "helping professions" are the group of occupations
most susceptible to professional burnout. Clearly, church and community ministry
are right at the heart of the helping professions. Whose work could in fact
engender more "devotion to people" than Christian ministry? William
Turner, writing in The Quarterly Review (January-March, 1985, p. 19)
outlines the following symptoms of pulpit burnout:

  • A lack of enthusiasm in delivery
  • A lack of energy in preparation
  • Repetition of thought and performance
  • Voice level, incompatible with sermon content
  • Preaching too long, or even, too briefly
  • Overusing borrowed crutches, such as: other’s sermons or
    outlines, too many quotes, illustrations, or humor–all of these can indicate
    bad self-image, work habits, or burnout.

A picture of the minister in burnout can include a number of symptoms in
addition to those of pulpit burnout described by William Turner. Six general
categories, of varying levels of concern, are listed below, incorporated into
an activity for self-reflection.

Burnout Danger Zones: All of the factors of stress, and
the occupational tendencies of church leadership, work together to make ministry
a burnout "danger zone" if stress is not handled correctly. These
can be positive attributes but turn to danger by excess or mismanagement:

  • Pastors tend to feel indispensable, with a congregation
    and staff totally dependent on the availability and invincibility of its
  • The minister’s belief that the work of the Lord is greater
    than oneself or those who serve together, requires and rewards sacrifice
    and a loss of self in the process.
  • The suffering seem always to outnumber the comforted. If
    the calling of a minister is to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and heal/comfort
    the afflicted, that work can feel never done.
  • The faith that God will ultimately provide the strength
    to continue effectively.

All of these can help church leaders to the conclusion that
resting, or whatever might be needed for refuel, is not an option. But this
is not, and can never be, the case. Once the limitations, the dangers, and
the opportunities are acknowledged, then the road to burnout recovery or prevention
can be followed. Refueling can and must be done, even in the ministry! The
fire that led you to the work of the church, and that confirmed your calling
as you began, can be maintained, and if lost, it can be regained! Work ahead!

Review and Reflection: Read and consider the
following list of ministry burnout symptoms. Write a brief description of
any thoughts that you have–whether you have seen in others or felt yourself
any of these. Do any of these, or could any of these, sound like you or someone
you know?

  • Chronic lack of motivation/onset of depression; look at
    patterns of behavior, not just a "blue Monday" or exhaustion after
    a crucial emergency experience.
  • Recurring hostility or defensiveness over work in the church
    or church office, especially if this is a radical change in your behavior.
    If this is your long-term style, then you may look at retraining in your
    relationship/leadership skills.
  • Excessive work and worktime on mindless tasks, persistent
    avoidance/procrastination of important work; long and hard but not smart
    and with purpose.
  • Denial of one’s call to ministry; serious consideration
    of change of profession; belief that one’s church leadership may not in
    fact be the will of God. With prayerful thought and consultation, this could
    become a redemptive experience.
  • Chronic illness and fatigue, repeating extremes in sleep
    or appetite patterns.
  • Aberrant behavior; inappropriate activity, perhaps in public;
    as a cry for help/attention, a conscious or subconscious desire to be free
    from the ministry.

Action Planning: "Burnout" is entering the stress
danger zone, but you do not have to go there, unpack and stay there. You can
seek help take action, and begin the healthy process of recovery. This article
is not to drive you to inevitable loss, but to review your most severe stress
symptoms and look for specific actions you can set in place to move toward
a new beginning.


#1 Study Resource–The
Stages of Burnout

Cited on page 78 in Controlling Stress and Tension, 5th ed.
by Daniel A. Girdano, George S. Everly, Jr. and Dorothy E. Dusek.
Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997, 1993, 1990, 1986.

Note: These stages usually occur sequentially,
from Stage 1 to Stage 3, although the process can be stopped at any point.
Again, the behavior list may assist you to analyze your own behavior and to
look for healthy responses to such extreme stress.

Stage 1: Stress Arousal (includes any two of
the following symptoms)

  • Persistent irritability
  • Persistent anxiety
  • Periods of high blood pressure
  • Bruxism (grinding your teeth at night)
  • Insomnia
  • Forgetfulness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Unusual heart rhythms (skipped beats)
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Headaches

Stage 2: Energy Conservation (includes any two of the following)

  • Lateness for work
  • Procrastination
  • Needed three-day weekends
  • Decreased sexual desire
  • Persistent tiredness in the mornings
  • Turning work in late
  • Social withdrawal (from friends and/or family)
  • Cynical attitudes
  • Resentfulness
  • Increased alcohol consumption
  • Increased coffee, tea, or cola consumption
  • Apathy

Stage 3: Chronic Exhaustion (includes any two of the following)

  • Chronic sadness or depression
  • Chronic stomach or bowel problems
  • Chronic mental fatigue
  • Chronic physical fatigue
  • Chronic headaches
  • The desire to "drop out" of society
  • The desire to move away from friends, work, and perhaps
    even family
  • Perhaps the desire to commit suicide

#2 Study Resource:
Understanding Stress and Burnout

from Quest Travel Seminars:

There are two types of instinctive stress responses that are
important to understanding stress:

  • "Fight-or-Flight": short-term response
  • "General Adaptation Syndrome": long-term response
"Fight-or-Flight" as short-term response:
Some of the early research on stress conducted by physiologist Walter Bradford
Cannon (1932) established the existence of the "Fight-or-Flight" responses.
His work showed that when an organism perceives a threat or experiences a shock,
it quickly releases hormones that help it to survive. These hormones help us
to run faster and/or fight harder. They increase heart rate and blood pressure
and deliver more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles. . . . In
addition, these hormones focus our attention on the threat, to the exclusion
of everything else.

All of this significantly improves our ability to survive life-threatening
events. Unfortunately, this mobilization of the body for survival also has
negative consequences. . . . In this state, we are excitable, anxious, jumpy,
and irritable. This then reduces our ability to work effectively with other
people. Since our body and mind is in this heightened state, it is then difficult
to concentrate, make good decisions, or rationalize.

"General Adaptation Syndrome" as long-term
Endocrinologist Hans Selye, ‘Father of Stress,’ looked
at the long-term effects of exposure to stress and identified the "General
Adaptation Syndrome." Selye identified that when pushed to extremes,
organisms reacted in three stages:

1st–Alarm Phase: reaction to the stressor
2nd–Resistance Phase: resistance to the stressor
3rd–Exhaustion Phase: resistance is exhausted, and resistance declines

In the business environment, this exhaustion contributes strongly to what
is commonly referred to as "burnout." My own reflection on this
information is that these insights from the studies of Cannon and Selye may
readily be traced in the experience of ministers serving in local congregations
or nonprofit organizations.

Concluding Reflection: The information in this article
seeks to open the door to examine healthy responses in other articles in this
series. Hopefully, this article also supports the Christian premise that there
is hope and health available to stand beside us as we take responsibility
for our choices. Make written notes of your personal reflections, assessment,
application, and action planning. Information and strategies regarding "ministry
burnout" seek to provide encouragement and coping skills–where are you
in the journey and what could you be doing?

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© 2008; hosted and copyrighted
by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership