Stress Management Series
Seven Stress Factors in Ministry


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

Introducing the Seven Factors:
The seven stress factors in this article
are reported and summarized from research, experience, and observation. Reflection
on such findings support the following primary stress factors.

  • Personal and Up-Close: "How goes
    the battle?" That question was asked me scores of times by my longtime
    friend and colleague at Southwestern Seminary, Dr. John Newport. The question,
    "How goes the battle?" was more than a veiled reference to Old
    Testament warfare. I remember it as a friend asking me, "Lloyd, how
    are you really doing today, in your life, at your post of duty?"
    And, John Newport really cared enough to stay for the answer.

  • Stress and Vocation: Every vocation offers
    its own unique challenges and stressors. Certainly, work in the ministry
    is no exception. In fact–like most occupations–stress in ministry has
    the capacity to get out of control easily if not properly managed. And all
    recent indications are that ministers are not finding themselves able to
    manage properly the stressors of the job and life. Look at these alarming
    statistics, taken from a 1991 survey of clergy by the Fuller Institute
    of Church Growth
    • 75% reported a serious stress-related crisis at least
      once in their ministry.
    • 50% felt unable to meet the demands of the job.
    • 92% felt inadequately trained to cope with job demands.
    • 90% work more than 50 hours a week.
    • 53% averaged 5-6 hours of sleep per night.
    • 85% spend 2 or less evenings per week at home with
      their families.
    • 40% don’t take a regular day off.
    • 70% had a lower self-image than when they started in
    • 40% had a serious conflict with a parishioner once
      a month.
    • 50% had considered leaving the ministry within the
      preceding three months.
    • 73% had no one they considered a close friend outside
      of marriage.
    • 33% consider ministry hazardous to their families.
    • 81% of clergy feel their families have been negatively
      impacted by the church.
  • Stressors at Business: Look through several
    business journals and websites. You will find as I did, quite a list of
    stressors in the job market locations that have a similar impact in the
    work places of ministers. Since this is not new territory to you, just put
    a checkmark by those you are now living with, coping with, or needing to
    find ways to get on top of such stress:
    Job loss Job transfer
    Workload Competition
    Supervision Meeting budget
    Travel Technology
    Office conditions Boredom

This article seeks to explore seven of the stressors and stress issues that
seem particular to those of us in Christian ministry. There will be suggestions
for your own reflection as you respond to each stress factor with a thoughtful,
personal evaluation of your stress experience and susceptibility level.

Reflection: How many of these categories fit your experience
as well? Would not the list of stressor be different in 2008, as compared to
1991? The most significant model for our response is our Lord as He encouraged
his first Century disciples:

"I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for
–John 13:15

Factor in Ministry #1: Role
Model Stressors
Leading in an institution whose mission revolves around
a moral life, ethical relationships, and a commitment to follow the path of
Christ can subject a minister or lay leader to very high standards: in personal
life, and in relationships with staff and congregation. High standards, or the
perception of them, can easily become the preeminent stressor in the life and
work of a church leader, paving the way to a myriad of personal and organizational
problems if mismanaged.

In the rush not to disappoint those who have entrusted you with
this status, the true inner self of a minister can quickly become lost while
constantly juggling the needs and images others have of church leadership.
If you have ever found yourself:

  • assuming a "pastoral persona" only when relating
    with congregation members,
  • overhauling practices to appease the one critic in a sea
    of compliments and praise,
  • needing to be serious most all the time in your official
then you may be placing yourself under extraordinary stressors,
even if you don’t feel it–yet. The Apostle Paul understood the reflected example
of Christ in his own service to others: "Follow my example, as I follow
the example of Christ."
–1 Corinthians 11:1

It is often assumed, if not believed, that ministers, as "Holy
Persons" of the church, have achieved a connection with God that is greater,
more authentic, or more important than that of any other person in the church
or community. Often, this can even become the minister’s own self-perception.
When accepted, these expectation levels and assumptions will undoubtedly lead
to feelings of failure and inadequacy; the flip side of the danger is that
the minister may come to "think more highly of himself than he ought
to think."

When handled improperly, high expectations will become a debilitating
stressor, rather than the opportunity we hope it will be–not because of what
is being done to the church leader from the critics outside, but because of
what the self-image stressor does on the inside. You will know the role-model
stressor is taking its toll when striving to be a Godly person and leader
begins to feel like a burden. You feel the people in the church and community
placing this burden on you, and even more heavily, you feel it from yourself!
The responsibility to be open, accountable, ethical, moral, and holy is greater
in the ministry than in any other vocation; and perhaps rightly so! Simon
Peter cautioned 1st century pastors about this, writing: ". . . not
lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock."
–1 Pet. 5:3

Reflection: Living and leading as an example
required is a first responsibility of the church leader; it can also become
the first step toward unhealthy stress. So, an antidote offered by the Christ
is clear:

"No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate
the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the
other. You cannot serve both God and Money."
–Matt. 6:24

Factor in Ministry #2: Financial
Financial stressors of one kind or another are a fact
of life in virtually every leadership occupation. As a minister, you take on
additional financial burdens. Two major elements of financial stress dominate
the life and work of the church leader:

  • Limited resources: Churches depend on
    weekly tithes for operations, ministries, and salaries. It is too common
    for incoming monies to experience under-budget periods. Tithes and offerings
    often become unpredictable because of congregation turnover, economic conditions,
    and seasonal impacts, while the costs of running the church often stay constant.
    Expanding the ministries of the church or compensating the staff at reasonable
    levels may be the passion of the minister and the source of distress. Besides,
    most churches–particularly small and newer churches–cannot afford significant
    reserve funds for times of calamity or a downturn in contributions.

    As an ongoing concern, finances can become, and it almost goes without a
    reminder, an enormous stressor for a minister. Please take note: the shortfall
    in financial income most often is not the direct responsibility of the ministry
    staff. But the shepherding minister is often held accountable for the success
    of the budgeting process. Even the church treasurer or the finance committee
    may turn to the pastor and wail, "Preacher, what are we going to
    do about this?"
    Appealing to members for contribution in times
    of crisis is a real but tricky assignment. No pastor wants to give a quarterly
    message on tithing, yet tight budgets and the stresses that go with it,
    could become the rule rather than occasional exception in church finances.

  • Conflicts of interest: As a minister,
    your salary is determined by, and paid by the members of the church you
    serve. You have a financial responsibility to yourself and your family,
    and you also regularly preach the virtue of sacrifice and the danger of
    riches. As a servant of God’s Kingdom, and of your congregation, you may
    often feel internal pressures associated with salary and responsibility–to
    serve God, to serve your congregation, to serve your family, and maintain

Reflection: Finances, personal and congregational,
are often among the top three stressors faced by ministers. How about you?
At times, do the valued injunctions of Scripture only add to your stress load?

"Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving
as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God
wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; . . ."

–1 Peter 5:2

"But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these
things will be given to you as well."

–Matthew. 6:33

Factor in Ministry #3:
Kingdom Mission Stressors

Stress: Good and Bad: From some perspectives, the role of
minister is of greater impact than "life-and-death." Your mission
concerns the very core of your congregation and community, and it comes as
a calling from God. The stakes of duty could, in this respect, not be higher.
The stress of doing the work of God, and stamping that occupation right on
your nameplate or business card, can be daunting if not managed properly.
Is it not awesome? Yes, the pressure of kingdom stressors seems to multiply:
to grow the church, to minister to your congregants’ spiritual needs, and
to fulfill the will of God–and to do so in the very place where the will
of God is the primary topic of discussion and prayer–it is awesome.
Such kingdom issue may become hazardous stressors to your physical and emotional
health, especially if you take each invitation and aspect of your ministry
as a personal referendum.

Conflict as Cause: By the same token, a church
staff is often entirely made up of individuals who feel a similar calling,
and similar occupational responsibility to the will of God. Working with a
ministry team with this same strong sense of kingdom duty can be truly elevating
when there is agreement and things are going well; but it may also be a source
of great conflict and stress when there is disagreement among those who feel
strongly as to God’s will. This stress of conflict can emerge within the church
staff, within a church body, within a denomination, and all with potentially
devastating results on the institution and the leaders within it. To be sure,
no cultural realm has produced more stress and conflict in the history of
the world than that couched in religious, theological, or spiritual disagreement!

Reflection: Discover and identify kingdom sources
as stressors, but begin to look within your purpose for living wisdom and
strength for you response:

–From John Wesley’s live motto: "I will do the best I can with
what I have, where I am, for as long as I can for Jesus’ sake today."

–From the Apostle Paul’s resolve found in Philippians 3:13-14: "Brothers,
I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do:
Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on
toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward
in Christ Jesus."

Factor in Ministry
#4: Counseling Stressors
Church ministers have the responsibility to speak not only
on a congregational level, from the pulpit, but also on a more personal
level in counseling sessions with members. He or she must lead with the
organizational whole of the church in mind, but must also lead for the sake
of the individual well-being of each congregant. Looked at this way, it’s
quite an awesome responsibility! Rarely do ministers feel completely comfortable
and competent in both the institutional and the interpersonal roles.

The stress of counseling, or stress transferal, can be caused
by any number of important factors:

  • A sense of being unprepared to properly advise or comfort
    the very real, and often very substantial, problems introduced in a counseling
  • The time required in giving real, honest, sincere listening
    and counseling to every church member who asks for it.
  • The emotional toll that can be taken when investing oneself
    in the life and problems of another.
  • Helping a troubled person overcome adversity might be
    very spiritually uplifting, but trying to give earnest attention and help
    to the perpetually anguished, or those with serious and ongoing emotional,
    family, financial, or spiritual concerns can begin to detract from ministry
    to the church as a whole, as well as significant involvement within one’s
    own family.
Reflection: Take stock of this stress factor
among those that most often nudges you into a pattern of stress overload.

Factor in Ministry
#5: Family Stressors
The families of ministers often experience stress; and when
it happens, knowing that the minister contributes some ways, it exacerbates
the stress level within. Let’s look at a couple of the most prominent

  • The Fishbowl! If you think ministry
    is hard on you, then imagine what it’s like for your family! Not only
    are you expected to be the holiest person in the church, yours is expected
    to be the holiest family as well! Families of church leaders commonly
    feel the stress of fishbowl living, in which every problem seems to be
    known and magnified throughout the congregation. Spouses and children
    are often held to similarly high expectation levels with regard to ethics
    and decorum. And, also similarly, families can often perceive this pressure
    even when it is not there, or is minimal. In my own pastoral experience,
    the congregations actually provided more caring support than causes for
    stress. But there were breach of privacy times and occasions when the
    water level in the fishbowl rose to aggravating levels.
  • No Time for Family! While preaching
    the virtues of family values from the Sunday morning pulpit, the "on-call
    24-7" demands made on the minister often leave a minister little
    family time at the church parsonage. The big events in the life of nearly
    every congregant can become a responsibility for the church pastor: weddings,
    deaths, births, illness, loss of job, spiritual needs. Ministering and
    attending to the needs of all the families in the church can make the
    church leader’s own family feel less important, or will leave the family
    in a poor state of communication.

Reflection: Do members of your family find
it difficult to get an appointment with you concerning their needs; or do
they resort to create "crisis" in order to get your attention?
You may not only see, but have experienced, the damaging spiral that inadequate
responses to this stressor might create for you and the people you love
the most.

— In John 9:4, what Jesus said of the needs of mankind is equally true
of the minister’s own family: "As long as it is day, we must
do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work."

–1 Timothy 5:4 states clearly the religious responsibility we have to
family members: "But if a widow has children or grandchildren,
these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by
caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents,
for this is pleasing to God."

Factor in Ministry
#6: Job Performance Stressors
Setting aside the high expectations, the Godly calling
to do the work of the church, and the magnitude of the life-issues at
stake, just doing the work from week to week can be a tough task! Being
a minister requires:

  • Strict (and regular) Deadlines: Your
    congregation is meeting on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday
    evening, whether you’re ready or not! As a church leader, you are
    often required to be prepared to speak at all three events.

  • Long Hours: From hospital visitation
    to committee meetings, sermon or Sunday school preparation to counseling
    sessions, performing a wedding on Saturday and participating in services
    on Sunday, the work of the minister or lay leader can be extremely
    demanding time-wise.

  • Versatility of Skills: Church leaders
    are often required to be theologians, counselors, motivational speakers,
    business executives and worship planners all rolled into one. Every
    minister wants to be confident, competent, and effective in all the
    tasks of church leadership, and most enjoy and feel especially able
    in one or two important roles, but how many of us are truly in our
    element doing everything the job demands? Continued education in interpersonal
    skills, in business skills, in Scriptural knowledge, in communication
    skills and psychology are all a must.

  • Managing Triangulation: So many
    members of the congregation and members of their families seek out
    the minister’s assistance by requesting or demanding that the minister
    agree with them and set in to change the action or values of still
    a third party. It’s called triangulation because the minister is expected
    to work with two parties as a third party and most often without acceptance
    of one or the other of the conflicting parties. (See #1 Study Resource
    on this topic, SL#92.)

Factor in Ministry
#7: Our Human Frailty Stressor
Throughout the naming of the several stressors above,
there is at least one common thread: a minister of the gospel is subject
to the same frailties as those "ordinary people" being served.

  • First, frailty does exist: This is
    a truism often admitted to by folks on every hand, sometimes far too
    willingly. Ministers also quite readily accept this fact of human nature.
    We have to live with it and its force 24/7, without relief and even
    with denial.
  • Second, frailty causes stress: Ministers
    are often faced with stressors from others caused by their frail nature,
    such as an unforgiving spirit, impossible expectations, and unrealistic
    time constraints. On the other hand, ministers cause stress for themselves
    by suffering unwarranted self-doubt, saying "yes" to impossible
    tasks, and lacking a healthy dose of humility. What shall the minister
    do? Through years of experience, the best antidote I know of is to accept
    and practice the biblical message of sinfulness and

Article Reflection and Action: Identify
stress factors that have been most acute in the last three months. Be
specific and be looking for help. "What are you actually going to
do about stress factors in your ministry?"

  • Work through the assessment opportunities found in this
    and other articles on stress.
  • Do a time-analysis of how you spend the hours of your
    ministry time as related to the total of 164 hours per week.
  • Request a knowledgeable third-party to reflect with you
    about you stress experience and its impact on your life and ministry.
  • When ministry skills that are most lacking, or least enjoyable,
    begin to show through as stress what do you do?
  • "Drive thy business; let it not drive thee."
    –Benjamin Franklin
  • ". . . his work will be shown for what is it,
    because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire,
    and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work."
    –1 Cor.

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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