How a Pastor Can Survive the Stress of a Crisis

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A crisis is viewed as an unexpected circumstance created by an external agent over which someone initially has little locus of control. For pastors there are often extraordinary events that create enormous stress for them.

Seventy-five percent of pastors report they have had a significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministry (FICG, 1991). Tichy & Bennis, (2007) believe good leaders anticipate crises. Further, they “prepare themselves and their organizations to respond effectively and efficiently when they do” (Tichy & Bennis, 2007, p. 210).  As in any profession, a leader must have the capability not only to personally cope with the ripple effects of such circumstances, but have the capacity to help people navigate the situation successfully. The ability to be adept at both may determine a lengthy or truncated pastorate.

Ben had a woman join his church “and then declared that she was gonna be my wife.” She followed him when he spoke at other churches or conferences. She wrote “at least twenty-five to fifty letters over a two-year period… to my home trying to intimidate my wife which is very hard to do.” He revealed that she “terrorized our church for three years.” She even went so far as to buy a wedding gown. During this time, Ben’s wife miscarried after about seven months. When Ben informed the congregation on the Sunday morning following the miscarriage, the woman jumped up and shouted, “God told me He was gonna kill that baby!”

Ben not only dealt with a member that wanted to be his wife and the relocation of the church, but within six years of his arrival, “nine of them got together…and they were goin’ to put me out.” They wanted to vote him out of the church. The conspirators attempted to do it during a Sunday morning worship service, but “they couldn’t do it because of the spirit of the people and the spirit of the worship service.” Later, they recruited sixty people at a Monday night meeting and had two to three pages of grievances. Six weeks later, they had a congregational meeting that lasted four hours.

Ben was prepared though, and is a stickler for details. He had every record from 1983 to 1989 placed on the offering table for anyone to examine. “They said all the things they wanted to say and we dismissed the meeting and I was still the pastor.” Ben made a decision not to meet with the naysayers anymore. “And by the power of prayer, every one of them left our church.”

Karr (1992) indicated that common reactions to trauma among caregivers include depression, self-blame, guilt, shame, anger, or even aggressive behavior.

By the nature of their profession, pastors often live from crisis to crisis with their members since they are often the first ones called (Henry et al., 1991; Reed, 1991). Regular runs to hospitals, funeral parlors, or to a home where a family is in dire need of comfort, creates an enormous demand on a preacher. The unknown requires clergy to be ready psychologically, emotionally, physically, and spiritually to handle any situation with calm, tact, and aplomb. Lost in the turmoil is how a minister is handling his or her own emotions as a result of the event. Whether clergy are directly or indirectly affected by a crisis may determine their ability to moderate the stress.

If crises are concurrent, it may lead to acute stress, which in turn could produce stress-induced analgesia (Spaite, 1999). In short, the brain produces endorphins when a person is under stress. This chemical is released in the brain to aid an individual go beyond normal capacity. The best illustration of this is a distance runner’s high. Marathoners and ultra-marathoners force their bodies beyond normal limits. Endorphins numb the body in a sense or into a “stress-induced analgesia” so they are able to run great distances. Amazingly, these extreme athletes often have reserves of energy for several days following the race as a result of the adrenaline and endorphins at work. However, they will then “crash” and it may take several days for them to recover through rest and proper nutrition.

If he or she is not careful, a pastor can experience the same result. If you operate in a world driven by chaos it may have the potential for disastrous personal results. By operating in stress-induced analgesia. You might think of yourself as a hero and a hard worker, but if you do not take steps such as those modeled by Ben, you may find yourself sitting in the pew instead of standing in the pulpit.

William Westafer

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  • Fuller Institute of Church Growth (1991). 1991 survey of pastors. Pasadena, CA: Fuller Theological Seminary.
  • Henry, D., Chertok, F., Keys, C. & Jegerski, J. (1991). Organizational and family systems factors in stress among ministers. American Journal of Community Psychology, (19), 931-52.
  • Karr, K. L. (1992). Taking time for me: How caregivers can effectively deal with stress. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
  • Reed, J. C. (1991). Managing stress and burnout Among helpers in rural areas. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Guidance and Counseling Association, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
  • Spaite, D. (1999). Time bomb in the church: Defusing pastoral burnout. Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press.
  • Tichy, N. M. & Bennis, W. G. (2007) Judgment: How winning leaders make great  calls. New York, New York: Penguin Group.
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