According to Barna’s most recent stats, 50% of pastors are currently suffering with depression.
In sixteen years of working with pastors, I’ve never seen them more stressed as a collective whole than I do now. So I thought it might be a good idea to write about getting in front of stress.
This post is not about stress elimination. Some stress is actually good for us.
Eustress is the good variety of stress – it’s generally short-term, and often improves performance. It’s that positive pressure you feel right before you get up to teach or preach, or take a test.
Distress is elongated stress. Distress often depletes our energy, it is usually more of a long-term kind of stress, and decreases performance over time.
A while back a friend sent me this verse of Scripture: “So Jotham became mighty, because he ordered his ways before the Lord his God.” ~ 2 Chronicles 27:6. I think this verse reveals the key to stress management is found in “ordering our ways.” Another word for ordering our ways is alignment. Personal alignment from my perspective includes three big ideas and five practical behaviors.
Three Big Ideas:
Proverbs 4:23: “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” You own the management of stress in your life, one hundred percent. Your team isn’t responsible for your stress management. Neither are your spouse or board. You, and you alone, are ultimately responsible to take charge of it.
Ecclesiastes 4:9: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work.” Even though we ultimately own the management of stress in our life, we’ll manage it better in the context of healthy relationships. A robust network includes your spouse (if married), a doctor, counselor, mentor or coach, and some deep friendships to help you process life. Alignment rarely, if ever, develops in a vacuum.
Luke 4:40-42: “When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sicknesses, and laying hands on each one, he healed them. Demons came out of many people, shouting ‘You are the Son of God’ … At daybreak, Jesus went out to a solitary place.”
This fascinating passage of scripture gives us a glimpse into Jesus’ work/rest rhythms. Taking charge of stress includes an integrated set of rhythms which leaders develop—work/rest rhythms, physical rhythms, spiritual rhythms, etc.
Five Practical Behaviors
Behavior 1: Go Deeper
Psalm 63:1 – “O God, You are my God, earnestly I seek You; my soul thirsts for You, my body longs for You,,.” The entirety of King David’s being longed for God. God has been reminding me throughout 2020 and even into 2021, “John, you need to dig deeper!”
For me, the call to go deeper isn’t due to neglect of connecting with Him. It’s a divine summons to slow down, and to get quiet so I can hear God speaking to me. Digging deeper into our relationship with Jesus helps us take charge of stress.
Behavior 2: Get Fitter
1 Timothy 4:8 says: “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” There is so much science behind this second behavior. The relationship between regular exercise, good nutrition, proper amounts of sleep, and our stress levels is undeniable.
Leadership can be sedentary. So we encourage leaders to get their bodies moving. Exercise is an amazing stress reliever.
Let’s chat for a minute about the touchy subject of food. A good friend told me several years ago, “John, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet.” Such great advice. What we put in our bodies (and how much of it) really makes a difference in getting fit.
While we’re talking about getting fit, we can’t avoid the subject of sleep. I remember a colleague many years ago declaring: “Sleep is a disposable commodity.” Those words might sound heroic to some, but in that moment, they sounded more like hubris. Here’s the truth: Sleep-deprived leaders are five times more susceptible to depression and/or anxiety. Consistent sleep is a cheat code to take charge of stress.
Behavior 3: Integrate Your Thoughts and Emotions
In 2 Corinthians 10:5 Paul writes: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ.”
Thoughts are the pieces of information received by our brain. Feelings are how we react to those pieces of information. The better integration between these two, the more aligned we become. And the way we integrate our thoughts and emotions is by lining both up against the truth.
Here’s an incredible perspective: “Every thought changes the brain chemistry, which impacts all 75-100 trillion cells of the body at quantum speeds.” ~ Dr. Caroline Leaf.
Wow. Our thoughts and their associated emotions are powerful! The more integrated they are with the truth, the better we manage stress.
Behavior 4: Reach Wider
Genesis 2:18 reminds us, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” This fourth practical behavior has to do with relationships, which are often a real challenge for leaders. A Barna 2017 study reported that 66% of lead pastors have no deep friendships. Man, that stat is tough to accept!
God spoke these words in Genesis 2:18 about Adam, who at the time, enjoyed a perfect relationship with his Heavenly Father. They walked together in the Garden of Eden regularly. And yet even in the middle of perfection, God saw Adam as needing another human to relate to. Healthy, replenishing relationships are a proven stress-reducer.
Behavior 5: Run Smarter
Matthew 11:28-30 – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Work is a gift from God. Laziness and workaholism are perversions of that gift. The challenge is, how do we locate the elusive middle between these two evil twins? One way is to learn how to run smarter.
Here’s two ideas that will get you started
- Clock out at a reasonable time every day – “And then there was evening, and there was morning—the first day ~ Gen.1:5. This sequence speaks to daily stopping and starting points. When you’re tired after a solid day of work, accept it as a God-given stop-signal. Give yourself permission to clock out.
- Protect your weekly day off – After completing the work of creation, God rested on the 7th day. He didn’t rest due to exhaustion. He rested to set an example for us ambitious humans. This weekly rhythm was established from the beginning of time, and is highlighted throughout the entire Bible/ If we’re serious about taking charge of our stress, hitting the weekly reset button of a day off will really help!
Now . . . why does all of this take-charge-of-your-stress stuff matter? Because when we allow stress to run amok in our lives, depression and anxiety will pound violently on our door. I know this from personal experience. You can read about my battle with and recovery from suicidal depression in my books Unshakable Leader and Unshakable You.
Can I encourage you to pick one behavior or big idea from today’s post and start working on it? Get proficient at it, and then sometime later add another one to your repertoire. And keep at it until these big ideas and practical behaviors become second nature. Your spouse will thank you. The organization you lead will be benefit. You’ll add years to your leadership shelf-life. And have more fun along the way.
I’m rooting and praying for you to take charge of stress,