The Church Leader’s Stress Tetrahedron
I don’t know about your part of the world, but out here in the Dakota’s it seems that the only news these days is “Bad News”. The Corona Virus we figured would dissipate with the morning mist with the heat of summer seems to have rebounded with a vengeance. Just about the time many were making plans to resume in person worship in a significant way, we find Governors banning singing in church or limiting the number of people in our building. I wonder how many of us are anxious about what this all means for our congregations going forward.
What prompts my rambling today is an article I just read from the Fire Service/Emergency Responder perspective. As some of you know, my avocation is as a Fire Chaplain, something that has been part of my life now for nearly 40 years. (Wow, it doesn’t seem that long ago when I first picked up a fire hose) Over the years, teaching about stress in Emergency Services focused on three aspects, Life Stress, Job Stress and Critical Incident Stress. Life stress, we all know what that is, the car breaks down, the kids get sick, you are laid off from your job, or you have a baby, or get a promotion! Life stress, or as I like to think about it, life happens! Then there is job stress, again you have conflict with a co-worker, unexpected overtime, pressure to conform, a promotion or demotion, or again you lose your job. Job Stress is common to the human experience. However, in the world of a first responder, Critical Incident Stress is a completely different experience. For those who have never ridden a fire truck or ambulance, every call looks like it would cause Critical Incident Stress. However or the past years I have described responses as 90% fun and games, and 10% sheer terror. It is that ten percent of the calls that rate as Critical Incident Stress, that 10% of the calls that haunt me today. However, that is not the end of the story. Knowing that some calls will have more of an impact, the Emergency Responders and Mental Health people have developed tools to help manage and cope with those. I think Pastors and other caregivers would do well to pay attention to this process as well. But that is another blog for another time.
What one man suggested on the Fire Service side is the addition of something he called Imminent stress. Now instead of a simple triangle, you have a “Stress Tetrahedron”. In describing or attempting to define imminent stress, the author Mark Goodman, states that there are a number of definitions to the word “imminent” but he settles on this description: “Of particular interest is the archaic definition and sense of the word imminent, which is “overhanging”. This especially captures the essence of “imminent stress” as a threat/stressor that is continually overhanging an individual. To initially define the term, I would propose: “Imminent stress is the stress associated with a threat that may or may not happen, but that threat is real and ever-present and generally spans an extended period of time.” I realize that “extended period of time” is subjective, and may require further definition.” I like Mark’s suggestion of an extended period of time, due to the fact that what is facing pastors and church leaders alike is an extended period of time without any clear boundaries.
Before I go much further, I would propose a “Stress Tetrahedron” for church leadership different from fire service. Common to both, are life stress, job stress and imminent stress. What is unique for Christian leadership is “Liminal stress”. Again, let me define the term. Liminal refers to a place or time, in between times. One man has compared it to a doorframe, and when you stand in that place you are neither inside the room nor out of the room, you are in a liminal place. For the past 15-20 years, give or take a year or three, the Church has been in a liminal place. We are no longer the dominant force in culture, pastors are seen a less honest than use car salespersons, and yet Christianity has not yet been pushed completely to the sidelines. As a result, some congregations act like it is 1955 and all is well with the world. Others respond as if organized Church is irrelevant and we need to move into this Post-Christian world in a stance that recognizes the church has lost power. However, the great majority of leaders are wondering how to best serve in a world that no longer resembles the training they were given. Hence, the new reality of “Liminal Stress” that is now combined with imminent stress of not knowing exactly what the Covid Virus means for in person worship.
What do we do with this new stress image? One would be to say that I don’t know what I am talking about and go about life as you have lived it. Second, would be to admit that maybe I am onto something but there is nothing you can do about so you pray that this will pass quickly like the seasonal flu and we can get on with life. A third option would be to admit that this is a real situation facing the body of Christ today and it is not going away anytime soon. To admit that this will require some adaptation on the part of the leadership and how we serve as church leaders. If this is the case, it is time for a new leadership style to emerge. One that can ask the tough questions and challenge the way it we have always done “church.” It will require some humility to admit that as the leaders we don’t have all the answers. Or as I learned a few years ago while looking for the trail in a wilderness area in Wyoming, when God calls us to follow Him, he never hands out a map! He just invites us to come follow Him.
The other tool to use in this time of complex stress is self-care. All too often as church leaders, everyone else, everything else comes before ourselves and our families. Now is not the time to adopt that motto of better to burn out than rust out. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so we need to respond accordingly. The means taking time for prayer and Bible reading that is not sermon or lesson related. It is time to listen to the still small voice of God. Second, it is imperative that as leaders we get physical exercise. I have to admit I was close to 50 when this became a reality to me. I am in better physical shape today than I was in my 40s (Let’s just say my age puts me on the verge of being high risk in this Covid era). Then you need to take time to get away! Get outside, leave those screens behind, remember your phone does have an off button, and yes, you can do that!
I wish I had the magic bullet to take this all away. As I said to a young pastor the other day, “I wish I had a 50 cent formula to fix things.” His response? “I would pay $500 for such a formula”. However, $.50 or $500, I have no formula other than listen to what the Spirit is saying to his church (a very loose translation of Revelation 2:7). To do that, we need to set aside the time to listen. To stop the treadmill of “American Pastoral Anxiety” (my own terms) and listen, listen closely. It is not by might nor by American ingenuity or the latest book, but by my Spirit says the Lord, that we will find a way through this current situation. (The RDV adaptation of Zechariah 4:6) So maybe I have found the “formula”, but then again I know that God is not in the business of mass production, and the solution for you will probably not be what God is prescribing for everyone.
It is my prayer that during this season of challenges and changes that each of you will be sustained by the presence of the Living and Resurrected Christ, who is seated with the Father, always praying for you! By the way, speaking of the Resurrected Christ, keep your eye out for a book that is in development, SENSATIONAL JESUS Why You Need The Life He Now Lives. By
Peter J. Grant. Why do I mention this? Because I spent, a week with Peter and his wife Becky, and I know Peter is onto something here.
Until the next time. May God richly bless you each and every day!