3 Ways Stress is Actually Good for You

I’ve often written about stress, here, here, and here. Most of my writing about it has focused on the detrimental effects upon our body, leadership, and brain. However, I’m now reading an eye opening book by health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonical, The Upside of Stress, Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It. I highly recommend it. She also presented a TED talk on the subject that millions have watched. You can watch it here. In this post I summarize three ways stress is actually good for you.

pastors under stress

First, a caveat. Prolonged stress is NOT good for us. When our body remains on high alert for long periods of time research has discovered many bad effects result including dampened immunity, digestive problems, heart disease, anxiety, weight gain, impaired brain functioning (especially memory), and sleep impairment.

On the other hand, God wired our bodies to produce a stress response to keep us from being eaten by wild tigers in the Serengeti. Fortunately, he also gave us brains so that we could grow and make our lives safer and more comfortable. So, such a response that He created in us to keep us safe isn’t needed in that same way today, at least for most of us in the west.

At the core of rethinking stress lies a concept McGonical calls mindsets. The term is self explanatory. It simply means the beliefs that shape how we view things. The key to making stress work on our behalf lies in changing our mindsets. If we view periodic stress as beneficial, it actually transforms how the body responds to it. She gives several interesting studies that show how changing our mindsets toward it benefits us. Changing this mindset increases the production of a neurotransmitter called DHEA which helps mitigate the negative effects of the stress hormone, cortisol (among other positive benefits). In fact, studies show that having a positive mindset on aging can add an average of nearly eight years to your life.

Here are the three benefits.

  1. It gives us more energy to rise to the challenges we face in life. As a pastor I speak every Sunday when I give a 30-40  minute sermon. My stress response system revs up right before I speak. This process actually dumps fat and sugar in to my bloodstream that gives me fuel. The processes in my brain speed up resulting in better focus and concentration. My motivation increases as chemicals get released in my brain and bloodstream. My body uses energy more efficiently. I’m more prepared for the challenge at hand, to bring what I hope is a God inspired talk to encourage others in their relationship with Christ. McGonical calls this the ‘excite and delight’ side of stress.
  2. It motivates us toward greater social connection. When I read about this benefit, my first thought was, “When we get stressed we tend to pull back to protect ourselves.” That is the case for some. But again, changing our mindset is key. When the stress response activates, it actually releases oxytocin, also called the trust hormone. Oxytocin helps us build bonds with others. A hug can release it. A mom breastfeeding her baby causes the baby’s brain to release it. Oxytocin gives us a greater sense of empathy toward others. This part of the stress response is called the ‘tend and befriend’ response. We might even call this what Scripture describes as community. We need each other, especially in times of difficulty.
  3. It can actually help us grow and learn. McGonical writes that this benefit occurs when we are in the recovery phase, when we return to a non-stress baseline. The various stress hormones and neurotransmitters actually help us recover from it as much as they help us rise to challenges. For several hours after a stress induced experience our body slowly returns to what is called homeostasis, when our body’s chemicals come back into normal balance. In doing do, the brain learns from the experience. After such an experience we often replay it in our minds or even talk to a friend about it. That process helps cement learnings in our minds so that we know how to better handle similar stressful experiences in the future.

So, stress definitely carries an upside, but the key is mindset. I believe Paul had mindset in mind when he wrote these words.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. (Phil 4.8)

What are your initial thoughts about the benefits of stress?

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Introverts Don’t Make Good Pastors

Or, maybe they do.

  • I’m a pastor and an introvert.
  • I get energy from being alone.
  • Being with people for long periods of time drains me, although I  have strong people skills.
  • I love to read.
  • I go on silent retreats.
  • After church every Sunday I need to spend time without high people interaction.
  • Did I say I am an introvert?

Am I automatically disadvantaged as a pastor?

Do only the gregarious, back slapping pastors lead big churches?

Some  years ago I learned that my introversion offended a church leader where I once served. We held an overnight leadership retreat at a local retreat center. After the last session ended around nine, we provided snacks and games. At about ten, I went to bed as was my habit. Most of the other leaders stayed up past midnight. Had I stayed up with them, I would have been toast for the sessions to follow the next morning.

I learned months later that my leaving the group to go to bed offended him. He brought it up more than once. He was an extrovert and did not like me yielding to my introversion.

Should I have stayed up to “work the crowd?” Perhaps. But that incident illustrates the challenges introverts often face when they serve in ministry.

As I’ve pondered this issue more deeply, I read the book Quiet, the Power of Introverts that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, a great read. As an introvert, Susan presents a compelling case for the the power of introverts. If you are an introvert, you will feel affirmed if you read it.

Here’s a good article on introverts here.

If you are an introvert, what challenges have you experienced in ministry?

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My Top 10 Most Read Posts in 2016

Each year I compile a list of the top 10 most read posts for 2016. Thanks for all you who follow me and read my posts. Have a great new year.

My Top 10 Most Read Posts of 2016

  1. 8 Benefits of Integrity in Life and Leadership
  2. Top 10 Reasons People Don’t Tithe
  3. 5 Big Mistakes Pastors Make Every Sunday
  4. Tithing: a Simple and Effective Way to Encourage it
  5. How Porn Damages your Brain
  6. How Much Time Should a Pastor Spend Preparing a Sermon?
  7. How to Make Boring Church Announcements Memorable
  8. The Narcissistic Pastor: 10 Signs that you Might be One
  9. 5 Essentials Necessary to Build Team Unity
  10. What Unforgiveness Does to Your Brain

What Should Pastors Do with Personal Pain?

Every leader carries personal pain and baggage not only from his or her family of origin, but also from previous ministry experiences. For some, that baggage may feel like a light daypack. For others, it may feel like a 100-pound duffle bag. What we do with it affects our personal well being and the well being of our ministries. In this post I suggest ways pastors and ministry leaders can deal with personal pain.

Several factors influence how heavy baggage from your pain feels.

  • Your overall emotional health. If in your current ministry you are stressed, you won’t have much internal reserve before you redline. You’ll ‘spill over’ more easily when jostled by ministry demands and conflict.
  • Your personality type influenced by your genetic makeup. Some people are genetically pre-disposed toward pain which is reflected more in anxiety and depression than in others. Our genetic makeup accounts for about 1/3 of our ability to be happy and enjoy life.[1] The remaining 2/3’s, however, gives us lots of leverage to change, manage stress, and bounce back from difficulties. It’s called resilience.
  • Your previous ministry setting. If past ministries were difficult, you’ll need to pay more attention to your ministry pain.

If dealing with personal pain seems self serving, look to the words of Jesus Himself. In response to a Pharisee’s question about the greatest commandment, Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matt 22.37-39, NIV) So, Jesus’ own words remind us we should love ourselves and be kind to ourselves which encompasses processing our own hurts and pain. Research tells us that pastors who are kinder to themselves when they fail or don’t meet others’ expectations, are less prone to burnout.[2]

I learned this insight several years ago when I transitioned to a church in California from a church in Atlanta. After we moved I was surprised when I began to grieve. I recall one day as I assembled an outdoor tool shed how deep feelings of sadness suddenly swept over me. I wasn’t sad about my new role as teaching pastor. The new possibilities exited me. However, my emotions reminded me that I must deal with my feelings of loss from leaving the church that my wife and I had planted fourteen years earlier.

In a later ministry setting in Chicago I faced significant conflict with two leaders that left deep wounds. During the year and a half between that church and my new church in Canada, I had to process this this pain that I had carried from that church.

So how can we deal with our ministry pain?

First, admit that you probably still carry some leftover baggage from prior ministries. These questions may help bring to the surface unresolved issues that could potentially hinder your current ministry.

  1. With whom have you experienced the greatest conflict or the greatest hurt?
  1. How have you dealt with those conflicts? Passively, aggressively, biblically?
  1. When you think of that person(s) do you feel significant anger, rage, or bitterness rise into your awareness? Or are the emotions more akin to mild disappointment and sadness?
  1. Do you feel that any of those conflictual relationships lie unresolved and that resolution remains possible? Or do you feel that you did what you could to resolve the issues?
  1. How would you rate where you stand in relation to this person(s)/issue(s): distraught, hurting but managing, coping OK, or in good shape with occasional twinges of loss or pain?
  1. Is God prompting you to do anything to resolve these past issues?

Second, take specific steps to deal with the emotional baggage. When my pain was most acute prior to my coming to Canada, I sought professional help. I consulted a counselor for several sessions and I hired a coach who helped me process my woundedness. An objective third party can help you see issues to which you may be blind. I recommend that every ministry leader find a good friend. In this post I describe what to look for in a safe, healthy friend.

As you process your pain, God may want you to initiate an act of kindness toward the person(s) who may have hurt you in any prior ministry. God prompted me to do that after I heard a sermon from a pastor friend.

During my consulting/writing days prior to my move to Canada, our family joined a local church near the small lake house we had moved into. I immediately bonded with the pastor and I volunteered to serve. Each Sunday I learned something new from his solid preaching. One day his sermon dealt with turning the other cheek toward your enemies and loving them despite the pain they may have caused you. Like a lightning bolt, I felt God impress me to send a restaurant gift card to both leaders who had hurt me the most at my prior church. I included a kind note with each card. After I took that simple obedient step, I felt God begin to close that painful chapter in my life, although I can still feel an occasional tinge of emotion when I recall those experiences.

God used my pain to teach me. He can use your pain to teach you as well. However, we must never allow pain to fester in our souls. I encourage every pastor to inventory his our her prior ministry experiences and bring out into the open any stuffed or hidden pain. If you don’t deal with it now, it will leak out, insidiously drain you, and quite possibly derail you.

How have you dealt with ministry pain?

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[1] “Can Happiness Be Genetic?,” Psychology Today, accessed November 20, 2015, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201302/can-happiness-be-genetic.

[2] Laura K. Barnard and John F. Curry, “The Relationship of Clergy Burnout to Self-Compassion and Other Personality Dimensions,” Pastoral Psychology 61, no. 2 (May 21, 2011): 149–63, doi:10.1007/s11089-011-0377-0.

Hymns in a Contemporary Church: Bury them or Resurrect them?

Several years ago I attended an old fashioned Gospel sing at a church near our home. It was out of my comfort zone because the last 30 plus years I’ve served in churches that primarily used contemporary worship music in their services. Yet, from toddler age through college I attended churches that primarily used hymns. When the seeker movement became widespread, I and many other like-minded pastors classified traditional hymns as barriers to church growth. As a result, I seldom used them in the churches I served except for the occasional Amazing Grace. Here’s what I learned that night about hymns and their influence on my spiritual formation.

As I sat through the Gospel sing, something stirred deep within me. Had I neglected an important part of my Christian heritage by not incorporating them in the churh services? Should I reconsider them going into the future?

The Gospel sing worked like this. The song leader invited those who attended (a couple hundred) to pick a hymn from the hymn book. They then raised their hands and he’d pick someone. They’d call out the hymnal page number. We’d turn to that page. The pianist would start playing. We’d sing. After 30 minutes of suggestions and singing, probably 20 songs, we’d take a short break from singing. The pianist then played a medley of hymns and a duet sung a couple hymns. Then we sung another 30 minute, prayed, and dismissed for ice cream sundaes in the gym.

I thought I’d be bored and planned to surreptitiously follow NFL games on ESPN’s Gametracker on my iPhone. Was I surprised. Here are several lessons I learned that night.

  1. The majority who attended were clearly over 65, many in their 70’s and 80’s. As I watched these seniors sing, their faces glowed with a deep love for Jesus. God reminded me that preferred music styles don’t indicate a person’s love for Him. The builder generation, which is quickly declining, has shown incredible commitment and sacrifice to the cause of Christ the last several decades. Just because they prefer a different music style than my preference doesn’t mean I’m any closer to Jesus than they.
  2. I was surprised at how well I recalled these songs that I hadn’t sung in over 20 years. I seldom even needed to look at the hymnal for the words. I realized how grateful I was to my parents for the rich Christian heritage they gave me. Those many years they took me to Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night services and to revivals and vacation bible schools. Those experiences had left an indelible imprint on my soul. Hymns had deeply imbedded the truth of God’s Word into my heart that I’d never forgotten.
  3. I marveled at the magnificence of how God created our brains. Music increases our ability to recall truth because it enhances long-term memory. Even after decades of not reading the words or singing the hymns, my mind easily recalled them. This thought reminded me how important music should play in our services to imbed theology into the hearts of believers.
  4. I felt sad as I watched my youngest daughter who sat next to me. As my wife and I sang, she followed along as best as she could, yet she hardly knew a single hymn. Either my naivety or my pride (or both) had caused me to neglect this powerful medium to teach the essence of the Faith. My kids had become the losers.
  5. Finally, I resolved to bring hymns back into the churches I serve. While updating their tempo and style a bit, I want those young and old in the faith to encounter the living Christ through the power of God’s word hitched to the medium of hymn music.

That experience was a profound one for me that I will never forget.

What are your thoughts on hymns? Do you believe we have neglected them? If so, how have you incorporated them into your services.

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