10 Ways Pastors can Escape the Ministry Stress Zombie Zone

In my last post I discussed how ministry stress can sometimes make pastors feel like zombies: listless, unmotivated, and mentally distracted. Many of you took the Zombie Zone Quiz to find out if you were in that zombie zone. If ministry stress is draining you, this post offers some practical guidance.

pastors under stress

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If you currently feel like a zombie pastor, what can you do to renew your passion, energy, and zest for ministry? Consider these 10 simple steps that can help you regain your joy and step into God’s healthy zone.

  1. Admit that something is out of kilter in your life. Simply naming the problem is your first step to solving it.
  2. Share with a safe friend that you feel like a zombie and ask him or her for prayer and support.
  3. Take an honest look at your average week. Does it include a full day of rest when you disconnect from all things ministry?
  4. Start getting 30 more minutes of sleep each night.
  5. Schedule time each day when you email or do social networking. Don’t get sucked into them every hour.
  6. Ask the Lord to renew your strength.
    • But those who wait upon GOD get fresh strength. They spread their wings and soar like eagles, They run and don’t get tired, they walk and don’t lag behind. (Is. 40.31)
  7. Do something fun that you enjoy doing. Make a date with yourself each week and do it. Don’t feel guilty that you are taking time for yourself.
  8. If it’s serious, find a coach or counselor who can help you dig out. Even if it’s not serious, periodically see a coach or counselor to help give you perspective.
  9. Ask your closest friends and family to tell you when they sense you are mentally preoccupied. When they tell you, write down what was on your mind. Learn how to catch yourself when you become preoccupied with those thoughts so you can change them and become more present with others.
  10. Practice silence and solitude. See the related posts below for insight on this important spiritual practice.

How do you keep yourself emotionally and spiritually healthy so that you don’t become a zombie pastor?

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Has Ministry Stress made you a Zombie Pastor? Take the Zombie Zone Quiz to Find Out

Zombies are big today. Big budget movies, popular TV shows,  commercials, and even zombie action figures have invaded our culture. Even before they became popular, when someone said, ‘I feel like a zombie,” we knew what they meant… they felt exhausted, lifeless, listless, and were simply going through the motions. How do you know if ministry stress has made you a zombie pastor? In this post you can find out.

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As a pastor for over 35 years, at times I’ve felt like a zombie pastor. Ministry stress, disappointments, and pressure sometimes seemed to sap my soul of life, energy, and joy.

So how do you know if you are a zombie pastor? Take the Pastor Zombie Zone Quiz. (Tweet this quote here)

A Simple Way Leaders (or anybody) Can Reduce Stress

God created our brains to help us survive in our world. Whether it’s a real threat (a bear outside your tent on a camping trip) or a perceived one (a board member or boss who acts like a bear), a part of our nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), engages the stress response. It’s that fight-flight feeling. Essentially, the body prepares to fight or flee the source of danger by shutting down or slowing non-essential body functions to send blood and energy to vital parts of our body. In this post I explain a science-based practice that can help reduce the effects of stress on your body.

A simple practice that reduces stress

The stress response also activates other body responses. It releases chemicals in your body and brain to provide extra energy and focus if you need to fight or flee, slows digestion and saliva production, increases heart rate, dilates our eyes, and sends blood to our muscles.

Aside from running away from the bear or shooting it (you’d need a permit in most places), what can we do to quiet this stress response in our day-to-day experience?

Deep breathing from your diaphragm helps.

It has been proven to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, decrease lactic acid buildup in your muscles (which causes cramping and fatigue), and make us calmer.

From a body perspective, deep breathing activates a nerve called the vagal nerve that travels from the back of your brain to your belly, tongue, heart, lungs and intestines. It’s an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the SNS’s counterpart. In contrast to fight-flight, it’s rest-digest and controls the relaxation response.

Think of the SNS as a car’s accelerator and the PNS as a car’s brake.

When you activate your vagal nerve, it releases feel-good neurotransmitters like oxytocin and dopamine and dampens the stress response. So, when you’re stressed, you want your brain to release those chemicals. Here’s how deep breathing can engage your vagal nerve and dampen your stress response.

  1. Know your body. Look for signals that it’s under stress. Some people get a dry mouth. Shoulders tighten for others. For some, their hands shake. Others experience stomach problems. Some breath faster and from their chest. Listen to your body on a regular basis to ‘catch’ your stress.
  2. Remember that breathing from your diaphragm is key. It’s called belly breathing. You can put one hand on your chest and one on your belly to experience the difference. If you are breathing from your diaphragm, your belly should move more than your upper chest, although your chest will also expand some.
  3. When you know you are under stress, get away to a quiet private place and sit down if you can. In a pinch, a bathroom stall even works. The Bible often talks about the value of stillness and quietness (see Psalm 46.10).
  4. Breathe in deeply through your nose while you count to 4.
  5. Hold your breath for a count of 7.
  6. Breath out through your mouth with a whooshing sound as you count to 8.
  7. Repeat the 4-7-8 breathing 4 times. You’ll find that this takes only a minute.
  8. Practice this every day, not just when you feel stressed.

Stress does not have to control you. You can control it with this simple breathing technique. Your body and brain will be glad you did.

What has helped you deal with stress?

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4 Questions Leaders Should Ask to Avoid Burnout

For my second book I commissioned Barna Research, Lifeway Research, and Christianity Today to survey almost 2,000 pastors to discover what issues can cause a ministry or a leader’s passion for ministry to die. I based my book on those findings. Out of those findings, four key questions emerged that every spiritual leader should ask him or herself at least once a year. stressThese questions can help us face up to areas, that if left unchecked, have the potential to kill our ministries or at best, drain the passion from our souls. Here they are.
  1. Do you have a safe person in your life with whom you can process ministry problems and pain?
  2. Have you looked deep enough inside to discover what truly bothers you about your ministry?
  3. If those who see how you respond to ministry problems were asked to tell you what they thought, would they say you need to make some major changes?
  4. To whom and how should you communicate your frustrations (your board, your staff, the church)?

You can learn more about my four books here.

You can also get a free chapter from my latest book, Brain Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry, by signing up in the right panel on this page to receive my blog posts. You have the option for signing up for them as I post them (usually 2 a week) or you can get a compilation delivered to your mailbox on Saturday.

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Are you a Pastor Stuck on Hurry?

Two experiences several years ago caused me one day to pause not only my body, but my mind as well. So often as a pastor I get stuck on ‘hurry’ mode which makes me miss moments in life God intended that I pay attention to. Here are those two sobering experiences and what I learned.

This first occurred at a local diner as I ate breakfast with a friend. The booth I choose gave me a view of the exterior entrance to the diner. Out of my peripheral vision, I noticed a middle-aged man walk up to the glass door. Nothing unusual until he reached for the door handle. He missed it, by about a foot. For about fifteen seconds he kept fumbling with his right hand to find the handle. I thought that a bit odd at first. He finally opened the door. The view from where I sat also allowed me to see the inside entrance. As he walked in, the waitress spoke to him. Then she gently held his arm and directed him to a table. He was almost blind.

In an instant I felt both compassion toward this man and gratefulness for my vision. I could have missed that moment had I been in a mental rush. Hurry is an enemy of learning. 

When I arrived at the office an hour later, the second experience forced me again to push my mental pause button.

The older daughter of one of the admin staff at the church took care of a young boy confined to a wheelchair. His body is broken, he can’t speak, he drools, but his mind remains intact. She had left him alone in his wheelchair for a few moments while she went into the office conference room. I stood at the end of the hall and noticed him alone. I walked up to him, patted him on shoulder and said something like, “You’re a bit wet. That rain is a mess out there, isn’t it?” As drool dripped off his lips, he responded was a loud grunt, the best his body would allow him to articulate.

As I reflected on these two experiences, I was reminded of a concept that author Phil Yancey described in one of his books as ‘time between time,’ a concept also called statio (read more about statio here). He explained that he tries to discipline himself to mentally pause between each day’s activity to reflect over what he just experienced and to prepare his heart for what comes next.

My encounter with a blind man and a boy with a broken body reminded me of those moments in time, statio, the ‘time between time,’ that are often pregnant with meaning, if I don’t rush through them.

Leaders are always looking ahead for the next hill to climb. But sometimes we must pause and make ourselves fully present in the moment so we don’t miss God’s subtle, but important lessons.

How have you learned to keep hurry from robbing you of those special moments?

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