10 Ways Pastors can Escape the Ministry Stress Zombie Zone

In a previous 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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How Chronic Stress Affects Leadership

Our brains play a vital role in effective leadership (duh!). That’s pretty self-evident. Yet, this often overlooked brain fact profoundly reduces leadership effectiveness – chronic stress diminishes your ability to lead because of how it affects your brain. In this post I list five ways chronic stress does that. Whether you’re a pastor or a business leader, effective leaders understand how their brains affect their roles. In my next post I’ll provide some solutions to these problems.

Chronic stress affects leadership in these ways.

  1. It amplifies fear and anxiety.
    • Chronic stress leaves the stress hormone, cortisol, in your body and brain for extended periods of time (as well as imbalancing brain chemicals called neurotransmitters). As a result it keeps the brain’s fight-flight center (the amygdala) on high alert which turns up the dial for fear and anxiety and leaves it there. Fearful leaders don’t lead well. 
  2. It gives you a ‘shorter fuse.’
    • Parts of our brain compete for energy and other resources it needs to work effectively. When the amygdala stays on high alert, it hogs those resources and our brain’s ‘thinker’ (the front part called the pre-frontal cortex) has less of those resources available to pause and reflect before reacting. Leaders who react make dicy situations even worse.
  3. It impairs good decision making.
    • Reduced resources for our brain’s ‘thinker’ also affects our ability to think clearly necessary to make wise, thoughtful decisions. The thinker can literally go ‘off-line’ in stressful situations when a leader has been under chronic stress for a long time. Leaders who don’t make good decisions can hinder their churches’ or organizations’ ability to reach their goals.
  4. It diminishes memory.
    • A key part of the brain involved in turning short term memories into long term memories is called the hippocampus. Chronic stress actually shrinks this part of the brain which makes us more forgetful. Leaders who forget important information or commitments they made to others can lose trust from those they lead.
  5. It decreases motivation.
    • A fundamental way brain cells talk to each other is through chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Chronic stress creates an imbalance of these important chemicals which can lead to depression, listlessness, and decreased motivation. Unmotivated leaders struggle to lead their churches or organizations forward.

So, chronic stress hurts the brain which impairs our leadership.

In my next post I’ll offer some practical suggestions on how to deal with chronic stress.

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Rejection: How to Keep Other People from Feeling It

I blew my knee out, but that wasn’t what hurt the most. I was left alone and felt rejection. Pain is a given in life. And usually when we think of pain we’re only thinking about physical pain. But social pain is just as real and perhaps more hurtful. In this post I share what recent neuroscience has learned about social pain and some practical tips how pastors and leaders can avoid multiplying social pain in others.

In college I could run fast. I had joined a college flag football team and I was their deep threat. I could outrun most of the other defenders. During one game the quarterback had me run what is called a down and out. I was to run ten yards and take a quick pivot to the right. He would then pass the ball to me.

We lined up. I took off. I planted my left foot. I turned around and caught the ball and something in my knee exploded. I crumpled to the ground in agonizing pain. The team had to carry me off the field to the sidelines. I was out of the game but after a few minutes I was able to hobble around, still in considerable pain.

When the game ended, all my teammates left. The field where we played was a mile from my dorm room and I didn’t have a car. Nobody asked me how I was doing. Nobody offered me a ride. It took an hour to hobble back to my dorm room. The next week I learned that I had blown out my knee which later required surgery.

As I write this, I don’t feel the physical pain from the injury. But I still can feel a tinge of rejection I felt that day when no one showed me any concern. I’m not angry at the guys. I can simply feel some of the pain of rejection I felt then.

It’s a brain thing. Neuroscientists have discovered that our brain records social pain, like rejection, in the same place  in our brain where we feel physical pain. In other words, getting rejected really hurts just like physical pain really hurts. That day I got a double whammy.

Across multiple languages we even use words to describe social pain that we typically use to describe physical pain like, “she broke my heart,” or he “hurt my feelings.” Disapproving facial expressions can even create social pain, especially those most prone to feeling hurt from rejection.

So what can we do as leaders to avoid unintentionally hurting others? I suggest three tips.

  1. Help your church be more aware of those who are alone on Sundays. Often before a service you can easily spot those who are sitting alone. The same is true after church for those who stand alone in the lobby or in your café. Encourage your regulars to look for people who are alone. And when they see someone alone, encourage them to introduce themselves to the person and genuinely seek to make them feel welcome.
  2. Be careful with your facial expressions. Be aware that our facial expressions often communicate more than our actual words. Studies show that even looking at disapproving faces can evoke social pain. Without being fake, don’t bring your ‘poker’ face to church. Bring your kind and pleasant one. If you’ve not sure what kind of face you usually bring, ask someone who is close to you to observe you interacting with others to give you feedback
  3. Finally, teach your church about the brain. Help them understand how our brain impacts community, spiritual growth, and leadership. For a primer on the brain in layman’s terms, check out my most recent book called Brain-Savvy Leaders. And watch for my next one coming out early 2019 (Moody Press) on an ancient spiritual practice called mindfulness.

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Jesus’ 6-Step Strategy for Resolving Conflict

Conflict is unavoidable in relationships. Conflict isn’t necessarily sinful or destructive, but it can be depending on what we do with it. Jesus outlines a clear, specific, and workable process in Matthew 18. And, we simply can’t improve on what Jesus says. I’ve summarized into a 6-step process the essence of what I believe Matthew 18 teaches us.

Before I suggest these steps, here’s the actual passage of Scripture.

Matt. 18.15   “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.  16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.  18   “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19   “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” (NIV)

  1. Determine if you really need to approach the person about the issue.
    • In verse 15 Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you.” In other words, we simply should drop some issues. If we can pray through them and commit to not using them against the other person, drop it.
    • But if you can’t, what might warrant taking the next step?
      • Go if the issue is seriously dishonoring Christ.
      • Go if the issue is damaging your relationship with the other person.
      • Go if the issue is hurting others.
  2. If you do, go with the right heart and attitude.
    • In verse 15 the Scripture says, “If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” The win here is that the relationship stays intact, not necessarily that you reach a resolution, even though you hope you do find one. Ultimately the goal is not to win an argument or point out the error of the other person’s ways, but to reconcile. It takes a right heart to help make this happen. In this post I outline 5 ways to prepare your heart.
  3. Prepare for your meeting with the person before you go. Do your homework.
    • Assuming that you’ve arranged a meeting with the person, don’t go in blind. Give some thought to what you want to say. Proverbs 14.8 tells us that, The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways.
    • I’ve found that the acronym, DESC, provides easily recallable mental hooks to guide such a conversation.
      • Describe the behavior that caused the conflict.
      • Explain the emotions you feel/felt when it happens.
      • State the desired changed behavior (the solution).
      • state the positive Consequences the new behavior will bring.
  4. Go in private and in person.
    • We often miss this step yet Jesus is very clear on this when he states, “just between the two of you.” By going to the other person first it avoids prematurely pulling somebody else into the issue and stops potential gossip. Plus, a face-to-face meeting allows us to observe body language which experts say accounts for much more of a message than words alone.
    • However, sometimes it may be wise to seek counsel from an objective party so he or she can give us objective advice.
  5. When you meet, use grace-filled words.
    • If in our conversation with this person we put them on the defensive, the meeting’s over. Grace-filled conversation, however, can create safety and openness to resolving the issue. A great verse that speaks to this is Ephesians 4.29.
      • Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
  6. If you reach a dead-end and feel the issue warrants it, enlist others to help.
    • Sometimes the issue is so serious that even after repeated 1-1 attempts to reconcile we must take the next step. In verse 16 Jesus says if we reach a stalemate, we must include others in the process. Often the leadership in the church should be included at this point. And then if the other party simply refuses to budge, the church must take more severe action (v. 17). Seldom do issues warrant such a drastic step. Yet, God sanctions such action for the sake of the unity in the church (vss. 19-19).

What steps would you add to this list that have helped you resolve conflict?

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Burnout: How to Dig Out

From time to time every leader and pastor faces burnout. The well runs dry. He or she becomes weary in well doing. He runs out of gas. She simply has nothing left to give. When we totter on the precipice of burnout, what can we do? As I’ve faced those times during my ministry, I’ve learned a few ways that have helped me dig out.

  1. Recognize the symptoms
    • Everybody’s burnout looks a bit different. Sometimes burnout comes from doing too much outwardly with over busy schedules. Sometimes burnout comes from an inner world in turmoil: worry, incessant anxiety, and fear. I suggest starting with self understanding. What does your burnout look like? Which of these factors might indicate you are burning out?
      • The joy you once had seems to have disappeared. You seldom have fun anymore.
      • You consistently sleep poorly.
      • You feel non-localized, free floating anger in your heart.
      • You catastrophize in your thinking, assuming the worse in people and life.
      • You easily snap, lose your cool with friends, families, or people in the church.
  2. Rest
    • After you recognize the symptoms, I’ve found that rest really helps. Whether it means taking time off, taking more breaks during your work day, getting more sleep, or trimming your schedule, the body and soul needs rest. Neuroscientists have coined a term for excessive wear and tear on our body due to prolonged stress and burnout, allostatic load. When we don’t give our body and brains time to rejuvenate, we prolong our burnout and its negative effects.
  3. Re-visit
    • Third, revisit your core values and mission. I encourage every leader to develop his or her own mission statement, their mission God has called them to achieve with His power. Most weeks when I do my strategic planning, I revisit my mission statement and personal values. If you’d like to see mine, you can click here. In this post I talk about the importance of developing your own personal values.
  4. Re-orient
    • The final step is to re-orient your time and effort to best live out your personal mission, without burning out. I suggest taking a half day alone to reset your goals and adjust how you use your time. Here’s a post on how to plan a retreat.

If you’ve faced burnout, what has helped you?

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