Facing stress as a pastor and helping others do the same

By Tony Rose

In proper amounts, stress is necessary for life. Undue stress, however, can undo life.

Think of stress like a rope used for water skiing. With zero stress or tension on the rope it is impossible to ski. With too much stress on the rope, skiing becomes dangerous.

Is your stress factor so low you’re floating aimlessly in life? Or, is it so high you feel like you are about to crash?

Stress is an occurrence (event, person or problem) that creates felt pressure on and in you. Scripture teaches us we cannot control most of the occurrences that cause us stress. We are to manage or determine our perceptions of and reactions to the events, people or problems that cause the stress. 1

As a pastor or church planter, stress is your regular companion on the pathway to maturity. You must walk with it. Managing your own stress is the chief instructor for learning to help your team members manage theirs.

Are there practical tools for managing stress? Yes. Stress is not handled well by crisis management. Stress needs to be noticed and managed before it becomes fully apparent. You need to look for indicators and signals of stress and understand the art of “noticing” evidence of stress so you can manage it before it manages you or the people you work with.


Stress indicators are a noticeable change in one’s motivation, relationships and responsibilities.

The “skill of noticing” is intentionally paying attention to the people you lead. To have a soul-shaping effect in the lives of those you lead, noticing is an imperative. Paying proper attention to your team members creates an awareness of each person’s base line norms in motivation, relationships and responsibility. Knowing their norms is the key to spotting changes in these key areas.

1. Motivation

Motivation is what fuels our actions in life and work. It is made visible in six areas: energy, initiation, engagement, language, tone of voice and attitude.

We all express our motivation in these six areas but no two of us express our motivation in the exact same ways. There is not a universal model for measuring one’s motivation. There are, however, norms that are observable in each person’s life. Noticeable changes that last longer than a week in any of these six areas are usually indicators of undue stress.

As a leader, you have a double task — accurately observing your own stress indicators and those of the people you lead. You need a mirror in which to see yourself. Then you can turn the mirror into a lens and “notice” stress indicators in your team. There is a direct correlation between how well a leader assesses his own wellbeing, and how well he assesses and then addresses the wellbeing of his team members.

2. Relationships

Relationships are the DNA of life. We were created out of a relationship (the Triune God) into relationship (Adam and Eve, human society). Relationships are as essential to human life as food and water. However, the greatest costs of humanity’s fall into sin are relational costs.

Some of our greatest stressors come from relational conflict. It is no wonder noticeable changes in our relationships are key stress indicators. The leader’s footing is made sure through monitoring and maintaining health in your relationship to God, self, spouse, friends, coworkers and the lost.

Our natural tendency is to take for granted what is always around — our relationships. We simply stop noticing things and people that are around us all the time. It is God given love that generates the desire in us to pay attention to others. Paying attention to others also causes us to love them.

The state of our relationships reflects our soul’s wellbeing. Paying attention to the quality of your relationships will develop a keen sense of your own stress levels. Paying attention to the quality of your team’s relationships will indicate if they are unduly stressed.

3. Responsibilities

I am referring here to the basic functions of living. The four specific areas are health, finances, consistency and dependability. Noticeable changes in one of these areas are usually signs of a deeper instability. Something has captured your attention and distracted you from the basics of life that must be done.

Keen observation of yourself and others in these basic areas will yield much fruit. As I said, love causes us to pay attention to others. If your observations of others are driven by love, you will be genuine and strategic in your leadership of and care for your team members. Strategic genuineness gains the trust of your team.


Stress indicators are noticeable changes in a person’s motivation, relationships and responsibilities. Stress signals are changes in behavior at work.

Stress signal behaviors irritate fellow workers and disrupt workflow. Our natural reaction to such behaviors is one of disgust and our instinctive responses increase stress in an already overstressed person.

Stress signals can properly be interpreted through paying consistent attention to those we lead. Over time you will learn the stress signals of the individuals on your team.

Below are four major stress signals common to all of us. These behaviors often go unrecognized as signals of stress. The four-part question below will help you understand and identify stress signals in yourself and those you lead.

When “John” is under stress does he:

  • Under perform or press on even harder?
  • Talk more and increase his assertiveness, or does he grow quiet and less certain?
  • Begin micro-managing or begin under-managing?
  • Get irritable or overly agreeable?

Paying attention to other people will become a source of influential power in your life. As leaders, we notice others is for the purpose of loving and leading them — if it is for any other reason, you will become a manipulator and not a leader.

The art of paying attention is for developing and deploying people, not for dominating them – especially for a pastor.


There is a direct correlation between how well a leader assesses his own wellbeing and how well he assesses and then addresses the wellbeing of his team members. The gospel is to determine our benefit from the exposing reflection of the mirror and the examining look of the lens. Grace is the only thing that allows us to admit our faults and overcome them. Grace does not point out faults to condemn us but to redeem us.

When you look at yourself in the mirror of stress indicators and stress signals you are not to hear the voice of a critic. That would be you talking – or the Devil. You are to hear the voice of your Creator-Redeemer. He always speaks with the tone of grace to his children. When we look at our coworkers through the mirror turned lens, we need to speak to them as God spoke to us – with grace. This is the productive path to identifying and facing stress in your life and helping others to do the same.

1 Isaiah 48:18, Lamentations 3:16-26, Romans 8:28, II Corinthians 1:8-11.

Published June 25, 2020