I tightened the lug nut just a bit beyond its torque tolerance level. There was the clear, distinct sound of a snap and my project lay broken in two pieces. It’s called a ‘stress fracture.’
It can happen in mechanics. It can happen in leadership. I work in the area of Pastoral Care for leaders. As we pass the sixteen-month mark of COVID in Canada, I am more frequently encountering leaders whose accumulating stress is reaching a ‘torque tolerance’ level. Unless they take steps to back away from the pressure and recover some objectivity, something will have to snap.
Because of my own propensity to depression, I have had to build some safeguards into my life to prevent ‘stress fracture.’ Perhaps they will be helpful for you as well.
1. A Disciplined Personal Devotional Life
Jesus modelled this for us. He deliberately and intentionally built times with His Father into the routine of His life. If He, being God the Son, understood His need for this, how much more should we recognize our need. There needs to be a quiet place in our life, a place where we can be refreshed in the presence of God our Father. These intentional interludes keep the pressure points of our life and ministry from escalating to a danger point.
2. Practice ‘Work Spurts’
As the COVID dilemma has persisted, I have discovered that I work best in fairly short productive spurts. An internal pressure begins to build as I subject myself to long periods of concentrated time in front of the computer or iPhone screen. We may not even realize it is happening. It is imperative to take short de-escalation breaks every hour. It is like releasing the valve on an over-inflated tire.
3. An Alternate Activity
It is important to have an interest, a hobby, a diversion outside of the parameters of your work. That activity should re-energize you. It should not demand more energy capital. It should involve some aspect of physical motion. It is interesting to note that watching Television or Netflix is an energy draining exercise and does not qualify as a positive alternate activity. It will ultimately leave you more tense.
4. Family and Friend Enjoyment
God has placed us in family units for the purpose of our wellbeing. The tendency for pressure driven people is to withdraw from simple dialogue, banter and humour. All three of those ingredients are stress relieving. They should be, first of all, sought in the context of an immediate nuclear family. If that is not possible, it is imperative to have a small social circle of friends to provide that outlet. Stress fractures usually occur when a person chooses to isolate themselves from others.
5. Authenticity to all, Close Confidence in a few
Nothing ramps up stress like ‘pretense.’ When we are living behind a façade, the pressure to keep up the act is intense. My own mental health journey arbitrarily forced me into vulnerability. People witnessed a weakness in me that was beyond my control. Surprisingly, it did not affect the trust they had in me as a leader. When I resigned after seventeen years of ministering in one location, the comment I heard most often was this: ‘Pastor, in your vulnerability, we found hope for our own situation.’ Authenticity ramps down the pressure to perform.
It is important however to understand that the deepest confidences of life, the heart issues, the internal struggles are best shared only in the context of a few proven and trusted friends. When divulging such matters, one does not need censure or judgment but compassion, honesty, and empathy.
6. Whose Bride?
It would be false to suggest that I did not experience points of great stress in ministry. There were times when I pushed hard against the ‘torque tolerance’ of my emotions. This inevitably was associated with my responsibilities as Pastor. It was in one such moment that I sensed the Lord speaking to my spirit: “I will build My Church!” It was not my role to build Christ’s church. He would do that. If I attempted to build His Church, it would become idolatry in my life. Reminding myself of this often, kept me from owning responsibilities that were not mine. My task was to obey what the Spirit was saying to me and the yoke Jesus had for me was easy and the burden was light.
We must respect the Bride of Christ, nurture and provide for her. If we try to marry her, we are committing adultery with someone else’s Bride.
7. Jump off the guilt train.
At one time or another ‘guilt’ plagues us. We say within ourselves: “If they only knew what I wasn’t doing!” This has become even more prevalent since the onset of COVID and frequent ‘work from home mandates.’ A prominent leader recently confessed to me, this onset of a sense of guilt in his life. Acquainted with a consistent, regimented work schedule, he now found himself restricted in what he could do. The guilt was overwhelming him.
I have found an antidote to such feeling comes with the understanding that God does not measure His grace to us according to the level of our personal productivity. If our concept of acceptance by God is based on the amount we accomplish for Him, we have missed the very essence of ‘Agape’ – unconditional love. Our justification before God is not based on a record of good works, but on grace alone. When guilt threatens to take me past torque tolerance, I go back to examine the nature of my relationship with God and fall back on His grace.
8. Read the Sermon on the Mount once per week
William Wordsworth, renowned nineteenth century British poet lamented with these words. “The world is too much with us, getting and spending we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours. We have given our hearts away . . . “
With the pressures of my role, the bombardment of a Christ-less media, the negative emotions generated by a world gone askew, the world becomes too much with us. I am not immune to that.
When all of those things combine to rob me of my peace of mind and leave me in a state of ‘worry,’ I return to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5,6,7). Those reassuring words of Jesus Himself, help back me away from the cliff. I have made it a practice to read them and meditate on them frequently. It has kept me from stress fracture.
Worry is simply out-of-control concern. Reading the Sermon on the Mount and allowing the Holy Spirit to filter those truths into the depths of my own spirit has helped me to turn fruitless worry back into a healthy and reasonable concern.
(resource: The Anxiety Cure – Dr. Archibald Hart – published by Thomas Nelson – 2001)
9. Learn your own ‘torque tolerance’
I used to envy individuals who seemed to be able to function at an overwhelming level of stress. I have come to realize that we are all created uniquely and are able to handle different levels of pressure. Socrate’s great maxim was: ‘Know thyself!” There is wisdom in that statement. Understand yourself well enough to recognize when the pressure in your life is mounting to a dangerous level and respond accordingly.
10. There is Help
The Canadian Mental Health Association states that 1 in 2 Canadians will face some type of mental health challenge before they reach the age of 40.* That is 50% of the population. The biographical witness of the Scriptures would indicate that great men and women of God have never been free from dangerous levels of stress.
We are fortunate in our cultural context to have wonderful professional Christian counselors who are able to help us regain equilibrium in our lives when we have broken under pressure.
There is help. There is hope. There is healing.
Life and leadership will present its pressures but these are ways we can counteract those pressures and mitigate their effects.
One of my preacher favorites, Dan Betzer says, “I think that one day we will stand before Jesus and He will look at us and say. ‘I really hadn’t meant your life to be so grim.’” He is probably correct.