Strategies to De-stress Leadership
By Sheila S. Hudson
“Put the big ones in first,” my father-in-law advises.
Today Pop-Pop is in his element with his 14 great-grandchildren as his audience. He lets each of them try filling a jug with rocks, sand, and water. After putting sand, pebbles, and water in the jar, however, the children discover the larger rocks won’t fit. Then Pop-Pop shows them the secret: When you place the big rocks in the container first, then the sand, pebbles, and water will all fit, as well.
It seems to me this may be the formula for leadership. Leadership, especially church leadership, presents daily challenges with stress-producing potential. This isn’t all bad, because tense situations provide a boost in adrenaline and strength. Performers of every ilk, including ministers and church leaders, rely on this quick energy to achieve many goals. Anxiety (another word for stress), according to T.S. Eliot, is the “hand maiden of creativity.”
Stress tenses muscles, quickens breathing, and fills us with superhuman strength. Stress in a dilemma can save a person’s life. But a constant adrenaline high often results in hypertension, headaches, anxiety, stomach ulcers, and chest pain.
Misplaced worry and anxiety has landed many a leader in a counselor’s office or in the hospital with a spastic colon, painful arthritis, or insomnia. Christians are not immune to distress, but Peter gives us an alternative, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Those who mean well often quote this verse as a universal remedy for worry. But at times it only serves to add to our stress by piling guilt atop other anxieties.
Christian leadership has many layers that may include abiding worry and anxiety. Distress is an unavoidable part of everyday life. Leaders are individuals with personal lives, careers, and obligations. Unless a leader is in full-time ministry, he is balancing a career, family, and community involvement, each one bringing its own set of demands, deadlines, and expectations.
Thus, a Christian leader’s average workweek, combined with various other responsibilities, easily looms to a staggering 60 hours accompanied by fast food, sleep deprivation, a sedentary lifestyle, and a demanding schedule. This is a formula for disaster.
In a survey conducted in 2006, the Center for Creative Leadership looked at the amount of work-related stress leaders experienced. The study showed that 88 percent of leaders found work to be a primary source of stress, and that having a leadership role increased their stress by 75 percent. In addition, most indicated that their level of stress had grown by 65 percent in the last 5 years.1
C. Randy Gregg, CEO of Corporate Performances Resources, defines stress as “having too many demands and not enough resources.” Fortunately for leaders, he has devoted himself to filling this void with books full of stress-minimizing techniques.
Taking Pop-Pop’s demonstration as a model, let me share some of Gregg’s suggestions.
Acceptance—The first big rock that should go into a person’s life is acceptance. Accepting stress as part of life and leadership is a big step. Only by accepting limitations and shortcomings can a person enjoy freedom to progress in his or her chosen area.
When I accepted my limitations and failures in ministry, I gave myself—as well as others—grace and the freedom from striving for perfection. In order to complete the acceptance step, I needed to confess my shortcomings and depend on Jesus as the cornerstone for my life in ministry.
Surrender—Surrender is handing the reins to God; it is not a giving up, but a relinquishing. When I surrendered my anxiety and fears, my confidence and creativity soared.
American writer Napoleon Hill said, “Worry is a state of mind based on fear.” Fear freezes, but faith gives freedom. Dependence on God gives new meaning to your prayers for wisdom, courage, and a humble spirit. Acquiesce to the Holy Spirit.
Self-care—A leader can give superior guidance only when nourished in mind, body, and spirit. God has fashioned his creations to thrive when we live balanced lives that include study, silence, and solitude. His perfect world is a balance of harmony and peace. We must create a place of solace where our spirits are fed.
Bill Westfall of Impact Ministries wrote in his blog (www.williamwestfall.posterous.com) that each member of Impact’s staff takes one day a month for prayer and reflective thinking. Quieting what he dubs the “busy-ness” of our life is one of the most difficult, yet most rewarding, tasks. He credits Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking In Your Organization by Daniel Patrick Forrester for helping him slow his pace and navigate through outside interruptions.
Self-care requires self-management. Take time for the important. Resist the temptation to become bogged down with the urgent and neglect the important. Look to Jesus as a model. He retreated to a mountaintop for prayer. He carved out time to teach his inner circle of disciples. He rose early in the morning for private meditation. Jesus managed his personal needs so he could minister to others.
Re-creation—Along with physical self-care, Christian leaders require stimulation and regeneration. Our society changes rapidly. Boundaries move regularly. Christian leaders must constantly rearrange priorities and reexamine beliefs. New developments challenge church leaders every day. Our spirits need encouragement. Our minds need renewal. Our bodies need refreshing.
Fill your life with the big rocks of acceptance, surrender, self-care, and re-creation. Build on that bedrock. When the grit of conflict and sand of criticism trickle in, they will not take hold.
Pop-Pop was right. Put the big rocks in first. Arrange a firm bedrock foundation, and everything else will fall into place. Fill your life with the important things first, and the rest will take care of itself.
1Michael Campbell, et al., “The Stress of Leadership,” The Center for Creative Leadership, a CCL Research White Paper, available at www.ccl.org/leadership/pdf/research/StressofLeadership.pdf.
Sheila Hudson is a freelance writer and cofounder of Bright Ideas. She serves as copresident of the Southeastern Writers Association and is a speaker for many occasions; firstname.lastname@example.org.