Stress is debilitating condition. It robs us of joy, sleep, peace, concentration, causes changes in our body that can affect our health and is strong enough to lead to a shortened life! Many of us live unnecessarily with high levels of stress - especially in ministry.
Stress has many causes but at its core it is caused by something or somebody which is a danger to our well-being, to the well being of something or someone we care about.
For instance, because I love my organization or church, a threat to their health can be a cause of stress. If there is a danger to someone I love (disease, a marriage coming apart and so on) I can equally live with a level of stress.
By itself, stress is a good thing in that it can be an early warning system to us that something is not right and needs attention. However, if not managed well it can lead to inappropriate responses on our part, anger, depression and any number of negative responses.
I want to deal specifically here with stress that is caused by a threat to us individually. It could be someone who is angry with us and wants our hide, a supervisor who is unhappy with our performance, a staff member who has gone negative, or a perceived threat to our well being. As you read this think about the stresses you currently face.
Stress will be with us as long as we are alive but there are tools that we can develop and practice which can help us manage it. Below are some of the tools I have found to be helpful.
First, it is helpful when faced by a threat that causes anxiety to ask the question, what is my part of the equation? If someone wants your hide, is there a way that you have contributed to the others anger? Is there a piece of you that has contributed to their anger? If so, can you de-escalate their emotions by a conversation and trying to come to an understanding. We always have the choice with other people to escalate or de-escalate the passions.
Second, perceived threats tend to loom larger in our minds than they should. It is the fear mechanism that kicks in. Ask yourself, "what is the worst thing that could happen in this situation? Usually the worst thing that could happen is not as bad as our emotions would paint it.
Third, consciously work to "keep anxiety low." I actually say that to myself from time to time. The truth is that the worst that could happen is rarely as bad as what we think. Further, why worry about something that could happen when it has not happened? Keeping our anxiety low is critical because in a state of high anxiety our own responses are likely to be less than healthy in a stressful situation.
Often the worst that will happen is that someone will not like us or will speak ill of us. Unfortunately this is a fact of life - even in ministry. The truth is, however, that our reputation is ultimately in the hands of God. Not us. I don't know anyone who has accomplished something in ministry who does not have their detractors. Ultimately we play to an audience of one: God. If we are motivated by the applause of others we have the wrong audience in mind
Fourth, find counsel. When under stress, our own perspective or response is often not as dispassionate and level as it could be. Bringing a trusted wise adviser into the equation is exceedingly helpful. This is not about lobbying others to take our side or to "get back" at whoever is causing us anxiety. It is quiet, confidential, Godly counsel from someone who can give us perspective and counsel.
Fifth, don't go defensive with the one who is unhappy with you. Defensiveness is never a helpful response. You may not agree with what someone says but a defensive posture is really an attempt to protect oneself, keeps us from listening and is a barrier to communication. Healthy individuals deal with conflict from a non-defensive posture with an attitude of 'nothing to prove, nothing to lose."
What if there is some truth in the accusations against you? Own them. It's OK, none of us respond perfectly. Your willingness to take a non defensive posture will significantly lower the level of anger against you because it is an unexpected response which says, "I am not going to do battle with you."
A non-defensive response, even when accusations are not true from your perspective significantly lowers the level of the conflict and can lead to a conversation with a more dispassionate tone. Even though it is a normal human emotion, defensiveness rarely if ever helps, only hurts.
A non-defensive response can be as simple as "tell me more" about why you feel that way? Or, "share with me what you would have done?"
Sixth, intentionally give the situation to God. The older I get the more I appreciate the sovereignty of God. He ultimately has control of my job, my reputation and the circumstances I face. In fact, many years ago I went through a difficult period when many untrue things about me were intentionally spread. God used that to bring me to where I am now. He has the ability to take even the worst and unfair situations and redeem them for his purposes.
Stress and anxiety are really a test of our faith. Do we believe God is sovereign, that He is good, that He has our best in mind and that even if the worst happened (above) He will still be on the throne and look out for us? Stress asks the question, "Do I really believe what I preach and teach or believe?"
Finally, it is helpful to separate the conflict from who you are. My identity is not in my job (if I feel it is in jeopardy), it is not my reputation (I cannot fully control that), but it is my identity in Christ. Conflict and difficult situations come and go, but my core identity as a member of God's family does not. No one can take that from me - ever.
Stress is an opportunity to trust God, act wisely, de-escalate passions, leave our reputation in God's hands and remember that no one can take away our core identity. If people or life is unfair, God is not. He is good all that time and he is sovereign forever.