A word of advice for newbies and old hands in ministry on dealing with stressful situations.
Silvia Purdie ministers at Cashmere in Christchurch.
Sooner or later in your ministry, things will get ugly. Shit happens. People get hurt. People get mad. And the underbelly of your coping strategies gets dragged out into the light. When that happens, how you respond as a church leader will make a huge impact on the outcomes.
1: Live with it
It hurts. Deal with it. Live with the pain. Stressful situations are thoroughly unpleasant because they push our ‘Unbearable Feelings’ buttons (and other people’s!). It hurts. It is intrusive. It goes around and around in your head. It is hard to concentrate on anything else.
Your first and primary task is to accept your own emotional response. It’s yours. Sure it might be triggered by other people’s crappy actions, but your emotions are yours and yours alone, and you will survive them. Our worst stuff-ups come from our attempts to avoid feeling feelings we don’t want to feel.
2: Pain is redemptive
You are given over to Jesus Christ. That’s the deal. We follow him, our Lord and Saviour. And this will drag you into stuff you would rather avoid. This will hurt, in ways you never knew you could hurt. Jesus said “when you are attacked” (Matthew 5:11), not ‘if’, but we like our illusion that we can keep everyone happy all the time (I do, anyway!). We preach, but do we really know, that the suffering of Christ is the way of salvation? Surely this doesn’t have to apply to me?! Paul knew it, that attack, failure and humiliation forms us in the cross of Christ so that the life of Christ might be revealed in us even at our worst. You have to live this stuff before you can really preach it. Sorry about that.
3: Do you what you can, face to face, as soon possible
Decide what you can do and what you can’t do. When you do know what the right thing to do is, do it. This generally involves fronting up, making an appointment with someone, even when you really don’t want to. My friend Alistair is far older and wiser in ministry and he put it this way: “I back away. I feel badly about someone. My tendency is to stall & want to avoid conflict rather than deal with stuff. The last thing I want to do is deal with it face to face with someone. But I tell myself that it’s better to do it sooner rather than later. It’s really important to not let things get bigger in your own head, and to not let problems get bigger between people – and talking in person is the best way.”
4: Never click ‘SEND’ when you’re angry
Emails are dangerous. In the crisis I went through not long ago I was called all sorts of nasty things in emails. It was so hard to not reply in anger.
Be very careful who receives your emails. Always personally address every email you send. If you are addressing it to one person and copying it others, write at the top of the email “(copied to …)”.
5: Contain, hold, contain
Crises escalate because people naturally want to tell the world. It’s our job as leaders in our organisation to encourage healthy containment. Obviously we can’t and shouldn’t control all flows of information, but it is very helpful to be very clear about who will have access to what information. Decide who will be party to conversations, and respectfully ask those not involved to trust the process. Seek agreement from those involved to not ‘leak’ to Facebook or neighbours or reporters.
6: Stay in your lane
This one I struggle with. I can see what should be done and I really want to power on and do it, even if it really isn’t my place. I need people around me who can say ‘no’ to me and help me be uber-clear about what is my job and not thrash around doing other people’s jobs. One of the best gifts of competent leadership in a crisis is role clarity (not easy when everyone has different expectations!).
7: No surprises
When I’m in crisis mode my brain races and I fire off emails left right and centre. Then I’m surprised to find that other people don’t appreciate not knowing what I’m going to do next. This is me in ‘Fight mode’. If you get caught in ‘Flight/Freeze’ response you may find other people getting annoyed when you do not follow up on things they thought you had agreed to do. You might catch yourself half agreeing to things you don’t really agree to. Or acting the chameleon trying to keep everyone happy and so pleasing no one.
Competent leadership in a crisis looks like telling everyone what you are going to do before you do it and then doing it. No surprises, no excuses, no ‘pretend agreements’.
8: Facts are your friend (deBono’s ‘white hat’ thinking)
The funny thing about ethical issues is that they look very different from different perspectives. This is cognitively disorienting … if you go down one track there is clarity and a particular emotional response … if you go down another track it is a quite different point of view. Things which seem very important to one person don’t matter to another. Someone getting intense or upset seems perfectly justified over here, but if I go over there they’re just creating a storm in a teacup!
This is partly why it is so important to clamp down on our public expression of emotion. Because when you express strong emotion this is like a weather system that blows up debris and distracts others from being able to see things from your perspective.
The ‘white hat’ is very important, as this can be passed around from person to person. Let’s agree on the facts.
9: Study the Stress Response
A dragon has moved in. Get to know it. Study it. Learn what makes it flare up and how to calm it.
We used to see anger and fear as very different kinds of emotions. These days we understand them to be two sides of the same thing – the human stress response. It’s called ‘Fight/Flight/Freeze’ (FFF). It massively changes your brain and makes it almost impossible to think straight. It’s set off by threat, and in ministry threats come in a whole host of shapes and sizes, some entirely of our own imagining!
10: Let it go
The only way to cope with high stress is to find ways to turn off your Stress Response. Prayer is key – but you’ll probably find that your normal prayer routine goes out the window. Get help. Get people to pray for you and with you. Find ways to pray and to relax so that you can sleep at night. Ultimately it comes down to who’s in charge. Actually, it is not you, it is the Lord.
My top recommendation: the Psalms. They are packed with stress and attack, anger and fear, but trust always wins out, through choosing to acknowledge who is the Lord, choosing to worship and give thanks, even when this is hardest.
11: Pay for help
Bad new is, the only people you can really talk to when you are in a crisis are people you pay. Your spouse or close friends may be awesome, but it’s actually not their problem. Have extra sessions with your supervisor, or see someone who specialises in conflict or therapy.
12: Phone a Friend
If your parish is having a crisis, your Presbytery leadership should know about it. I’ve found Presbytery administrators to be an excellent resource. Keep them in the loop. Ask them (or someone else you trust) to read an email before you send it out, or get some objective feedback if you’re in a spin. Other good advisors are: the PCANZ Communications team (esp if there’s any whiff of media involvement), Heather Mackenzie, or Reg Weeks, on any questions about Presbyterian protocols or Book of Order.
13: Get Thee to a Doctor!
Drawn-out high stress has a huge impact on our bodies. It is highly dangerous. YOU have to make your own physical health a priority. Take sick leave and stress leave. See a GP. Personally I recommend seeing a herbalist.(Many plants have God-given properties which can help with immunity, relaxation, sleep, stress-management and a host of other problems. A trained herbalist will make you up a personal mix of liquid herb that is both safe and potent. Better than pills from a health food shop.)
Exercise is the single most effective treatment for stress, so I’m told. Whatever you do to keep fit, do it, even when you don’t feel like it. (Yoga is especially good)