good stress & bad stress

Church work is hard. It should be hard, as any meaningful work is likely to to be. Writing a novel is hard. Being a parent is hard. Doing surgery is hard. Building a business is hard.

But is church work is the right kind of difficult? It’s stressful, but is it the wrong kind of stress? There’s such a thing as the right kind of stress, where pressure creates strength and value, and our response to it has the potential to make our churches more authentic and meaningful. Without stress, we wither. Without challenge, we become passive, we stop growing.  The right kind of stress sharpens our responses and gives us the opportunity to cultivate places of vitality and deepened faith.

Yet when I look at the challenges of church work these days, the things that are inherently stressful, I see a different kind of stress, one that’s far less productive. It’s the stress of upkeep, of stretching resources to keep up with the bigger church down the road, of keeping things afloat rather than building something dynamic and lasting. It’s a stress that doesn’t seem to be helping much.

Church work is wonderful work…at least it can be. Consider all the things that we as pastors and leaders get to do: we shape lives around prayer, we care for souls, we fashion and guide communities. We get to build something deeply valuable and lasting, and to read and write and proclaim some pretty remarkable things.  We get to walk alongside some of the most loving and lovely people around.

So why is it that church can be so challenging? I won’t litanize the many reasons here, but I know that if you’re responsible for a church that you have between seven and twelve reasons why you didn’t sleep so well last night.

It helps to separate the good stress from the bad. To me, good stress is: walking a family through a crisis, preparing a good homily on a deadline, taking on a tough conversation with your governing board, looking seriously at changing patterns in church and responding to them, working long hours in Holy Week to craft the best liturgy possible. This stuff is hard, but you hit your pillow at the end of the day knowing that your work meant something.

Bad stress looks a lot different, and tends to come when we or the people we serve aren’t taking seriously the reality that something has changed. Trying to “fill pews” without asking why they thinned out in the first place. Offering programs that folk ask for but don’t attend. Fitting a dynamic community (that waxes and wanes) into a static shell that, in in the case of my church, happens to be really big and cavernous.

Bad stress tends to be rooted in recovering something we had 20 or 50 years ago, whereas good stress looks much farther back to lay a foundation for present ministry and future flourishing. There are fine things to learn from that recent window of time, but not perhaps as much as we might think.

I like good stress. It’s good for me, and it’s good for my church. I get restless when I don’t have enough of it to make my work feel satisfying. When I have a whole lot of the bad stress, though, like bad cholesterol I want to get it under control.

Stress is never fun, but in can certainly be productive. We’ll always have to deal with both. Perhaps the key is to sense the difference between the stress that comes from impossible expectations and the stress that’s rooted in building something that will last.

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