Search GlobalChristians


The Management Of Stress, Burnout, Threat, Conflict and Misunderstandings In The Ministry

by John Edmiston based on the material in his book Biblical EQ



The main sources of stress in Christian ministry can be grouped into four broad areas:

1. Doing too much or doing things that are too complex.

2. The perception of threat in some form - personal, relational, organizational or financial.

3. A major values conflict with the church or ministry that one belongs to.

4.The inability to handle "difficult conversations" -such as those involved in confronting or managing others.

This article will address each of these four areas in turn.

1. Stress and Burnout Due To Doing Too Much

In the following section on Stress I am using the published work of Brisbane based Christian psychiatrist and stress researcher Dr. William Wilkie and in particular a chapter from his book “Understanding Psychiatry”.

Stress is the emotion we experience when our brain cannot cope with all the processing that is required of it. The physical brain is like you desktop computer and if you have too may programs running it can slow down or “hang”. There is “just so much” your brain can do at once. Dr Wilkie theorizes that this is due to the capacity of the reticular formation, an area at the back of the brain that filters incoming data and decides what will get attention and what will be discarded.

For instance you are driving along a pleasant country road in Australia, listening to the car radio and enjoying the view. Then a kangaroo jumps out in front of your car. Your reticular formation switches the focus of your attention in a split second, you no longer pay any attention to the radio or the view and every particle of your attention is focused on the kangaroo and how to avoid hitting it. Deciding what is urgent and important and of value for the brain to process is the job of the reticular formation and most of the time its automatic. You do not consciously think “’I’d better stop listening to the radio and looking at the view, I think I’d better concentrate on the kangaroo.” That’s too slow. Most of the time the change in attention is lightning fast and automatic and not under a great deal of conscious control.

Now the problem comes if in addition to the kangaroo you have a truck coming in the opposite direction and a ditch on one side of the road and a large tree on the other. In this case you will probably hit the tree. Why? Because the reticular formation won’t cope with all the situations at once. It will process the huge oncoming truck and the sudden movement of the kangaroo and maybe even the yawning menacing ditch by the side of the road but the tree is just “part of the landscape” and there are lots of trees so you “won’t see it” and you may well hit it.

On a much less dramatic scale this happens to busy modern people every day. There is too much to do and “stuff falls off the plate”. There are some things that we know we should be paying attention to, that just don’t happen. We get that clogged up feeling in our head and we might even say “If I have to think about one more thing I’ll scream” Or “Stop the world I want to get off!”. That clogged up, “I cannot cope with all this” feeling is what we call stress. We feel stress when we have too many things, that are too urgent, too complicated or too important, to be all processed at once. In extreme case sit can lead to burn-out or stress breakdown.

Stress breakdown has three stages. Firstly our system fires warning bells about the overload we are experiencing and we feel stressed and anxious and uptight and tense. These uncomfortable feelings are trying to tell us that we are doing too much and it would be a good idea if we slowed down. They are saying “You are driving yourself too fast, back off.” Many people ignore these warning signals, they like “driving fast”, living on adrenalin and they have an image of wanting to do more than others. So they suppress the anxiety by an act of will and keep going. They then become in danger of second stage stress breakdown.

In stage two the person loses control of emotions and finds themselves getting angry or upset very easily. They can cry one minute and laugh the next. These sudden emotional changes are termed “emotional lability”. The person in stage two stress breakdown also lose their ability to adjust to change and to motivate themselves to get started though once they have started they can work as hard as anyone else. The system is beginning to crumble at this point and the person becomes subject to psychosomatic disorders as the body tries to slow the person down. These include migraines, headaches, asthma, dermatitis and hay fever. The immune system suffers and resistance bacteria and viruses already present in the person’s body may be able to cause disease. These include common infections such as colds and ‘flu, herpes virus infections, mouth ulcers, lobar pneumonia, boils and pimples, tonsillitis and urinary tract infections. Most people get the hint at this point and slow down but for some who do not they can go into severe, third stage stress breakdown commonly called burn-out. This is characterized by three things, and unfortunately they are generally not recognized as being stress related.

The three symptoms of third stage stress breakdown are:

1. Avoidance of sensory stimulation

2. Development of intolerance, and

3. Apparent change in personality.

The brain’s circuit breakers have cut in. Everything is being rapidly simplified to reduce the number of issues the person has to deal with.

In order to avoid sensory stimulation the person may retreat to the countryside, separate from their partner, stop having sex, avoid loud music and stop going to shopping centers. Sounds will seem too loud, ice too cold, lights too bright. They will switch off the radio when others turn it on. They will go outside and walk around and just “space out”.

Development of intolerance is a mechanism for making life easy to classify, so the reticular formation can deal with the backlog. If the shades of gray and complex questions can be eliminated life becomes simple and things can be processed again. If everything can be reduced to the binary states the brain is most comfortable processing, then it can whiz through the decisions. As the decisions are made the clogged up feeling goes and some of the stress can be removed. Racism and intolerance may have their roots in our brains ability to process information and cope with change. Intolerance over things that our intolerance cannot hurt is actually, in a weird way, useful. Say someone was intolerant of Communists in Russia – that simplifies things for them and probably won’t hurt the Communists one bit. (I am not justifying racism and intolerance here, its wrong, but it may help to know some of why it arises). The danger is when intolerance is close to home and we apply it to people we know. In third stage stress breakdown people become totally intolerant of small things “If you leave your shaving hairs in the sink I will leave you”. I personally know of cases where that has happened. Just a small thing, that was previously tolerated or laughed at, becomes a major drama. Things previously tolerated become unable to be tolerated in third stage stress breakdown.

Lastly the person in third stage stress breakdown may have an apparent change in personality and change their values. They may be unable to resist cult recruiters, they are easily brainwashed, they have sudden changes in beliefs and ideas and attitudes that required some will or effort to maintain are likely to be abandoned. Some talk of a strange feeling of peace and purity that comes with this process as everything gets radically simplified. There is also a loss of the “law of strength”. Normally a slight tap on the knee elicits a slight movement and a large tap on the knee a large movement. The law that a small stimulus generally elicits a small response and a large stimulus a large response is known as “the law of strength” and is a sign of a normal functioning of the nervous system. In third stage stress breakdown the person ignores the electricity bill and major responsibilities while becoming preoccupied with trivia. When the electricity is cut off nobody in the house can understand why the bill was not paid. All the aspects of the personality change can be attributed to the person avoiding complexity in their life.

We have seen that our emotions are linked to our brains ability to do the processing that the mind requires of it. The mind is the key here. It is what is actually telling the brain what it should and should not process. The mind labels the input as important or unimportant, urgent or not urgent. This labeling starts early in life and continues throughout life.

Some people develop the anxiety producing habit of putting “urgent” labels on everything a bit like a mistaken worker at the Post Office who puts Priority Paid on every article. This is a very stressful habit as it creates a high load of processing for the brain. If "everything" is important, then nothing gets properly prioritized - and further more the brain "clogs up". This will result in a)poor work habits b) feeling frozen and stressed leading to c) low productivity. Thus by making everything important the person actually sets themselves up to fail.

.Others put the urgent and important labels on things they have no control over. If the way your father treats your mother is totally important to you, and as a small child you have no control over that, then you will become stressed out, anxious and helpless. Similarly if what the boss thinks of you is important, and you have very little control over that, then work will be stressful for you. The cure is to direct attention to areas that are actually under your control. Instead of trying to please the boss, try to do high quality work - because you can control that. Focusing on your work rather than on people’s opinions is less anxiety producing and stressful and will probably impress the boss as well.

Finally we can put urgent and important labels on the wrong things and get into fights over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. We can stress ourselves out with apologetics issues that are of limited importance in real life. Its probably not your job to worry about every one of the 6000 cults on planet Earth or to refute their doctrines one by one. By overloading our brain with unnecessary issues we can make it impossible for our brain to work properly. Our mind can give our brain so many tasks to do that it freezes up. You can ask too much of yourself. In such cases you need to ask yourself the following questions:

1. Am I trying to do too much?

2. Is what I am doing too complicated?

3. Is what I am doing too urgent? Am I trying to do too many things in too short a space of time?

There are ways to get a right perspective on your workload. Make a list of all you are trying to do in one column, then have a second column where you decide whether or not that thing is a responsibility that is under your control, God’s control or someone else’s control. Then in a third column write down what action you will take on those things where you do have some control. I often find that of thirty or so things that are worrying me they can be reduced to about eight concrete steps of action I can take. That eases my mind a great deal.

If the mind can pack the brain too full it can also unpack it. We can learn an emotionally responsible lifestyle where we ignore our egos and the inner demand to do more, more, more. We can settle down to a quiet Christian simplicity that just does what God wants us to do. Paul writes, “Make it your ambition, to lead a quiet life”. That seems a strange use of the word ambition in the 21st century. We are to consciously and ambitiously aim at simplicity and quiet living in all godliness and peace. By doing that we will be able to avoid burn-out and establish Christ-like and loving emotions. Lets look at a few verses:

(1 Thessalonians 4:11 NKJV) that you also aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you,

(1 Timothy 2:2 NKJV) (pray ) for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.

(1 Peter 3:4 NKJV) rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.

Leading a quiet life was Paul’s aspiration and prayer and is precious in the sight of God. On the other hand rattling around in a stressed out state and living on adrenalin is worldly and foolish and emotionally irresponsible. God can better do the work of the Kingdom with people who live quietly and love deeply and rest in His guidance. Remember “My yoke is easy…and you shall find rest for your souls”. The harried, hurried Christian lifestyle is not spiritual though it may appear so. In 1987 I was on 27 Christian committees and I felt important. And feeling important was about all I achieved! The truth is we are spiritually important if we do God’s will, in God’s way, in God’s time, at God’s pace and live quiet loving lives in all godliness and truth.

Stress can damage us emotionally and spiritually and lead us to make silly mistakes in ministry. It does not indicate a loss of commitment or a lack of spiritual strength and endurance to adjust your life so that it is quiet and godly. That is God’s will for you.

Galatians 5:22,23 mentions "the fruit of the Spirit", I find that when I am too busy “the fruit of the Spirit start falling off the tree”. First I become impatient, then less gentle, inconsiderate and rushed rather than loving and fractured rather than full of peace. If you are so busy that your sanctification is slipping - then you are too busy to be obedient to God, and that is way too busy!

The thing that finally cured me of "busyness" was when I figured out that nobody really cared a great deal about how much I produced. Once a certain satisfactory level "X" of basic production is reached in ministry then people are satisfied. They don't seem to care if you do X or 10X - but they do care about who you are and how well you treat them. What they really want is to see Christ in you, watch you grow and sense your love and care. You are a fruit tree not a factory - and people want to taste the fruit. Fruit trees are quiet and grow best in quiet. So live quietly not stressfully!

2. The Perception of Threat

There is a critical board meeting, its going to be tough. Do you go in "ready to fight", or do you go in with a resignation letter - or do you work out how to spiritually master the situation and behave with poise and dignity? There are many perceived threats in ministry - spiritual attacks, threats to our paypacket, threats from criticism, threats to our ego or our professionalism, threats from boards and even in some cases physical or political threats. Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul, Nehemiah and Daniel, Moses and the prophets, all ministered in environments full of threats to their persons. To do so they had to master a response known as the "fight or flight response" (going in to combat or handing in the letter) and establish spiritual mastery of the situation. This next section will discuss this in quite some detail. Once you learn to master threatening situations the emotional stress of ministry will considerably diminish.

Fight, Flight or Mastery

The “fight or flight response” is a physiological response that humans and animals have in response to threat. It is the decision to fight the threat or flee from it. It is a "gut level" instinctual evaluation of the situation. It does not take high level thinking to engage in the fight or flight response. Even the most unthinking of creatures such as an ant can make the decision whether to avoid an intruder or whether to stand their ground and fight. The fight or flight response is fast, rough, instinctual, and sometimes quite inaccurate.

The fight-or-flight response is a useful instinctive response with high survival value, but it is not the stuff of wisdom, ethics, or the Spirit. Under the rush of the adrenalin that the fight-or-flight response releases people can quickly perform great feats of strength; but they can also behave absolutely stupidly. This is because adrenalin signals the body to send blood away from the brain where it is needed for thinking and send it instead to the muscles, where it is needed for running and fighting. When people combine these two aspects of the fight-or-flight response and quickly perform great feats of strength which are stupid , unthinking and ill-informed we have the groundwork for violence and tragedy. When societies give in to their instinctive fight or flight responses we see factions, disputes, wars and vendettas breaking out. Survival may seem to depend on the fight or flight response but true civilization depends on taming it and mastering it.

Why is the fight or flight response so destructive and if so why do we have it? The fight or flight response was meant to operate in a human being who was connected to God. This connection would have moderated and altered the response. But now we are not so well connected and its become one part of us that has been most affected by the Fall. Cain was the first person in Scripture who was faced with the task of managing murderous rage (Genesis 4:7) – and he chose to fight instead. His descendant Lamech boasted of murder (Genesis 4:23,24) and by the time of the Flood his descendants had “filled the earth with violence” (Genesis 6:11). Trusting fallen human beings to choose self-mastery rather than fight or flight was a total failure. Eventually Moses came along with the Law, which pointed the way to what was right and wrong and gave very reasonable and agreeable limits for human conduct. The Law also failed. Finally God sent His Son and the laws of God were written on our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 10:16) that we might become spiritual overcomers (Revelation 21:7). This has worked but even so it has been no easy task. Only re-establishing the connection with God has brought any measure of control to the fight-or flight response.

The problem with the fight-or-flight response in fallen humanity is that it eliminates rational choice and when you eliminate rational choice you eliminate all sorts of things like freedom, morality, love and decency. When the fight-or-flight response occurs blood flows to the hands and feet and away from the brain and huge shots of adrenalin and other hormones take over and the fast action control centers of the brain come into play and suddenly you are exploding at people, or running, or fighting. In common parlance your “buttons have been pressed” and you are just reacting at an entirely visceral and instinctual level. This is not a bad thing when you are running away from a charging rhinoceros. Speedy reactions may be a very good thing. However in modern life the provocation that sets off the response may be a cutting remark or a threat to our ego in the office. The feeling of threat is enough to set off the entire chemical cascade that is known as the fight-or-flight response.

Road rage involves people reacting to rudeness as if it were the proverbial charging rhinoceros. A minor incident becomes a matter of life and death. The perception of threat and the impact of adrenalin cause us to react without choosing our reactions. Startled people have accidentally shot their family members thinking they were burglars and soldiers have fired on their own troops through the sheer speed and inaccuracy of this response. You cannot be Christ-like and filled with rage and gut-level fight or flight responses. Neither can you be a timid, always retreating wimp soaring into anxiety attacks like a frightened bird at every alarming news item which is one effect of the “flight” side of the response in modern life. The fight or flight response removes our ability to make wise, free and balanced moral choices and is definitely not the stuff on which Christian character is built.

[Lest I be misunderstood its not wrong to fight under some circumstances if it is a rationally chosen and wise moral act. At other times its Ok to retreat and avoid certain troublesome situations as long as it is thought through, wise and moral to do so. The great biblical warriors like King David fought battles and won victories but they did so out of deep character not out of flash-pan rage. The military heroes of Scripture like Gideon, David and Jehosophat were people of mercy and thought and heart and balance. They were not just big bundles of anger walking around looking for a fight and they were not governed by the fight or flight response.]

Mastery

The alternative to the fight or flight response is to achieve mastery of the situation. Jesus always demonstrated mastery of any and every situation He was presented with. He neither fought the soldiers who arrested him or fled them but rather throughout His entire trial demonstrated an amazing degree of personal mastery. At no point in His life did Jesus give in to the adrenalin-filled panic of a fight or flight response. He could have gathered an army but He did not. Perhaps He could have fled hostile Israel and gone to Greece and been welcomed as a philosopher, but He did not. There were times when He avoided Jerusalem because of the hostility and because His time was not yet come yet at no point did He react from instinct alone.

His actions were masterful, strong, wise and spiritual. His Spirit-filled mind had total mastery over His flesh and His instincts. This gave Him power, poise and a degree of personal authority that seems to have been the main aspect of His personality that people admired and is frequently commented on in the gospels. The following verses are just some of the verses that show how other people saw Jesus as having authority and how Jesus saw His own authority being used to master situations. (Matthew 7:29, 8:9, 21:23-27, 28:18-20, Mark 1:27, Luke 4:32, Luke 9:1, 10;19, John 5:27, 7:17, 12:49, 14:10, 16:13, 17:2)

Jesus was not thrown even by encountering the Devil in person. During the temptation in the wilderness Jesus met the Devil in a face-to-face spiritual encounter that must have been of incredible intensity. The Devil was out to destroy Jesus, he was malice incarnate, and he was beguiling, tempting, and pushing Jesus into a wrong response. Jesus neither fled nor fought. Jesus mastered the situation, resisted the temptations and used His authority to deal with the problem. Jesus did not flee. He mastered the temptation to avoid the encounter and thus preserve himself from possible spiritual harm. He faced the dangers of the Devil at full force. He stood His ground against pure evil. Jesus did not fight. Jesus did not launch into an aggressive tirade against Satan. There was no raw and red-necked stream of spiritual vitriol directed against the Devil. Instead Jesus defeated Satan through the calm use of God’s authority based on God’s Word. Jesus mastered the situation.

The biblical example of Jesus in the wilderness shows us that even if we think a situation is utterly evil and threatens our health, identity and success (as the wilderness temptations did for Jesus) that we do not need to get upset and become reactionary. Nor do we need to pack our bags and run. We just need to calmly and authoritatively expose that situation to the truth of Scripture and the authority of God. We want to end up moving through life as Jesus moved through Israel, and cope with our pressures and threats as he coped with His.

When I speak of mastery I am not speaking of sinless perfection. Mastery is more like a combination of faith, courage, decisiveness and balance. It is having spiritual authority, poise and power in all situations. It asks questions such as: How can we tackle every situation in life as if it were the perfect golf shot? How can we master every threat and every frustration with grace, power and poise? How can we move through a grossly unjust trial without losing our cool? How can we forgive those that nail us to the cross? Of course these reactions are the supreme achievements of a Perfect Life. They are what made Jesus the spotless Lamb of God. While we may not always achieve them we can aspire to them and discipline our minds toward them.

Lets move from the cosmic to the comical and consider my attempts at playing golf. Once every few years I am dragged out onto a golf course by a friend. When the ball lands in the rough, as it often does, I have three possible responses – fight, flight or mastery. I can become depressed at the difficulty, give up on the shot and pay the penalty – that is the flight response. I can hit wildly with all my might and try and blast it out of there – that is the fight response. Or I can call up my considerable golf prowess, concentrate carefully, keep my eye on the ball, visualize the wonderful trajectory it will take and get it out of there with just the right touch. This is the mastery response and as you may well guess it is the most difficult response and the hardest to perfect. I rarely get it right, but it is the one I wish to practice and reinforce. There is really no other possible choice since the other two responses just lead to failure. Mastery is the hardest choice but it is the only choice that goes anywhere.

The Mind Is The Key To Mastery

I need to spend a few paragraphs defining what I mean by “Mind” before we go too far and get confused. By the Mind I do not mean various individual thoughts or mind as intellectual activity or a set of intellectual abstractions. I mean mind as the entire mental framework of the person. We use the word Mind this way in the phrases “single-minded” or “open-minded”. Mind in this sense is an inner state of consciousness that has certain properties. The mind is controllable and can be focused by the believer. Paul asks us to set our mind on various things such as the Spirit, things above, and the pursuit of maturity so the mind is something we can focus on God. For those of you who enjoy Greek the phren word family phroneo, phronema and phronesis , phronimos is in view here. Thus the mind is that part of our total consciousness and awareness that we have some control over. In this definition it does not include dreams or the sub-conscious. The sub-conscious is part of our mind in a larger sense but not part of it in this narrow sense we are using it here because we have no real control over the subconscious and cannot discipline it or focus it. Neither is mind in this sense the scattered thoughts that drift in and out of a person who is daydreaming or watching TV. Of such people we sometimes say “their mind was switched off when they watched the movie”. Their inner consciousness was inactive. Thus the mind is what thinks when you do some real thinking. The mind is where you receive and mull over wisdom and where you make real choices about your actions. That’s your mind. It is that part of your consciousness that you can control and exert and which bears a close relationship to the “real you”.

Throughout this book I will keep saying that the mind is the only part of our consciousness that we can control, and therefore it is of vital importance. I do not mean to imply that we are all mind or that the mind is superior, rather it is part of an integrated whole which it directs. The mind is like the wheel on the bridge that controls the rudder of a ship. The navigator plots the course and then the wheel is turned to a definite bearing and the ship holds that course. The course of the entire ship is determined by where the captain’s wheel is set. The wheel is the only part of the ship that can be focused on a direction or course of action. The engine will drive the ship anywhere, the cargo hold does its job, the air-conditioning makes it bearable but the wheel, connected to the rudder sets the entire direction and destiny and decides which port the ship will go to or even if it will be shipwrecked through carelessness. The mind is that part of us which we can steer and which we can plot our course with. It’s the only part of us that can do that job. Therefore it is decisive.

We need to love God with our whole being – mind, spirit, soul, and strength, and all these parts of us are vital and important but it is the mind that directs the spirit, or the soul, or our energy and strength onto God and His purposes. The mind is the critical point where the decisions are made and the course committed to.

The mind in the sense of the phren word family generally means the wisdom and understanding especially of the righteous (Luke 1:17, Ephesians 1:8). This mind be set on various things. When Jesus rebuked Peter he said he was “not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men." (Matthew 16:23, Mark 8:33), the legalistic Romans nit-picking about food and drink were literally “rules-minded” in the Greek (Romans 14:6). The mind can be set on the flesh or the Spirit (Romans 8:5,6) and things above (Colossians 3:2) or on earthly things (Philippians 2:19), which caused Paul to weep. Due to the renewing and infilling of the Holy Spirit we can even have “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:14-16) and when we are humble servants we have a mind like Christ’s (Philippians 2:5). On the other hand we can have a childish mind (1 Corinthians 13:11, 14:20) Unity of mind is important and Christians are to be one-minded and like-minded. (Romans 12:16, 15:5, 2 Corinthians 13:11) This word family can also mean the careful, prudent mind, that which thinks of others, the mindful and thoughtful person (Philippians 1:7, 4:10) though the word “mind” is rarely used in English translations of this aspect.

Thus it is clear from the New Testament that the sort of mind we end up with is entirely our choice. We can focus or mind on God’s interests or man’s interests, the Spirit or the flesh, the things above or earthly things. We can choose to be humble, like-minded, unified and thoughtful of others or we can choose to be puffed up, childish, contentious, worldly and carnal.

Mastery and The Mind

Mastery is a product of the focused and disciplined mind bringing the whole person into submission to an over-riding ethic or ethos. Throughout history everyone from Zen monks to Spartan warriors and corporate traders have discovered this. People have become masterful human beings by disciplining themselves in all sorts of pursuits from archery to fencing to philosophy. That is why competitive sports, while trivial in themselves, have shaped many a person for the better. The somersaults of a champion gymnast are in themselves quite pointless. They don’t feed the hungry or make any great philosophical point. Its not doing somersaults that makes the gymnast great but the discipline he or she puts in. The sport builds mastery and mental strength into the gymnast so that when the days of gymnastics are over the character remains. Another point, the focus must be external to self. The gymnast does not find self-mastery by focusing on self-mastery. He or she finds self-mastery by focusing on somersaults.

The mind is the only part of our consciousness that we can focus and direct therefore it is the only part of us that can give us mastery. A million dollars will not give you personal mastery. People who win the lottery often end up poor because of their lack of personal mastery. The money has not made them masterful. A strong body will not give you mastery except of certain physical skills. Athletes can be enslaved to alcohol or drugs. Education will not give you personal mastery, there are many well educated people who are small-minded and weak-willed. Willpower won’t give you mastery as the will can simply become stubborn and inflexible, unable to adapt to changing situations and thus lead to inevitable defeat. Even religion won’t give you mastery. Many people are enslaved by cults, caught up in bondage to religious guilt or overtaken by idolatry and superstition. Only the adaptable, flexible, trained, focused and disciplined mind can bring mastery.

Please be clear about this, I am not advocating mentalist philosophies, mind science, Christian Science, or think and grow rich kinds of mental mastery. They are half-truths. The mind is not a terribly significant force in itself. The mind does not have the ability to create heaven or hell as Blake thought. God creates Heaven and Hell. Reality is His creation, not ours. The mind does not create the world but it does enable us to move through it with poise and power. The mind is not God. The mind works best when it is set on God. In biblical terms personal and emotional mastery is a product of the mind set on God and imbued with His Word and authority. The unaided mind operating alone by itself cannot produce mastery of the kind we see in the life of Jesus Christ. For that kind of mastery we need more than positive thinking. We need a direct connection to God and the mind must be resolutely set on God, on the Spirit, on things above, on the Kingdom, and the righteousness thereof.

Directing The Christian Mind

So we see that we are faced with three universal truths: Firstly that personal mastery is the only wise option. Secondly that such mastery is solely a product of the mind. Thirdly that the mind becomes masterful as it is disciplined and focused on something outside itself. This book maintains that the highest degree of mastery can only be attained when the ‘something outside itself” is God. You can achieve a sense of mastery by focusing your mind on fencing or gymnastics or horse-riding but you won’t end up like Jesus just by focusing on those things. The mind must be directed onto Christ. That is its proper place.

This directing of the mind is a forceful and decisive activity. It is hard to put into words. It is not concentrating on Christ, neither is it speculating about Christ or studying or daydreaming about Christ. It is not even thinking about Jesus as such. It is not an internal, reflective or meditative process. It’s similar to standing outside yourself and directing yourself onto Christ. Its like standing at the top of a high-dive tower and looking down and plunging in with total commitment. It’s choosing where your life energies will be focused and your mental processes directed. It’s like going outside yourself but towards Christ at the same time. I suppose you could call it faith, or at least faith is very much involved in it. I am stuck for an analogy. It’s a little like those missiles that lock onto their target or a cat focused on a mouse. The whole of the mind is fixed on Christ and directs the total life energies of the believer in that direction. As this focus is attained everything else is entrained, the emotions, the will and the responses. Just as someone absorbed in a video game entrains all their concentration, emotions and will into the game so a Christian absorbed in Christ, with their mind set on the Spirit, inevitably brings their whole life into conformity with Jesus.

It may not be immediately obvious but when we direct our mind to a purpose it means that we commit ourselves to the rules and techniques that the particular purpose requires. For instance in writing this book I must follow the rules of the English language. I am hardly conscious of that because I have internalized many of the rules. Now and then the spell-checker or grammar checker on this computer alerts me to where I am going wrong. Then I correct it. That is part of writing, part of the project, and part of being focused on writing a book. Following the rules of English grammar is not bad or awful. It’s not a restriction on my freedom or a legalism or a lack of grace. It’s just required. Mastery of anything means sticking to the rules. Similarly, following Jesus has rules. Submission to the commandments of Jesus Christ is not optional if we are to stay focused on Christ and know life and peace. Obeying these commandments is not the whole of the Christian life but they are part of the discipline of the Christian life. They make it flow and if you are to have mastery in the Christian life you must decide to obey the rules. You cannot just make up the spiritual life as you go along any more than you can decide to reinvent English grammar every time you write.

Deciding to totally set your mind on Christ and achieve total life mastery is the very hardest thing you will ever do. But what are the alternatives? To potter along lamely is not much of a life. To refuse it totally is to go into eternal darkness. But the effort seems tremendous, the focus too narrow and the rules too hard. The focus must be kept and we are unruly. We are prone to distraction. We are far too easy on ourselves. We don’t want to get up and practice. We want heaven from our armchairs. So we make a commitment to Christ, then that fades, then another one, then a spiritual breakthrough, and then a slack patch. We are all over the place. Our minds are set on ourselves, or on our finances, or on the opinions of the Christian community or on the success of our ministry. We find easier goals and substitute foci. We become anxious, stressed, harried and spiritually weak. We need to come to a point of final decision where we look at the mess, pull ourselves together and decide with all that is within us to focus ourselves totally on Christ alone and pursue single-minded, focused, disciplined mastery.

People are drifting around in ministry without a real and solid connection to God because the cost of staking everything on God is too high. You must come to that decision. The Christian life is unlivable without it. You cannot dabble in the eternal. You must commit totally to it and direct your mind to it.

Prerequisites For Self-Mastery

The absolute prerequisites of spiritual progress are that you are born-again with a new nature from God, that you have the filling of the Holy Spirit and that you are single-mindedly devoted to God in obedience to His word. Without these three things you do not stand a chance.

Unless you are born-again you do not have a new nature. Without the new nature it’s an impossible job. If you are not Spirit-filled and led by the Spirit in your daily life then you will not have power over the flesh (see Galatians 5:16-18) and you will struggle continually and lose continually. If you are not single-minded you will be double-minded and double-minded people receive nothing from the Lord (James 1:5-8). You will be left wallowing in your doubt and indecision. These three things are the basics. Before I go on to talk about techniques in self-mastery you must have these three things in your life or be prepared to have these three things in your life as soon as possible.

Practical Techniques For Emotional Self-Mastery

Its fine to talk about the need for a personal relationship with God and having one’s mind set on things above but how will that keep someone from exploding next time someone cuts them off on the highway? What are the practical tips for mastering our fight-or-flight response and for mastering life?

There are thus two levels to emotional self-mastery. Firstly we must set up the foundations of the new self and the God-focused mind. That renews our connection with God and sets up some spiritual lines of control over the fight or flight response. Then we must learn the practical details of responding to life intelligently and wisely.

Overcoming Paralyzing Fears

The flight part of the fight-or-flight response has not received a lot of attention so far. Its not as dramatic and many people simply dismiss it as weakness or nerves. When it blossoms into fully-fledges agoraphobia people disconnect from life for fear of giving a panic attack in public. Fear can create a state of life that is almost unbearable. The person becomes over-reactive, nervous, withdrawn and anxious and may be filled with phobias and obsessions. Dr Claire Weekes has done some wonderful and compassionate work on this and every pastor should read her books which are listed under “agoraphobia” in the reference section at the back (of Biblical EQ). Below I will summarize, very briefly the central points of her work.

Life circumstances cause the person to reach, at some point in their life, a point of nervous exhaustion in which fear that already exists cannot be suppressed or controlled by the will and during which new fears can be easily implanted. (See the section on stress above)

Strange frightening thoughts then appear in a tired mind. The person worries about these thoughts. This further activates the fight or flight response and exhausts the person and so they have even less energy to control their fears with. More fears then surface, the person then worries, and so on in a vicious circle. The strange thoughts in the tired mind eventually reach such an intensity that they lead the person to the threshold of panic. A small incident then triggers a full-scale panic attack, which, if this spiral continues, may become the first of many.

Mastering such fear means moving away from the fight or flight response. Instead of trying to fight the fears or run away from them they are just accepted. This position of not fighting and not running away disengages the fight or flight response, lowers the adrenalin levels and helps the person think. They are encouraged to go slowly because the need to “hurry” or take action activates the fight or flight response. They are encouraged to rest, eat properly and recover strength and get over their prior depletion. This enables then to get some perspective on their fears. They are told that the only way to deal with fear is going through it and her famous phrase “even jelly legs will get you there” has helped man agoraphobics. Of great importance is floating through experiences. The problem with fearful people is they engage life too tightly. When you grab life too tightly it bounces you round and you end up either struggling with it or fleeing from it. A bit of detachment can lead to peace of mind and Claire Weekes teaches “floating through” normally traumatic experiences (for agoraphobic people) such as shopping in a large mall. The person floats through the shop door, floats around the store, floats up to the counter, floats out the money and pays for the goods and floats out again. The person is slightly detached but not dissociated from reality and is able to do the task that was impossible before. Dr Weekes has reduced a whole lot of complex medicine to four short phrases that are of great help to those who have panic attacks - and to the rest of us as well!

1. Face, do not run away.

2. Accept, do not fight

3. Float, do not tense.

4. Let time pass – do not be impatient with time.

Hints on working these out in your life are contained in her excellent books which are listed in the reference section. Mastery of fear means setting the mind in the right stable position. We set it into the situation but without fighting it. We are calm. We are like Tiger Woods looking at a golf ball in the rough. Its no big deal, small problem, he can handle it. Neither are we tense. Some people believe that being tense is being responsible; being tense means you are putting the effort in. That is a mistake; being tense ruins the golf shot and also ruins life. Jesus was not a tense person and Jesus was the most responsible and committed person who ever lived. And mastery means letting time pass. Jesus never seemed to care about time, Abraham and Moses took years, seemingly wasted years. By letting time pass we actually use it best. The people who look the most hurried and who have the most time-consciousness with their organizers are generally the junior executives. The members of the board seem unhurried. Thoughtful, careful, responsible and wise, but unhurried. There is a lot of spiritual wisdom for anxious people in the four phrases above. As an exercise think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and during His trial using the four concepts above – facing, accepting, floating and letting time pass.

Self-Control and Other Control

If we are not self-controlled we are other-controlled. In other words if we do not take charge of our emotions then they will be up and down with every change in the weather, every different circumstance, every tiny provocation. If we do not take positive and definite control of our emotions we will simply be flotsam and jetsam on the sea of life. Basically the choices are self-control or other-control, mastery - or madness in its various forms.

There is a common myth that other people can “press our buttons” and make us explode with anger or burst into tears or react emotionally. “He made me so mad”, “She seduced me, she made me have sex with her” and so on. Most of the time, this is just plain untrue. Generally you were able to master your emotions in that situation but you chose not to.

The Red Button

Say you are in a heated domestic argument, with much shouting and red-faced anger, and the telephone rings. So you pick it up and suddenly your voice is calm and rational, you say hello nicely and take the message. In doing so you just took control of your strongest and angriest emotions. You mastered yourself, in a second of time; just in order to answer the phone. You knew how to calm down and you did. You knew how to stop shouting, and you did so. You demonstrated instantaneous movement from powerful emotions to complete rationality; switching off your fight-or flight response as you did so. It was impressive. The phone incident demonstrated that you do possess the power to instantaneously master strong emotions. You can do so easily and routinely in order to avoid embarrassment. Why then do you not use the power you have when you answered the phone more often? That is the power we call self-control and you do have it.

The phone incident shows we have an “off-button” for the fight or flight response. We can switch it off suddenly and completely. The off-button is like the red emergency button they have on trains where I come from in Brisbane, Australia. The red button is behind Plexiglas which must be broken by effort but once that button is pressed the whole train with its hundreds of tons of locomotives and carriages comes quickly to a grinding halt. Your fight or flight response may seem like a runaway train but you have the red button and with a bit of effort you can stop it completely.

Hitting the red button is as easy as saying “Stop” to yourself in a firm and commanding tone of voice (either audibly or inaudibly). The red button can be pressed as soon as you decide to take charge of yourself and your emotions. This involves coming to the realization that you should take command of you emotions, then doing so by switching off the fight-or-flight response and returning to a rational way of being. Lets break down the phone incident and see how that happens:

1. You are caught up in the argument. Your face is red, the anger is surging, you are floating on the adrenalin and in a strange way the rage feels good. You are letting fly. You are half-aware that the rage is controlling you but you don’t care. You are going with the flow of the fight or flight response.

2. The phone rings, you pick it up.

3. You realize the call is important.

4. You realize your present responses are inappropriate.

5. You decide to take control of your emotions.

6. You switch off the fight or flight response. (By pressing the “red button”).

7. You return to a rational and intelligent way of being as you take the call.

The critical point is when you decide to take control of your emotions. Realizing your emotions are inappropriate is not quite enough. You must make a definite inner decision. Some people realize their emotions are inappropriate but think “what the blazes” and let fly over the telephone as well! That inner decision, that choice between “what the blazes” and “I’d better cool down” is critical. That’s the equivalent of breaking the Plexiglas. It’s the bit of effort that’s required to stop the whole shuddering train. After that decision is made pressing the button is easy. When you put yourself in control of yourself you achieve mastery. When you decide to put your mind in charge and not your adrenalin you win. You must make the firm and definite decision that even when emotions are powerful you are going to be in charge of them. This is not repression, it self-control. It’s the sane, rational, functional part of you being in control of your emotions. Its deciding to appoint your Spirit-filled mind as the CEO of Myself Inc.

This is very powerful. No-one can make you react emotionally unless they use so much force (such as torture) that they actually break you. If you definitely decide not to laugh (say at a dirty joke), no-one can make you laugh. If you definitely decide not to cry, (say in order to stay together in an emergency) then no-one can make you cry. Your emotions are yours to express or repress. You are in control of them. You can stop them and you can let the go. Your mind can decide how you will or will not react as long as you make the decision to put it clearly and absolutely in charge of your life.

Application To Ministry Situations

How do we handle the tense board meeting, the angry critic, the threatening phone call, the funding crisis, the law suit, the accusation against our character or the rock through the bedroom window? How would we handle ministering in Harlem or being a missionary in the Congo during a civil war? In such situations we must be absolutely in control of our fight or flight response. Visceral reaction in delicate or dangerous situations can ruin ministries. One angry sermon can end a pastorate. One punch can land you in jail. Even running away or resigning can make you lose your respect in the eyes of many. We need Jesus' sense of mastery at every turn and that comes through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

  1. Firstly take the situation to God in prayer - as Hezekiah did when he spread out the threatening letter before the Lord ( 2 Kings 19:14) as the early church did (Acts 4:29,30) and as David frequently does in the Psalms (e.g. 92, 138).

  2. Don't give in to paranoia or to conspiracy theories but trust in God: (Isaiah 8:11-13 NKJV) For the LORD spoke thus to me with a strong hand, and instructed me that I should not walk in the way of this people, saying: {12} "Do not say, 'A conspiracy,' Concerning all that this people call a conspiracy, Nor be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled. {13} The LORD of hosts, Him you shall hallow; Let Him be your fear, And let Him be your dread. ( see also my article on conspiracy theories. )

  3. Don't resign. (Ecclesiastes 10:4 NIV) If a ruler's anger rises against you, do not leave your post; calmness can lay great errors to rest.

  4. Be aware of when you are tensing up or starting to run or panic and bring yourself back to center. Be aware of tensions in your muscles, a racing heart, a flushed face, a clouded mind, and other signs of the presence adrenalin. Calmly bring these signs to God and tell Him and ask Him to help you towards Jesus style mastery. Do not be like Cain who indulged his anger (Genesis 4:7) instead of mastering it.

  5. Be angry but do not sin (Ephesians 4:26). Walk around the block, go jogging, chop firewood, use up your adrenalin in some constructive activity.

  6. Do not stew over things so you stay angry - "do not let the sun go down on your anger" (Eph 4:26).This keeps the fight-flight response active and shuts down constructive Christian thinking.

  7. Remember that God has let this come your way so that you can master it - not so that it will crush you or destroy you. ( 1 Corinthians 10:13)

  8. Ask God to give you the power of the Holy Spirit to master the reactions of the flesh. (Galatians 5:16-18, Ephesians 5;18-20). Then "set your mind on the things of the Spirit" (Romans 8:4-6) which results in life and peace.

  9. Then ask God for wisdom regarding the situation and try to work it through calmly, masterfully, wisely and well. (James 1:5-8).

  10. It is generally better to search for the constructive Christian solution rather than to over-analyzing the cause and the problem. When our mind is on "the problem" we tend to stay in fight or flight mode, whereas when it is looking for the solution in faith - then it tends to be more easily in mastery mode.

3. A Major Values Conflict With The Church Or Ministry That One Belongs To.

An enormous amount of stress can build up in a Christian worker who senses that she or he has a major difference of values with the church, mission agency or Christian ministry that he or she belongs to.

Most value clashes are in reality "personality clashes" or cries for attention because of unmet emotional needs in the Christian worker. In a highly functional team a wide variety of values can be tolerated. But in a highly dysfunctional team there can be major clashes over minor differences. We need to look under the surface of "values clashes" and theological differences to see what is really hurting us.

However there are also genuine values clashes where there is a change in basic theology or a new practice is introduced that is markedly different in tone and content. These may require mediation.

A. Values clashes that are "trained into us". Some Calvinists have been taught to "fight' Armenians and vice-versa and some evangelicals are conditioned to "take on" liberals in defense of the faith. However even when faced with the Devil in the wilderness Jesus did not embark on a tirade. No theological difference should spark a fight or flight response, and as the parable of the Good Samaritan shows, love can cross over irreconcilable religious differences such as that between Jews and Samaritans. see article. We need to overcome our cultural and religious differences with love.

B. Values clashes that really stem from an unmet emotional need. Missionary Bob is in Uzbekistan , a long way from home, friends and mission HQ. Deep down he feels a need for some human attention, a little recognition and validation. Issue after issue of the mission magazine comes out and he is never even mentioned. He feels that no-one notices him or cares about him. In one office memo Bob notices a theological error - so he writes to Mission HQ expecting a response, but deep down he is actually seeking acknowledgement that he exists and is important to them. However he is ignored and no response is forthcoming. He then feels wounded and out of his woundedness he decides the theological issue he wrote about really is important. He writes another, angrier letter. He backs himself into a corner, all the while the theological concern is a cry for help and a need for love.

C. Values clashes that stem from misunderstanding. Differing personal, cultural or religious expressions can mean that people can actually be in total agreement, yet perceive they have a major clash of values. For instance what "holy simplicity" means for a European on one hand or a Korean on the other is quite different. For the Korean it may mean 3 hours of prayer each morning, and riding a bicycle. For the European, holy simplicity may mean one hour of prayer a day and driving a Toyota Corolla. Thus the Korean may see the European's lifestyle as insufficiently pious and very materialistic and perhaps the European may think his coworker to be a little "over-the-top" and legalistic. Yet BOTH are genuinely attempting to live lives of "holy simplicity". They are in basic agreement - with significant cultural variations. Personality differences, cultural differences and theological differences can mean that Christians in basic agreement can perceive each other as being in conflict. Careful expression of each person's perceptions and underlying values can assist in clarifying such situations.

D. Values clashes that arise from change The church or pastor can change theologically, there can be new brooms and new organizational cultures, or someone can mature and decide they need more independence and freedom than their organization provides. In such cases both sides need to acknowledge that change has occurred and work through whether the change is temporary or permanent, whether it can be accommodated and whether the change is as large as it is being perceived to be.

E. Values clashes that are abiding and substantial. If there are values clashes over basics such as the inspiration of Scripture, the Trinity, the nature of Christ or a major fundamental doctrine of the faith then it is time to leave. Some things are too precious to be negotiable. Certainly we should have liberty in non-essentials - but there are also "essentials". These essentials are the beliefs and practices that we consider non-negotiable. For instance the ordination of homosexual clergy would be an issue that would seriously concern me. I would oppose any such move. An individual bishop questioning the resurrection would not make me leave, but if that bishop not corrected and perhaps was even lauded for his views - then I would feel that a fundamental of the faith was being violated. In such a situation we still have to move away from a "fight or flight" response and seek the wise mastery option. Angry letters to denominational papers just create unproductive "hatred and strife". In a severely dysfunctional situation such as that in Corinth division may even be necessary: (1 Corinthians 11:18-19 NIV) In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. {19} No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. If you are involved in a major, necessary division, then leave graciously, and act wisely so that your departure can be blessed of God and you will have no regrets over your actions.

Handling clashes of values

4.The Inability to Handle "Difficult Conversations"

Values clashes are just one example of the many "difficult conversations" that are part of life in ministry. Reprimanding a lazy co-worker, bringing church discipline graciously yet effectively, dealing with conflicts and rumors. These are very stressful events for many people. Learning to handle them and understand them is essential.

The following principles are contained in the book "Difficult Conversations" by two members of the Harvard Negotiating Project. (I have lost my copy but I am sure you could find it on Amazon). The authors found that Difficult Conversations involved three aspects - facts, feelings and identity issues. In any difficult conversation the facts, feelings and identity issues are operating simultaneously. For instance say you are asking your secretary to redo the church bulletin because of a large number of mistakes.

Facts: There are a large number of mistakes and the bulletin must be redone.

Feelings: Pastor: frustration, annoyance Secretary: awkwardness, defensiveness, guilt.

Identity: Pastor: This is my image, the church's image and its awful. Secretary: I'm stupid, I always make mistakes.

The pastor should handle this by minimizing the embarrassment and conscious that his secretary may be feeling awkward. "I know you are a good secretary and that you may have been in a bit of a rush. However there are just too many mistakes and it needs to be redone. Please don't take it as a criticism I know you do good work." Perhaps if this is well received he may mention his identity issues. "Thanks, its important that the church has a good public image and the bulletin is an important part of that." If the secretary surfaces her own identity issues then the pastor may address them "You just said that you are dumb and always make mistakes. That's not true, you do excellent work, or I would not have hired you. The occasional mistake is part of life and I am glad that you are responsible and professional and will fix it."

It takes practice to think of the facts, feelings and identity issues as you go along in a difficult conversation. Strange reactions are a good indication that there is "more" at work. When you get a strange or more powerful than usual reaction look for the Facts, Feelings and Identity issues. for instance if I leave my shoes somewhere and my wife is upset she may be feeling "John is not being helpful, he doesn't care about my workload." This can lead to "Maybe he doesn't even love me.." . In such a situation arguing over the facts "What does it matter of my shoes are here instead of there" won't resolve the issue. Putting them away and showing helpfulness will.

As we practice Facts, Feelings and Identity we will become much more confident in difficult situations and able to understand and operate in ministry with greater poise and power.

Conclusion

The above skills are simple, essential skills for peace and mastery in ministry. Once you learn to deal with being stressed and overwhelmed, and understand how to masterfully handle your perceptions of threat and insecurity, and to work through values clashes and difficult conversations - then you will be well on your way to many happy years in Christian ministry. I suggest you print this article out and read it from time to time. There is also my free ebook Biblical EQ - A Christian Handbook For Emotional Transformation that covers these topics in greater depth.

Blessings,

 

This article may be freely reproduced for non-profit ministry purposes but may not be sold in any way. For permission to use articles in your ministry, e-mail the editor, John Edmiston at johned@aibi.ph.