Toxic Stress Load: How can pastors cope?

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Why pastors are especially prone to “Toxic Stress Load” and what to do about it

February 21, 2023 -

A man in an office, sitting in front of his open laptop, pinches his nose as he removes his glasses in a sign of stress. Many executives, including pastors, experience Toxic Stress Load. © By baranq/stock.adobe.com

A man in an office, sitting in front of his open laptop, pinches his nose as he removes his glasses in a sign of stress. Many executives, including pastors, experience Toxic Stress Load. © By baranq/stock.adobe.com

A man in an office, sitting in front of his open laptop, pinches his nose as he removes his glasses in a sign of stress. Many executives, including pastors, experience Toxic Stress Load. © By baranq/stock.adobe.com

When I saw this article, I knew I needed to discuss it with you. According to TIME magazine, something called “Toxic Stress Load” [TSL] is “the biggest barrier to living longer.” The article defines TSL as “the build up of negative physical and psychological changes that result from your ongoing need to respond to challenges.”

One component is “toxic stress,” described as “the physical and psychological response to long-term threatening situations or events.” The other is “allostatic load, which represents the physical price paid by being exposed to prolonged toxic stress.”

Acting together, these two components can actually kill you prematurely.

The toxic stress load of being a senior manager

For example, a ninety-year-long study from Harvard University found that despite their high social status, advanced education, comfortable financial situation, and abundant resources for protecting their physical health, senior managers and executives live three to five years less than employees lower in the organizational hierarchy.

Deaths by suicide among physicians is an especially disturbing example. In the US alone, it is estimated that one physician dies of suicide every day, most likely from intersecting risk factors such as high levels of psychological distress and burnout, sleep deprivation, and depression.

When I read this, I wondered if many pastors do not face corollary pressures on a daily basis.

Smoking fifteen cigarettes a day

Loneliness is especially a significant contributor to TSL, associated with a 26 percent increase in the risk of premature death (equivalent to the effect of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day). When I read this, I thought about a statement a good friend made to me as his pastor: “It’s lonely at the top.” He meant that no one but a pastor can really understand the pressures of being a pastor.

He was right.

By contrast, those who live long lives by countering Toxic Stress Load are “actively engaged in community activities and have close friends and strong social support systems.” In addition, the article states that we can counter the effects of TSL by identifying its biggest contributors in our daily lives. To do so, it suggests that we reflect on these questions:

  • “What do you feel is the biggest contributor to your TSL?”
  • “What do you think you need to improve your TSL?”
  • “What kind of support do you need from others to reduce it?”

While I am not a psychologist, I have no doubt that asking these questions of ourselves is a worthy exercise in prolonging and enhancing our lives and our ministries.

But there is a counterintuitive factor the article does not discuss that I think pastors should consider as well.

Religion vs. the “real world”

I was reading in Genesis recently and noted that when Joseph invited Jacob to bring his family to Egypt, “all his offspring he brought with him” (Genesis 46:7). Any left behind would have missed the provision God intended for them.

I see in this narrative a spiritual principle vital to flourishing in the full blessing of God. Namely, the more fully we are yielded to his lordship, the more fully we will experience his provision.

You already know this to be true, of course. If I were to ask you to name biblical texts supporting the importance of full surrender to God, you would immediately cite passages such as Romans 12:1–2 and Galatians 2:20. Pastors regularly call our people to resist the secularizing of our culture that splits us into religion vs. “real world” compartments. We urge them to trust God with all of their time, talent, and treasure. We know we should do the same.

We also know that we need time to be away from the haste and hurry of the workaday world to “be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). We know that if Jesus needed solitude to be with his Father, we need such solitude even more. That’s why we strive to make time daily for “quiet time” to pray, read Scripture, and worship privately.

When is there time for ourselves?

However, here’s the question, at least for me: If my entire life as a vocational minister, both public and private, is to be spent in the service of God, when is there time for me to be “off”? If I am to serve God with all my professional energies and to use times away from work for spiritual solitude, when can I have time for myself?

Unlike those in other vocations, it seems you and I are to have no time that we can call our own. And this is an insidious problem. In our quest for personal autonomy, we can be tempted into “private” sins such as lust and pornography, alcohol and drug dependency. We can be lured into unhealthy relationships that feed our need to be understood and affirmed but often lead to emotional and even physical affairs.

Such “private” sins grieve our souls and contribute directly to the Toxic Stress Load we have been considering. When they become public, they can destroy our marriages and our ministries.

Even if we resist these temptations, we can live lonely lives with the sense that we are martyrs, at least internally, to our unique calling. And this loneliness contributes directly to Toxic Stress Load as well.

A wrong premise and a gentle yoke

The solution begins by reexamining the question. Like all humans, most of us live with the belief that time is our own to do with as we wish. As C. S. Lewis notes, we are like honest taxpayers who pay our taxes but certainly hope there will be money left over to do with as we wish.

This entire premise is wrong.

Lewis observes in the Screwtape Letters: “The man can neither make nor retain one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon his chattels.” When I recognize that my next breath is a gift from God and that I cannot claim to own a single minute, the whole notion of “my time” vanishes. The sense that I need time for “myself” separate from knowing and serving God becomes a fallacy and a fiction.

If, instead, I will make Christ the king of every moment, he will lead me to use the time he entrusts to me in ways that are best for me. Because “God is love” (1 John 4:8), he can only want my best. Because his will for me is “good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2), it is in my best interest to stay in that will every moment of every day.

In his will, there will absolutely be seasons of rest and recreation. There will be times when I am free to read a novel, watch a baseball game, or take a walk with a friend. But these times will not be “mine” in rebellion against the God I otherwise serve. They will not be spent doing what I know to be wrong just to exercise my egoistic autonomy.

If I stay submitted to the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), every moment will honor my Lord and make me more like my Savior (Romans 8:29). I will experience and manifest the “fruit of the Spirit” that includes “peace” and “self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23).

My Toxic Stress Load will be lightened as I accept Jesus’ invitation to “take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).

Consequently, my goal is now to wear Jesus’ yoke and no other.

I hope you will join me.

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