How to Preserve Mental Health When Stressed Out
By Lindsay Peyton - En Español
Dealing with stress is simply part of a pastor’s job description. Serving a local church rarely means following a 9-to-5 schedule, and even in the best of times can lead to pastoral burnout. During the coronavirus pandemic, there’s a whole new level of uncertainty for congregations. Those individuals who minister to them are faced with increasing levels of stress. Pastors in the TAC offer a few practical steps to help their fellow clergy preserve their own mental and spiritual health.
Worry and anxiety have become daily concerns for pastors and their congregations alike, Rev. Joel McMahon, Senior Pastor at League City UMC, explained. “Our worlds are turned upside down,” he said. “People are stressed and freaked out. This is an absolutely bizarre time.”
Rev. Mary Tumulty, Pastor of Adult Discipleship and Liturgical Worship at FUMC Conroe, added that many factors contribute to increased stress levels.
“We have a perfect storm – the pandemic, heartbreaking economic downturn and the devastation of relationships with our neighbors,” she said.
Pastors provide care for others and can forget to take time for their own well-being, Tumulty explained. “We are self-sufficient people, or we at least want to believe we are,” she said. “We easily forget self-care.”
While clergy are consumed with concern for their congregations, they still face pressure to be creative and continue to produce quality work. There’s a lot of demand on pastors, Tumulty said, and they must develop ways to handle stress on a daily basis.
Pastors can also create their own prescriptive practice, Tumulty added. “When we have our own rule of life, that’s a place where we can lean, like on scaffolding, or like lattice for a clinging vine,” she said. “Then, you have a direction.”
She serves as an instructor for self-care at the licensing school for local pastors – and also teaches spiritual formation at Perkins along with Bettie Hightower, Senior Staff Chaplain at Houston Methodist hospital system and an Ordained Elder at the TAC.
Hightower said that stress is also on the rise for clinical chaplains. “Normally, we are available to all persons in our settings,” she said. “In the hospital setting that I serve, our pastoral care is first and foremost patient-centered. Additionally, we act as less anxious persons for families and staff as well.”
She follows an acronym for her own self-care as a pastor – PEERS or pray, eat, exercise, rest and supplement. In addition, she said the best way to move forward is another acronym she holds dear -- FROG, “fully rely on God.”
The pastors explained that methods for dealing with stress will vary for each individual. “Everybody handles stress differently,” McMahon said. “Just because something works for me, doesn’t mean it works for everybody.”
Still, they each offered tips to preserve mental, emotional and spiritual health during these trying times. Here are a few of their suggestions:
- Spend time with scripture. Tumulty said that one of the quickest ways to find God is simply to read scripture. She suggests creating a daily schedule for reading the Bible, which she compared to a personal drink of water. For example, she enjoys practicing, Leticio Divina, a traditional way of reading scripture, that incorporates meditation and prayer. “It’s not how much you read -- it’s how,” she said. “It’s not reading for information. It’s reading for formation.”
McMahon sets aside his mornings and evenings specifically for devotionals. He awakes early, before the rest of his household, to read the Bible and reflect. In the evenings, he also takes time to stop for a devotional reading. “The first and the last thing I do each day is focus on the Lord,” he said.
- Set aside space for silence, solitude and stillness. Follow Jesus’ example of taking time to get away in solitude. “In the Bible, Jesus withdrew by himself,” Tumulty said. “Just being still and silent before God is foundational for me. It’s an opening for prayer.”
It’s also an opening for listening, she explained. Lately, she is spending time asking important questions about race reconciliation and reading and journaling about white privilege.
Tumulty turns to the prayer of St. Francis: “Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand, to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive . . .”
- Pray. Make time for prayer in your everyday life, Tumulty said. She prays through silence, meditation and journaling.
Tumulty also advocates for active prayer. For example, she likes to pray while weeding her garden. Each time, she pulls a weed, she gives the plant a meaning. For instance, one unwanted plant can symbolize gossip – and she can remove it from her space.
In addition, Tumulty has also created a spiritual practice of planting pansies in her garden. “As I plant each pansy, I lift up a Sunday school teacher, a church member, a Bible study leader.
Hightower prays first thing in the morning, before going to bed and sometimes all day long. “Morning, noon, night, rain, sunshine, sleet, snow . . . pray without ceasing,” she said.
- Practice gratitude. Tumulty takes time to focus on giving thanks to God, even at the grocery store. She enters on the produce side and is grateful for God’s bounty.
- Giving thanks keeps me mindful and helps me pay attention,” Tumulty said. “When we stop paying attention to beauty and abundance, we lose sight of God’s graciousness.”
There is still room in prayer to lament or to have concern. Still, Tumulty said not to forget to give thanks. “I really think that the attitude of gratitude has gotten me through and has helped me become more resilient,” she said. “If I face the day with gratitude, God is evident.”
She is reminded of Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Tumulty maintains a tally of blessings in her journal. “I have a list of what I’m grateful for and all of the ways I’ve seen God at work,” she said.
- Take care of your physical being. McMahon looks forward to regular exercise as a way to clear his head. He follows a path for daily walks and spends that time listening to audiobooks.
Hightower suggests exercising about 30 minutes, five times a week. “It can be in five or 10-minute sessions, just get it in,” she said.
She also said that eating well-balanced meals and resting are key to reducing stress. In addition, she recommends checking with a healthcare professional for the right supplements, like zinc, vitamins C and D and elderberry. She drinks apple cider vinegar and fresh-squeezed lemon with her water daily.
Tumulty said that physical health can be a precursor to mental and emotional well-being. “Honoring the body means remembering to hydrate, to sleep, to take time away from studies, to eat well, to fast from fast foods, to fast from soda, to exercise at least 10 minutes a day,” she said.
- Make family and friends a priority. Don’t forget to do little things to still have fun with your family, even in a time of high stress, McMahon said. For instance, recently, he asked his wife to go on a drive for a milkshake after dinner. “We took a break and went to a Whataburger, just to have a little time alone to talk,” he said.
Allowing yourself to have some fun, to spend time with those who you find uplifting, can make a world of difference, he said. Stay connected with friends by reaching out to them on the phone. “This is not a time to isolate,” McMahon said. “Even if you are an introvert, you need to maintain your friendships.”
- Maintain a routine. Sticking to a schedule can give structure to uncertain days, McMahon said. He still goes to his church office in the morning and keeps office hours. The pastor also makes sure to take time off and to stay organized with tasks at hand. “I spend time working out my to-do list of daily objectives,” he added.
At the same time, he gives himself grace if certain goals are not met that day. “If it doesn’t get done, that’s okay,” he said. “It keeps me focused, and right now, staying focused can be hard.”
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. McMahon has a group of volunteers that regularly calls church members. “I wouldn’t have time to get through that roster,” he said. “This takes a load off for me.”
It’s just one example of how lay members can help pastors with their duties. “There are tons of things they can do to help you make your job easier,” McMahon said.
Tumulty explained that when your hands are grasped too tightly, you cannot open them to receive. “You try to control, to hold on to the way it’s always been, the way you think it needs to be,” she said.
Letting go, and asking others to help, can be a gift to pastors, as well as to church members who want to be of assistance.
Seeking support from other pastors is another way to get assistance. Tumulty suggests starting a small group that is only focused on well-being, almost like a Bible study but simply focused on spiritual health. Pastors can then ask each other: “How is it with your soul today? How have you been struggling? Where have you seen God?”
McMahon said that pastors can also seek out a counselor or therapist. “Find someone you can talk to,” he said. “When you’re stressed out, you need someone to talk to. Keep that in mind. You’ve got to have your own outlet.”
Tumulty said clergy can speak to each other and create small support groups online or via the phone.“It’s not the same, but I do see people reaching out, listening to one another, being there for one another, because we’re all in this together,” she said.
- Keep the main thing the main thing. “Make sure you keep your relationship with Jesus strong,” McMahon said. “We are spiritual beings.”
Tumulty explained that in our busy daily lives, “spiritual amnesia” can arise, making people forget their connection with God. “We forget that our name tag also says ‘blessed child,’” she said. “We forget that we have a great resource in prayer and the Holy Spirit.”
Being God’s children is an essential part of Christian identity. “It’s not that we draw strength from it; it is our strength,” Tumulty said.
Hightower said that even during times of stress, she is reminded that those who serve are called and prepared for ‘such a time as this’ (Esther 4:14). “We will get through this,” she said. “And we will have found new ways of being together, although it has come through our need to be physically apart for a season of time.”