4 Kinds of Stress in a Leader’s Life

How much stress can you handle?

That depends, right? It depends on how much stress and for how long.

You could easily hold 25 pounds over your head for one minute, because that’s low stress on your body and for a short time. But holding 50 pounds over your head for one hour, that’s a lot of stress for a long time, in fact, too much.  

The stress you deal with as a leader is similar. Stress and pressure are part of the package in leadership, but how much and sustained for how long makes a difference.

Among the top church leadership stressors are things like:

  • Getting fired
  • A major building project
  • Financial pressure
  • Conflict on staff
  • Unhealthy culture
  • The church is stuck (not growing)
  • Division within the church
  • Visitors not returning
  • Difficulty hiring staff
  • Key leaders leaving

We could easily add to this list.

Stress is real and part of leadership. That’s not going to change. The kind of stress matters and how we handle it makes all the difference.

High levels of sustained stress always makes itself known. It reveals itself most commonly in one of three ways, physically, cognitively or emotionally. And we are wise to know which one and be aware of the warning signs.

It’s not uncommon for our immune system to be weakened under high and sustained stress, which makes us more susceptible to illness. It can be anything from a simple headache, common cold or fatigue to more serious forms of illness. Every human body is different, but no matter how strong, everyone has a limit.

Another common outcome of prolonged stress is that clarity of thought becomes challenged. We become distracted by the subject of the stress and find it difficult to concentrate or focus. Complex brain functions like problem solving become temporarily compromised.

One of the most common outcomes of higher levels of sustained stress is a negative effect on our emotions. We often begin to behave in a manner that is not like us. We behave in a manner inconsistent with our known character. Emotions like anger, discouragement or overwhelm are common.

My warning sign is nearly always physical. Which is yours?

It’s important to know so you can catch the need in time and focus on stress relieving measures or adjust your lifestyle as needed.

4 Kinds of Stress

1) Some stress is manufactured, and we can get stuck in unproductive patterns.

When facing certain life events, we can be prone to anticipate, assume, or even unintentionally cultivate stress thereby making it a negative and stressful experience, when it otherwise would have been just fine.

It’s easy to unintentionally manufacture unnecessary stress that will change the experience and likely result in more negative outcomes. Do you know what circumstances you might be prone to do that?

Here’s a few common life examples:

  • Going to the dentist – “This is going to really hurt.”
  • Doing your taxes – “We have no idea how much we’ll owe.”
  • Traveling by plane – “We might crash.”

We do it in the church too:

Here’s few examples you’ll recognize in this season:

  • Easter is near and we don’t know how to get the congregation to spread out their attendance in our services so everyone can have a seat. People will be upset.
  • Easter’s coming! How will we recruit all the volunteers we need for children’s ministry?
  • Easter is almost here and it’s going to be exhausting to get the final preparations ready.
  • Easter is coming and Spring Break is going to mess with the attendance.

Anticipating the worst-case scenario or falling prey to a negative mindset manufactures stress, or at least substantially increases the level of otherwise unnecessary stress.

It is far better to intentionally cultivate a positive outlook and lean into your desired outcomes.

Focus on what you can control, rather than worry about what you can’t control.

2) Some stress is natural, and we can learn to adapt and be resilient.

Stress is part of life, its natural, and its gonna happen. It’s not always easy, but how we approach it makes all the difference.

The question is, do we have the character to press through? Are we resilient leaders who can adapt and practice healthy stress reducing behavior?

Here are my top 5 stress reducers:

  1. Always cultivating some margin*
  2. Consistent and deepening prayer life
  3. Honest, open and meaningful relationships
  4. Consistent exercise
  5. Laughing out loud**

What are yours?

*The reason I say “some” margin is because I’m realistic. I’m never going to have excess margin. It’s important to be honest with yourself.

** I love to laugh and play, but it’s not my first response to life, so I intentionally lean into it.

Why share those two personal comments?

To give you examples of being self-aware and honest with yourself. I hope you make your list of stress reducers.

3) Some stress is healthy, we can learn to stretch and grow.

Some stress is necessary to perform, achieve, grow and accomplish our highest and most important responsibilities. That is a healthy and helpful form and level of stress.

A simple example of healthy stress is a deadline. Maybe you’re like me, without a deadline, (including self-imposed) I’ll get a lot less done.

Your boss may ask you to take on an extra responsibility that is a stretch project for you. That’s a good stress. Maybe you’ll teach in an environment new to you or sit at a leadership table above your experience. Those are good stresses that help you grow.

What is too much stress? This can become very subjective, and its different for everyone, but there are baselines and benchmarks that help us know when to push and when to pull back. Most of us need a good coach to guide us.

The absence of healthy stress is lethargy not inner peace. You know the saying, “The less you do the less you do.” It’s true. Learning your wiring and understanding your gifting is essential to assess how much stress is healthy for you.

4) Some stress is harmful, and we can face setbacks without better choices.

It is true that healthy stress will lead to better performance. But too much stress, over time, will ultimately lead to a crash not only in leadership effectiveness, but also toward destructive behavior.

One important note: It is rare that too much stress is forced upon us in a work environment. Its usually we ourselves that invite over-challenge that creates undue stress for too long.

Additionally true is that we can be under-challenged, which is also harmful.

Let’s take a look at all three.

Are you Over-Challenged?
The symptoms and outcomes of being overly challenged are being stretched too far, over your head without help, little to no margin, relationships are getting thin, and your joy is low.

Over-challenged doesn’t mean you can’t do your job. It means in this season, you are running with thin margins, or maybe on fumes. It means you need some good coaching on how to lighten your load, practice healthy stress reducers and gain back your joy.

Good leaders who are over challenged for too long will burnout.

Are you Under-Challenged?
The signs and outcomes of being under-challenged are unintentionally coasting, unmotivated, loss of contentment, in rut or routine, maybe bored or feeling stuck.

Don’t confuse under-challenged with lazy. It’s more like when any one of us can be in a spiritual dry season.

Good leaders who are under-challenged for an extended period of time will leave the organization.

Are you appropriately challenged?
Just slightly above appropriately challenged is ideal for maximum effectiveness.

This means there is just enough healthy stress in play so that you are in your lane, paddling hard, moving at a strong pace, and learning and growing. You are living out good rhythms with joy equal to high productivity. This is the ideal to aim for.

This isn’t magic, we can all do this, but it takes significant intentionality inside a healthy culture.

The ideal level of challenge in your leadership is where you think your best thoughts, pray your deepest prayers, discover great ideas and solutions, your relationships are solid, and you are making measurable progress.  

Good leaders who are slightly above appropriately challenged develop peak performance.

What is your current challenge level?

  • Over-challenged … how far? How long?
  • Appropriately-challenged … just slightly above and in your zone?
  • Under-challenged  … What is missing? What change or breakthrough is needed?

Easter is coming:

  • What stress is manufactured?
  • What stress is natural?
  • What stress is healthy?
  • What stress is harmful?

5 thoughts on “4 Kinds of Stress in a Leader’s Life”

  1. One of the most stressful things I have experienced over the years is the covert narcissist. The covert narcissist comes in many different ways. It would be good if the churches were trained to not just encourage and love people but also to avoid those in 2 Timothy 3:1-5. Once a person recognizes a covert narcissist they cannot unsee them for what they are.

  2. With havin so much content and articles do you ever run into any issues of
    plagorism or copyright violation? My site has a lot of completely unique content I’ve either written myself or outsourced but it seems a
    lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my authorization. Do
    you know any ways to help protect against content from being ripped off?
    I’d really appreciate it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *