Holy Week Power Stress And The Sacrifice Syndrome

Sometimes I’m on THAT side of the pulpit, leading worship. Other times, like this week, I’m on THIS side of the pulpit, participating in worship as a disciple. Palm Sunday worship was an emotional rollercoaster, cheering as the children processed wildly waving palms, but concluding quietly with the awareness we are part of that fickle crowd who turned on Jesus.

So, right here in the middle of this Holy Week, I can’t help but remember the casual conversation in our clergy coaching groups the last two weeks. “How many services does your church do during Holy Week?” “Are you leading worship and preaching in all of those?” “Wow, that’s like the old revival services when we met every night and twice on Sunday.” Many clergy find themselves right in the middle of a week like this, trying to participate and worship, while leading effectively. And thus is the nature of pastoral ministry.
Pastoral ministry has its own rhythms, pressures, and privileges. This week most pastors are highly sensitized to the demands of ministry. Believe it or not, one of the most helpful sources for making sense of pastoral ministry demands comes from a non-pastoral source. Way back in 2005, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee gathered troves of research, sifting through and creating an insightful book, Resonant Leadership. Their focus was leadership in high demand environments, which perfectly describes pastoring in robust congregational environments. Three of their concepts, drawn from many journal articles, accurately describe the challenges inherent in effective pastoral leadership. Allow me to summarize them.

Power Stress = The endemic pressure that comes with leadership positions wherein these leaders exercise influence over the lives of others. These leaders bear responsibility for others in multiple ways. Even when they are not working (beyond “work hours”), these leaders are aware of their responsibility, knowing they could be called at any time.

Chronic Power Stress = The unrelenting nature of Power Stress. Without intentional breaks and effective self-management, the stress becomes chronic. “In fact, scientists studying stress would call leadership a role involving ‘chronic stress with periodic occasions of acute stress.’”1

Sacrifice Syndrome = Through the process of giving, serving from the leadership position, one gives too much for too long, sacrificing self for the cause. Leaders enter the Sacrifice Syndrome when they indulge Chronic Power Stress without relief. Ultimately, their effectiveness declines, outrunning their coping mechanisms, leading to burn-out.

Now, let’s move to pastoral ministry in particular, though you are already seeing it in most every line of these concept descriptions. One way to identify power stress is to remember the feeling of leaving town for a vacation, few days away, or even for continuing education. As pastors drive out of town, the weight of Power Stress lifts, leading to relief. The further away they get, the lighter they become. This doesn’t mean they don’t love their congregations. This does mean they are human and Power Stress is real. The reverse is true also. When driving back into town, pastors sense the responsibility of pastoral leadership again.

So what do we do with these realities here in Holy Week? First, let’s not think ourselves too unique. These helpful leadership concepts are drawn from research about other professions than pastoral ministry. Plenty of professionals experience Power Stress and the Sacrifice Syndrome. Pastors are part of this group without exclusive rights to stress. Second, let’s remember who we follow….the one who said, “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” We are not called to carry the responsibility alone, but to rely on God’s strength. Let’s trust God for the spiritual power to serve effectively. Third, let’s use the good sense the Lord gave us, planning time off in the coming weeks. No pastor MUST experience the Sacrifice Syndrome. Pastors only enter the Sacrifice Syndrome through poor self-management and delayed intervention. Go ahead and make sure your time away is scheduled, ready and waiting for you. By doing so, you will more heartily say “Yes!” to the pastoral leadership opportunities which are yours this Holy Week.

May God bless you and your congregations as you serve well, articulating the wonder, mystery, and goodness in this Christian Story this week.

Suzanne Segerstom and Gregory Miller, "Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry," Psychological Bulletin 130, no.4 (2004): 601-630.

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA