Shepherd’s Care: The Downward Spiral (2)

The first step in the downward spiral for Archibald Hart is stress.

So much has been written on this subject that we may feel we’re experiencing information overload, but please don’t bypass today’s posting in favor of your previous knowledge.

According to Hart, stress begins with the feeling of being “pumped”—energized, charged.  The exhilaration generates activity, but it also creates an illusion—the mistaken notion that “I can handle it!”  We feel especially strong, and we are prone to take on more than we can actually cope with.  We are not experiencing a strength that can be sustained for the long-haul.  We are only experiencing the “rush” of an adrenaline bath that sweeps through our neurological system.

This is why stress is so dangerous.  It can actually harm us physically, but more insidiously, it creates a mentality that is deceiving.  We begin to notice it when we fall into bed at night completely spent.

But one of the ways it manifests itself in clergy (and other care-givers) is defensiveness, when a spouse or friend wonders if we are not trying to do too much.  Stress-related defensiveness is really nothing other than pride raising its head—not only to push back the critic, but to maintain the illusion of sufficiency.

Tragically, this defensiveness can be “spiritualized” and put into the category of spiritual warfare, where we misinterpret the concern of others as “attacks from Satan.”  I know a pastor who literally spoke to his worried wife and said, “Get thee behind me, Satan.”

After all, he rationalized, he was doing “God’s work.”  How could it be wrong?  Never mind that he had not been home one evening in over a month.  It was only later that he realized how insane this response was, and now he tells other clergy to pay close attention to the rise of impatience and defensiveness.

Stress….it can only serve us for the short-term.  And there are some good versions of it; otherwise, we would become walking definitions of “the couch potato.”  The stress response gets us going, but it cannot keep us going.  If we don’t deal responsibly with it, we’ll move downward in the very journey we believed would give us life and light.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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