Q: With all our programs and activities, my church seems to be under too much stress much of the time. What can I do to relieve the stress? 

A: Congregational stress, like the personal and professional varieties, can both help and harm. Too little stress often means a congregation is not experimenting, taking risks, or exercising its creative potential. A congregation under too much stress is overwhelmed and irritable; over time it can become demoralized and unhealthy. The result in either case is diminished effectiveness in ministry.

Clearly the key is keeping the creative pressure high enough to maintain the healthy stress needed for effective ministry, while managing the stress to prevent it from leading to despair and burnout. You might consider these related ideas:

1. Manage expectations. Congregational stress gets out of hand when expectations are allowed to run wild. For example, I have worked with congregations as they conduct annual stewardship or capital fund campaigns. One of the major challenges in any campaign is determining how high to set the monetary goal. Congregations generally tend to set financial goals either ridiculously high or pitiably low. When the goal is too high, the congregation may experience marvelous increases in giving but end up feeling stressed because the campaign didn’t meet expectations.

As congregational leaders, we need to strive for nothing less than excellence in ministry. Moreover, congregations are called upon by their spiritual mission and by their place in society to address the full range of human need and to witness for justice and peace. These are lofty expectations. But expecting too much of a congregation is as harmful as expecting too little. As you plan for excellence, surface as best you can the expectations and hoped-for outcomes—and take the time and care to ask where these expectations fit on a spectrum of manageability. Managing expectations is like adjusting a thermostat. Trust how you are feeling: if the spiritual temperature and stress are too high, try turning down the expectations; if they are too cool, turn them up!

2. Slow down by speeding up. In the spirit of 1 Corinthians 12, let me offer an analogy of the human body to congregational life. I’ve learned much about managing stress from my son, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which is characterized by impulsiveness, lack of focus, trouble completing tasks, and difficulty with organizational skills. (Sound like any congregation you know?) As you may know, ADHD is treated with drugs like Ritalin. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the drug would chemically slow the body down. In fact, the opposite happens. ADHD is caused by a lack of activity in the part of the brain that controls focus, attention, and purposive action. So the prescription is not to slow the system but to stimulate the part of the body that controls attention. A drug like Ritalin, a stimulant, changes hyperactive behavior by speeding up the underactive “controlling” part of the brain, not by lowing down the body.

I believe a similar principle holds for congregations under stress from hyperactive program schedules. As with ADHD, the remedy is not necessarily to slow down on programming. Rather, overstressed congregations may need stimulation in the part of the system that controls purposeful action, focus, and attention. In other words, such congregations probably have an understimulated governing board or leadership team whose task it is to envision ministries, set priorities, and focus congregational attention on ministry. While there’s no such thing as Ritalin for churches, stimulation comes from many sources: working harder at spiritual discernment, developing processes that clarify a sense of mission and purpose, and responding to the fresh winds of the Spirit. A stimulated (and stimulating) team of leaders that “controls” a congregation’s sense of purpose helps reduce stress by focusing congregational energy, activity, and priorities.

You asked about “relieving” the stress (and others speak of reducing it). But as you can see, I view congregational stress as a useful part of effective ministry. Some stresses of ministry cannot be relieved. Churches near “Ground Zero” in New York have had no choice, for instance, about the stresses they have faced since September 11, 2001. But congregations under stress are sharing in the redemptive work of God in the world. Remember: you are not alone. Inviting God into our stress is the best advice of all.

Rev. Dr. John R. Wimmer is the director of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations. He is an ordained United Methodist pastor with 15 years of experience as a parish minister in Indiana and North Carolina. Dr. Wimmer also has served as a teacher, writer, and church consultant working in the areas of finance, stewardship, and capital fund development.