December 15, 1967 was a major moment in American history.
I bet few of you know what happened on that day. I sure didn’t until I began studying the world of microstresses.
Let me explain.
On that fateful day in 1967, the Silver Bridge collapsed, and 46 people died. The bridge connected Point Pleasant, West Virginia to Gallipolis, Ohio over the Ohio River. The collapse was attributed to microstresses, small and almost imperceptible factors that cumulatively caused the catastrophe.
A small fracture formed in a part of the bridge that was one of many components that held the bridge deck in place. The fracture, too small by itself to cause damage, was the result of a design flaw. The flaw allowed salt and water to seep in the component. The salt and water led to corrosion and cracking. Because that one component was not working, the load shifted to similar parts of the bridge. The cumulative shifting led to overload on the working parts of the bridge. That overload led to the ultimate tragedy.
So, December 15, 1967, became a pivotal day where inspection of bridges became commonplace, and where quality standards of new bridges hit a higher and safer level.
One little stress ultimately led to a total collapse.
Pastors are not alone in having stressful jobs. I don’t want to imply that their work is more difficult than other jobs. But pastors are unique in the cumulative number of microstresses in their lives. And, left alone without care, these microstresses can lead to a total collapse.
Here are nine of the most common microstresses pastors experience by the very nature of their jobs and calling. Not all of them are the result of negative circumstances per se.
- The decision making microstresses. Pastors must make countless decisions every week. One pastor told me his greatest challenge was “decision fatigue.” The decisions can range from making a small church expenditure to counseling a terminally ill patient on important decisions. Some seem insignificant. But they all add up quickly.
- The critical comments microstresses. For most people, pastors included, criticisms sting. Many pastors are subject to a regular litany of criticisms. It wears on them, makes them question their own leadership, and can lead to depression.
- The emotional extremes microstresses. A pastor told me that his ministry was a roller coaster emotionally. Just that week he celebrated the birth of a baby and the new birth of a Christian man. But he also officiated at the funeral of a 16-year-old girl who was killed in an automobile accident
- The theologian-in-residence microstresses. Pastors get bombarded with biblical and theological questions. For most of them, such conversations can be fun. But some pastors get an overabundance of texts, calls, and social media posts with questions about the Bible and theology.
- The pastoral care microstresses. All pastors must do some level of pastoral care. It is a part of their calling. But the marriage failures, sicknesses, depression, anger, and other typical challenges people experience can cumulatively seem overwhelming.
- The deadlines microstresses. Most pastors have to prepare and preach a sermon every week. Every single week with few exceptions. Again, most pastors love preaching. But the constant deadlines can be challenging.
- The not omnicompetent microstresses. Pastors are expected to be competent in many areas. But they aren’t. They wish they could help in every situation, but they are simply not skilled in every discipline under the sun. A Florida pastor was asked to make it snow on Christmas day. Seriously.
- The family failures microstresses. Pastors are rightly concerned about putting their family first in their lives and ministries. But that does not make it easy. It’s been over three decades, but I am still haunted by the look on my nine-year-old son’s face when I canceled our weekly father/son trip to McDonald’s. A church member called me with an “emergency” need for marriage counseling. I let my son down, and the marriage still failed.
- The bill payment microstresses. I admit frustration when I hear people talk about overpaid pastors. Baloney! Most pastors struggle from paycheck to paycheck. Those struggles are yet more microstresses.
This article stated the problem without solutions. I will have a follow-up article shortly. I will address how pastors can better deal with microstresses.
Posted on May 1, 2023
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
More from Thom
I think these stresses are similar to those of any person in leadership, except for the Kingdom aspect. In the final affect, this stuff really matters. As a business owner I make lots of decisions every day, struggle with negativity, navigate the extremes, am expected to be the expert and have all the answers (LOL), must deal with any and all heartache and drama, live a life of deadlines, have to find ways to mitigate my weaknesses, grieve about my broken family, and worry non-stop about finances (even at 3AM). But all this is here and now. Things of the kingdom are eternal. Pastors shoulder burdens that matter. They are real, and they do not go away. Pray for our pastors, they really matter.
If I may inject a little humor, #9 made me think of an old episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies”. Mr. Drysdale had hired an actor to visit the Clampetts, and he was posing as Queen Elizabeth’s “personal minister”. Naturally, when Jed and Granny heard the word “minister”, they thought he was a clergyman. Granny noted that he was traveling in a horse and carriage, and Jed replied, “Well, hay is cheaper than gas, and I reckon the folks in England don’t pay their preachers any better than we do ours.”
Thanks for the article. Of course when I think of micro stresses and bridges my thoughts go to the 35W bridge collapse which I believe was caused by the same issue. I live in Minneapolis so I am keenly aware of that event and micro stresses. I noticed you used a picture from that event.
It’s a stock photo.
These 9 micro stresses are spot on and appreciated to see them in writing. I wish there was a good way to get them into the hands of our people without looking like we were whining or feeling sorry for ourselves. I think they would appreciate their pastors in a new way.
The good news is that over 40% of our readers are laypersons.
100% accurate! I’m sure we could all add a few more…but these all do add up. I came home just last Tuesday, not depressed or anxious, but just said to my wife, “I have a hard job.” Trying to manage it ALL…keep up with everything, all the wide ranging variances of what we have to do…it just felt a little overwhelming that day.
Thank you for wiring this article.
Thank you, even more, for serving faithfully.
My husband and I are retired pastors, we attend a local church that we were members of before we went to Seminary. We are careful what we say about the current pastor with folks or to her. We encourage her and others in their ministry. WE know that ministry is NOT just on Sunday. We are available to preach from time to time. I did volunteer to be the webmaster when I realized no one was assigned the task.
My your tribe increase, Susan!
I, for so long did not understand what stress pastors experience. I am not a pastor but I have experienced a new understanding for what they endure. I have gained this understanding since I started reading and following Church Answers. When I was a new Christian, I asked my pastor why there were so many denominations. I guess I added to his stress. I also commented that what a cake job a pastor was they work on Sunday and Wednesday. I guess I was a chucklehead! Thanks for all the insight into pastors and what they go through.
Thanks, Larry. Keep in mind, everyone has microstresses. Pastors seem to have them in abundance. And not all microstresses are bad. Pastors usually love to answer doctrinal and denominational questions.
A rarely talked about topic, but so relevant. The microstress of spoken and unspoken expectations that pastors must endure is also very present.
So true, Scotty.
Bingo…the spoken and unspoken (but you know they’re there) expectations!
The emotional extreme microstresses are the ones that are the hardest for me. How do we give an honest reaction to a
wonderful moment in a family’s life when we just left another family who has had a death in the family or a diagnosis of cancer. It is almost impossible to find emotional balance sometimes. This a a timely piece because I officiated the graveside of my paternal grandfather two days ago. My whole family spent a day traveling by car, two days with family and yesterday, Sunday, traveling back home. Here I am responding to your article from my church office where I am back at it once again.
Thanks for the feedback, William.
Great Article. Ministers are also their worst critics with a lot of self doubt. Covid added even more stress from a counseling standpoint. Another thing is while attendance is down or different, many limited attenders or even someone who has attended in a year, will be the first to call their minister as needed. As an elder we try and encourage our lead minister to take the time he needs off, give them sabbaticals, and make staff compensation a priority when finances permit. Even with that we cant force a minister to take time off because of their calling to serve.
I appreciate your heart and concern for your pastor, Greg.