Wednesday, June 29, 2011
On The Brink
I had a conversation with an individual in a very similar situation last week. This person was overwhelmed by all of life's issues that had piled up. This individual was looking down, and only saw a pit ahead. Among the many things we talked about that day, one of them was the idea of stress thresholds, and that when people reach a certain point, they legitimately may not be able to physically or emotionally or spiritually handle any more. That conversation got me thinking. It got me thinking about my own life over the last five years. When Kalyn and I got married she had one year of college left. So, to make financial ends meet, I worked five jobs that year, although the most I think I worked at once was three. After she graduated, I accepted a teaching position at a Christian K-12 school. One of my student's parents accused me of teaching heresy, (yes, I have officially been called a heretic). A panel was formed to sift through my lesson plans and teaching material to find out if I was, in fact, what I had been accused of being. In the end, I was cleared of heresy charges, but did not have my contract renewed. I must admit. That experience made a deep impression as far as how I feel about conservative evangelicals, and it wasn't a pretty one. The last three years at my present congregation have not all been peaches and cream either.
I say all this to say, we all have a stress threshold. In Roy Oswald's book "New Beginnings," Oswald provides two stress inventories. The first he simply calls the Clergy Stress Inventory. This inventory is a list of multiple situations that can cause ministers stress, and each is given a numerical value. Here are some, but not all, of the stresses I have had over the last year that made the list.
Death of close family member
Segment of the congregation meeting privately to discuss your resignation
Change in the health of a family member
Alienation from one's leadership
Gain of new family member
Change in financial state
Living with rumors about self/family
Church-member's anger over something you did
Spouse begins or ends work
Revision of personal habits
Mortgage or loan less than $80,000
That's just some of the fun I've had this past year. The actual list is a bit longer. According to Oswald, a stress level of 200 or over can cause some people to exceed their stress tolerance, which will have direct spiritual, physical, and emotional ramifications. That's not true of everyone, but if a person's stress level is 200+, that person needs to pay special attention to how he or she is doing. After adding up the scores for all the things Kalyn and I have had to deal with this last year, my stress level is 465. I think that makes it safe to say that I have had a "bad year." The other stress inventory is called The Strain Response. In that inventory, a total score of 30 and over implies you are regularly living over your stress threshold. I scored a 33, which all things considered, isn't as high as it could be. 40 and over is heart attack territory, so at least I'm not there.
I don't say all that to say, "Ooh, look at me. Throw me a pity party!" I say all that to say, I'm resonating with a part of the Psalms I haven't really resonated with before. The last time I took the Clergy Stress Inventory was probably about two years ago. At that time I scored a 204, which isn't great, but it does show that I was in a very different place. Two years ago, the last time I read through all the Psalms, I resonated with individual Psalms, sometimes lament, sometimes thanksgiving, but I didn't resonate with how both revolve around the experience of having stood on the brink. I get that now.
I also now get why the Psalmists are always giving credit to God for their survival. I have no idea why I haven't had a full mental break down this year. I've certainly not been 100%. My creativity has dried up. I exhibit common signs of burnout, but I haven't completely broken down. I had a breakdown my second year of graduate school, and I never want to go back to that, but I can't in any way credit myself for not breaking down this year. I've stood at the abyss. Sheol was nearby. My enemies mocked me and shook their heads, but God has kept me from slipping over the edge, and, as the Psalmists say, I will praise his name to the peoples.
Stopping point: Psalms 45, Proverbs 15