The impact of stress on our identity


In 2019, the World Health Organization reported that one in five people experiencing conflict or crisis will have depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. It is very likely that these statistics increase throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Pastors are experiencing a great amount of stress and exhaustion, and some of them are even leaving the ministry. Pastoral identity is part of the problem.

What statistics show about the stress in pastors

The struggle to clarify one’s identity creates stress that has very real consequences for the pastors’ health and the churches they serve. For example:

  • 75% of pastors report being “extremely stressed” or “very stressed” (1)
  • 90% of them work between 55 and 75 hours per week (2)
  • 90% feel fatigued and exhausted every week (1)
  • 70% say they are underpaid (2)
  • 40% report having a serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month (1)
  • 91% have experienced some kind of burnout in their ministry and 18% say they are “fried right now” (7)

According to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout is a special type of work-related stress, a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced achievement and loss of personal identity.

Burnout, a special type of work-related stress

This burnout occurs when the results you get do not meet your expectations for an extended period of time. If you think burnout is a sign of weakness, think again. The symptoms of fatigue, being overwhelmed, insomnia, irritability, anxiety, sadness, and depression are simply the fire alarms. They activate in your body to tell you to turn them off before you burn. To understand this problem, it is necessary to understand how stress works.

Stress is the body’s way of dealing with events that change or threaten to change the world around us.

Robert M. Sapolsky, in his book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” describes it like this: “A stressor is anything in the outside world that hits and affects homeostatic balance, and the response to that stress is what the body does in order to restore homeostasis”[1].

Sapolsky uses the example of a zebra on the African plains. If the zebra thinks it hears, sees, or smells a lion, a stress response is triggered, sending it into fight or flight mode.

The first thing the zebra’s body does is mobilize the bodily functions it needs in order to survive. This happens when the hypothalamus in the brain sends chemicals through the body to respond to the stressor, and hormones are released into the bloodstream.

Blood pressure increases so that if the zebra has to run, the body is ready. The body’s energy reserves are opened, so the zebra can keep running. At the same time, there is an “additional storage inhibition” of new energy. In other words, the body stops doing anything that uses a lot of energy so that all energy is available to escape.

The same process takes place when a pastor feels stress

This may be due to having a lot of work, conflicts with a leader, a situation that he does not know how to handle, or a broken family relationship. But the interesting thing about all this is that the pastor’s brain makes no distinction between the false factors that produce stress or the real ones, like the lions that will eat the zebra.

People can feel stress by two types of lions: external and internal. External stressors are things that are out of the person’s control. These include: a new job, health problems, pain, tense relationships, uncertainty about the future, a person harassing or attacking them, or even, of course, real lions. It can also include another person’s stress because humans, like zebras, pick up on and react to the stress of others.

Internal stressors, on the other hand, come from within the person’s thoughts or actions. These could include destructive personality traits, undisciplined thoughts and concerns, suspicions, unhealthy eating and exercise habits, the inability to say “no,” a need to make other people like you, or perfectionism.

Stress and exhaustion

If stress is hyper-attention and a response to stressors in a person’s life, then exhaustion is the opposite effect. Exhaustion is when the body and mind can no longer respond to stressors. A person’s emotions and stress responses turns off. Exhaustion is often described in the literature because of its differences compared to stress.

Researcher Anne Jackson compares both in several ways. If stress is being overly committed, then exhaustion is disconnection.

Stress affects physical energy, while exhaustion affects motivation and drive.[2]

Stress produces a loss of fuel and energy, while exhaustion produces a loss of ideals and hope.

It is this exhaustion that leads the pastor to develop an identity crisis. In this crisis, his identity breaks and his heart wounds until he loses all of his strength. It is this exhaustion that leads you to an existential void and to wonder if it is worth it to keep fighting or to throw in the towel.

Furthermore, it is this exhaustion that leads you to disconnect emotionally from your wife or children and eventually lose them. It leads you to use pornography, to commit adultery, and it leads you to lack of motivation and loss of interest. Physical exhaustion produces an identity crisis in the pastor, resulting in a broken identity.

Symptoms of a broken identity

If you suffer from a broken identity, you might:

  • Feel distracted and unmotivated
  • Experience a feeling of disorientation and lack of direction.
  • Develop a negative perspective of yourself, the world, and your future.
  • Feel anguish over not knowing what your vital purpose is.
  • Have a general feeling of dissatisfaction, regardless of how things are going in your life.
  • Find it difficult to make decisions because you do not know what you really want.
  • Feel instability or emotional exhaustion, as though you do not know what you want.
  • Fear the future because you cannot see it clearly.
  • Feel unable to face changes that are occurring in your life.

If you have these symptoms, it is time for you to stop for a bit and perhaps seek professional help. If you need to talk to a professional in these areas, you can call 407 618 0212

[1] Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress- Related Diseases, and Coping (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004), 6. Italics in original.

[2] Anne Jackson, Mad Church Disease: Overcoming the Burnout Epidemic (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 95.


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