Leading Through Mayhem: The Sources of Stress

I love the Allstate commercials. “Get Allstate, and be better protected from mayhem, like me!” For the past several months I feel as though I have been leading through mayhem. That’s why the meme featuring the “mayhem” character as Time’s person of the year for 2020 caught my attention. Insurance may protect you from mayhem affecting your property. But how do we as leaders protect ourselves emotionally, physically and spiritually, while leading through mayhem?

This will be the first of at least two articles I plan to post on the subject. In the second, I will address the issue of self-care. But first, I would like to identify the sources of stress. On a macro level identifying stressors is fairly simple. We start with a national election year. Add a global pandemic. And throw in racial unrest. Then consider that most of this audience is called to spiritual leadership in the local church. And a good number of us were already leading in challenging circumstances. No wonder I reached a point earlier this week where I declared on my Facebook page, “I am tired. Really, really tired. Please pray for me!”

We all know the stressors we can see from 30,000 feet. But what about those on the ground level? As I have analyzed my own fatigue this week, here are some of the sources of my stress. I’m sure you could add your own.

1. The Weight of Leadership

People who have not been leaders often do not understand this point. They see leadership as power. Leadership as influence. They focus on the prestige of leadership. Or the privilege. But true leaders, especially pastoral leaders, feel the weight of leadership. The burden of decision-making. Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining. Leadership without responsibility isn’t really leadership. And during “normal” times the weight of leadership is not overwhelming. But this leader has certainly felt the weight while leading through mayhem the past few months.

2. The Unknown

SARS-CoV-2 was identified as a “novel coronavirus.” By definition. It is new. Which means there is much that we do not know. Early on we were told by government and health officials that we had nothing to fear. And then everything changed. First, the NBA shut down. Then college basketball. In a matter of 48 hours we plunged into the world of the unknown.

I met with the my leadership team on Friday, March 13 via Zoom (another unknown for most of my team). Then again, in person, on Sunday, March 15. We made the decision to cancel all gatherings on our campus: worship, small groups, ministry teams. Was it the right move? We didn’t know. Recently, we made the decision to regather. Was it the right move? I think so. I hope so. But I don’t really know.

3. Embracing New Skills

Being a resourceful generalist is required for pastors of revitalizing or replanting churches. And that’s under “normal” conditions. But over the past three months many of us have been forced to embrace new skills. I have become a video editor and producer. I have learned how to preach to a camera. And to facilitate online staff meetings. Prayer meetings. And leadership team meetings. At times it has been quite fulfilling. At times it is has been quite stressful.

4. Differences of Opinion

Because so much is unknown, our church members often have differences of opinion. Differences over the validity of Covid-19. Differences over how to respond to racial unrest. Thankfully, I have not had to deal with this stressor, but I have several friends who face it every single day. I feel for them. I pray for them.

Imagine, wrestling with a decision to regather or wait. Praying over that decision. Getting input from others. And finally making a decision that you believe is in the best interest of the congregation as well as the community. And then being forced to change that decision. I am aware of a pastor in New Mexico whose deacons are insisting that they reopen, now. And without any restrictions. He insists that they follow the legally binding protocols from their state government. But his deacons have threatened to fire him if he doesn’t do what they say!

5. Unexpected Consequences

As a leader, I like to think through potential outcomes before making any major decision. But you can not think of everything. This creates stress. One pastor shared his concern back in March that shutting down gathered worship would result in some of their recently reached people falling away from the church. Other churches are dealing with the long-term consequences of depleting their financial reserves over the past few months. As one pastor observed, “Every dollar we spend from reserves today shortens our window of opportunity to experience revitalization down the road.”

An added unexpected consequence has emerged in the past few weeks with the racial unrest. What are the unexpected consequences of our words? We may intend something one way. But it is understood by others differently. Because I serve an ethnically diverse congregation, this stressor is heightened for me. I want to love all of our family well. I want to shepherd them well. And I certainly don’t want to hurt or hinder anyone with my words. And yet, I must speak. So there is the danger of unexpected and unintended consequences.

6. Increased Scrutiny

This stressor is closely related to the unexpected consequences of our words. In the former, I am concerned about how my words affect others. In this instance, I am concerned for how my words or actions might affect me, my family, or my church. Most of us have seen the news accounts of people losing their jobs over inappropriate social media posts. Quite frankly, most of these are so blatantly insensitive and inappropriate that I don’t understand how people can be that blind to what is going on around them!

But what about the leader who stands for truth and gets attacked for his choice of words? That was the case for the elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention this past week. J. D. Grearr was attacked by radicals on both sides for saying that black lives matter while also saying that he does not agree with the Black Lives Matter Movement. You can read about his statement here. As a leader, I use social media to communicate with, encourage, and influence various constituencies. It is a valuable tool. But it also opens me up to increased scrutiny. And a lot of stress!

7. Soul Searching

The mayhem of the past few weeks has caused me to do some serious soul searching. As David prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 138:23-24). Allowing the gospel to illuminate every nook-and-cranny of my heart can be painful. And while it is absolutely necessary, it is also stressful.

8. Isolation

Periods of isolation are good for the soul. But prolonged isolation often leads to depression. Melanie and I have tried to follow the guidelines. We stayed at home, except when absolutely necessary. This meant isolating ourselves from our children. And our grandchildren. This past week I got to see my son and my daughter. I got to hang out with two of our grandchildren in a local park. What a relief from the stress of isolation!

9. Lack of Boundaries

I enjoy working from home. Modern technology has virtually eliminated (see what I did there?) the need “to be in the office” most of the time. I enjoy working from home. And I am more productive working at home. Unfortunately, the increased production comes because I don’t know how to set work boundaries. When you “go to work,” you also “come home from work.” There is an established boundary. But when you work from home,.. It is easy to say before going to bed at night, “I’m just going to work in this sermon for a minute or two.” Then three hours later, it’s 1:00 AM.

10. Lack of Sleep

I’m not sure if this is a source of stress or the result of stress. I guess it’s both. The other night when I posted about being tired, it was 11:00 PM. The next day my incredibly sensitive and always encouraging wife said, “If you are so tired, why were you up at 11:00?” Fair point. But even when I go to sleep, I’m not sure how much rest I am getting. My mind is constantly racing.

These are just ten sources of stress I have experienced as I am leading through mayhem these days. What would you add?


Rob Paul is a church revitalization strategist with over three decades of experience serving established Southern Baptist churches in pastoral ministry. He has helped churches in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia to experience revival and revitalization by God’s grace and for His glory. He is currently serving as the senior pastor of Huffman Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. To find out more about Rob Paul Ministries and the work of church revitalization, visit https://robpaul.net

3 thoughts on “Leading Through Mayhem: The Sources of Stress”

  1. I do feel your pain and concern, pastors too often get burned out through stress and the burden of leadership, sure don’t want that to happen to you! I very seldom get to bed before 11:30 and that is not good for any ones needed rest. I took the job at the retirement village as a “ministry” and the COVID19 changed the conception of the meaning of that word. Now the concerns for my seniors has increased in scope, demands, time, and need for more personal contact that can’t be given. I have watched the stress of isolation change the attitudes and personalities of sweet loving people. I was known there as Mr. Sunshine, encourager, always with a smile; because of isolation they can’t feel or hear the encouragement, because of mask, when I deliver their food they can’t see the smile, although some say they can see my smiles in my eyes. Still things aren’t the same and neither are the people I serve. Just want you to know I understand from where you speak and I pray for you daily. You are a good pastor and preacher, hard to find a shepherd good in both areas. We are fortunate to have you, you are very much appreciated. Your responsibility is great but your God is much greater! Love you my Brother!

  2. I love you ,Rob and I know you seek the wisdom of Our Father. Know that I’m praying for you daily.
    Barbara (your cousin)

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