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Stories & Stress in the Ministry

By Steve Bradley.

This article seeks to question our understanding of stress amongst ministers by consideration of the stories that are told to ministers and by ministers within `ministerial culture', suggesting that some of these stories may contribute to the existence and maintenance of the high levels of stress and `burnout' being reported (e.g. Buckland & Earwicker, 1996).

Some Background

Whatever the exact formulation presented, stress is conventionally explained psychologically in terms of balancing between pressures acting upon an individual (both external and internal) and their personal coping resources. Problems develop when these resources are insufficient to respond adequately to regularly encountered stressors. So Beasley-Murray (1989) reasonably identifies pressures specific to the practise of Christian ministry, suggesting appropriate strategies that may be adopted to increase the likelihood of maintaining balance.

However, conventional psychological wisdom has itself come under pressure from within the discipline since the early 1970's (see Stainton Rogers et al. (1995) for a readable review). One of the key areas of sustained criticism has been this emphasis on explanation in terms of the individual, with its almost complete ignoring of the wider social and cultural milieu. Hence the message is sustained, at some level, that if you have problems then you must be part of the problem. Solutions are couched in terms of self-change or self-initiated change of the immediate setting; effectively, "Minister, improve your coping strategies or manage changed circumstances within your church".

Whilst such criticism continues to be resisted by the mainstream, a significant minority (especially within social psychology) have sought to develop a `new paradigm' approach to psychological theory and inquiry; influenced by developments in linguistics, literary and cultural studies, etc., and leading to a turn to language as the essential site for furthering understanding. Such approaches point to the need to understand how people make sense of their circumstances and experiences through the medium of the language that is available to them; emphasising that human beings exist within relationships and not within some mythic psyche construction.

So, any understanding that is sited solely within individuals must at best be only partial. Therefore, the contention pursued here is that Paul Beasley-Murray's and similar accounts may be usefully added to by introducing an understanding of the wider ministerial culture and the linguistic resources available for ministers to draw from in making sense of their situation(s). To be fair to Paul, the need to consider wider contexts can be read within his call for a `radical rethinking and restructuring of pastoral ministry' (p.53) The emphasis there being largely in terms of redefinition of understanding of pastoral ministry within the local church. I want to add to that call by drawing attention to wider contexts still within which ministry exists and which an analysis of the explanatory resources available to ministers (the stories of the title) may serve to highlight.

The Key Points

None of us invent new original words and phrases to describe our experiences. If we did, no-one else would understand us. We would be talking gibberish. In order to explain ourselves to others, and in turn understand them, we have to share a common language. However, communication is more than merely speaking the same language. We also need to share common cultural understandings. A simple example of this would be when talking with someone from another land who speaks fluent English, yet has no knowledge of our values and culture. There is great potential for confusion, misunderstanding, and `crossed purposes'. Conversely, mutual understanding is rapidly established between two or more who share a common story. If I describe myself as `a parent of young children', someone listening may reply: "Oh yes, the sleepless nights!". We both understand the features of the story and have in the process established some grounds for continued communication.

To more fully comprehend human experience, we need to understand people in their cultural contexts and through their shared communication. If we accept that (with the exception of Dr Spooner?) we do not make our language up as we go along, then what are the shared understandings on which we draw? What is the relationship between our describing of `personal experience' and the wider cultural setting: how do we draw on, adapt and combine already existing stories so as to make them `our story'? The implication of all this is that when we talk about `my' in any setting, we are effectively speaking of `my drawing on the available'.


Stories about Ministry

During 1996/7 I sought to take some of these ideas regarding the storied nature of human existence and apply them to the practice of Christian ministry; undergraduate research under the supervision of the Psychology Department, University of Derby. The focus of the work was to tape record formal sermons and informal interviews given by a small number of ministers from different denominational traditions; discourse analysing the resultant transcripts for `interpretative repertoires', after the approach suggested by Potter & Wetherell (1987, 1995).

Discourse analysis within psychology encompasses a developing field of study that focuses on the social function of language; what people do with language. Such approaches seek after interpretation and understanding, rather than quantification, of psychological experience, as far as same is accessible through language (see Burman & Parker (1993) for a concise introduction and discussion of the advantages of and problems with discourse analysis, including examples of research). Broadly, the aim of such an analysis is to seek after themes, patterns, etc. within the material, looking for flexible usage of same; also searching out incompatibility and conflict within talk, apparent dilemmas and attempts at their reconciliation.

As the analysis developed, the participants' drawing from two broad distinct interpretative repertoires suggested itself to my reading (any such work must be unashamedly acknowledged as subjective but reflexive, rather than holding to the increasingly untenable claim of ‘objectivity'). These repertoires were designated `heaven' and `earth' respectively; the former containing themes of certainty, assurance, etc., whilst the latter introduced a marked degree of contingency into accounts. Nothing very surprising there; themes of conflict between the things of heaven and earth are hardly surprising within the talk of Christian ministers schooled in biblical truth.

What is interesting is what happens when such disparate repertoires come into close contact within talk about a given subject; for example, asking for evaluation of their ministry (called by God: heaven repertoire) in terms of personal job satisfaction (earth repertoire). Such close proximity of competing repertoires could be demonstrated to cause discomfort, conflict and attempts at reconciling the competing repertoires by introducing distance or speech devices that negate the apparent difficulty. So, for example, we have the following exchange:

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You are reading Stories and Stress in the Ministry by Steve Bradley, part of Issue 13 of Ministry Today, published in May 1998.

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