On Stress and Bible College and Ministry

I’ve never been the type for stress. I pride myself on my relaxed disposition and laissez-fair approach to life. Life on cruise control. That’s my default. But in the last few weeks I’ve been wracked by crippling stomach cramps and other weirdness of the belly. Well they weren’t crippling. That may have been hyperbolic. But they were bad. The source of such stress, so far as I can tell, is at least partly college. Bible College. I’ve spoken to a few other past and present students of Bible Colleges near and far. And they’ve reported similar symptoms and the knowledge of others also feeling similar symptoms. But why is it so. It’s Bible College.

Shouldn’t Bible College be an encouraging, edifying and nurturing experience full of grace and light? Well yes. And mostly it is. But for some reason the rationale that “what I’m doing has eternal significance” keeps creeping in. I want to turn every stone in every essay, I want to get every mark possible, not because I want marks, but because I don’t want to lose them lest they be the result of some deficiency in my knowledge that will find an outworking twenty years down the track. It’s almost worth becoming Baptist (simply because then I don’t have to get a degree).

When I studied Journalism I didn’t care. I just wanted the bit of paper, and the job. Uni was a breeze. I learned the essentials, came out (thanks to a natural inclination to journalism) able to do the job I was hired to do. I had matched certain areas of gifting with equipping. And it didn’t hurt.

Bible College, especially Bible College for the purpose of vocational ministry training, is ostensibly seeking to do the same thing, So what’s the difference?

Couple the stress of college with the increasing prevalence of ministry burnout, and stressed ministers (with all sorts of associated health problems) and I think we’ve got symptoms of a wider problem. Not to mention the burnout going on in the pews – roster fatigue, the problems associated with over-programming, and the burdens of underparticipation where the few do the work of the many.

Christian life is meant to be full of trials and sufferings, perhaps we’ve simply replaced external persecution with internal persecution in order to develop a whole new band of martyrs.

Something tells me that if ministry, training for ministry, and participating in church life is causing actual physical and mental health problems then we’re doing it wrong.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

10 thoughts on “On Stress and Bible College and Ministry”

  1. Sympathies about the fact you’re not feeling well.

    You’re confusing a few things that need to be considered, but are best dealt with in their proper spheres.
    If I lived in Brisbane I’d take you out for a coffee or a beer and sit and listen some more. I expect you’ve got good people there who will do that.

    Muse for awhile over the first intake of Christian pastoral candidates and how their their three years of training went.
    One dropped out and the other eleven failed the final exam, with the class captain swearing that he’d never even enrolled for training.
    They had to learn what they couldn’t do, but how they could be used.

    1. Peter,

      Don’t feel too nervous – there are plenty of other people not stressed. And the CMT are talking about “work life balance” – I’m just not sure anybody knows what that means in ministry.

      Gary,

      “You’re con­fus­ing a few things that need to be con­sid­ered, but are best dealt with in their proper spheres.”

      Can you elaborate on that line a little bit – because I think the problems in the profession, in students and in the laity, are coming from a similar root cause, or a similar philosophy of ministry.

      My stress is driven partly by my perfectionism (when it comes to essays and assessments), but also by an assessment load and methodology that is, in my opinion, slightly unrepresentative of the work of ministry, and I’d say by an unhealthy philosophy that puts too much emphasis on my knowledge/ability/resources.

      When, in ministry, will I be given two hours and a pen and paper to answer a question on a topic. I’ll most likely be talking about it face to face, and if not face to face, I’ll be typing it out (where I’m four or five times faster than handwriting I reckon, not to mention more legible, and more able to edit and produce a coherent structure). When am I going to have to reproduce paradigms and translate on the fly? Why am I spending 90% of my exam block doing language grunt work and not reading the Bible? Exams are dumb. Five exams for five very different subjects is also dumb.

      I think too much is being asked of us poor students, especially those of us who are internally (or externally) pressured to achieve.

      I think the burnout issue in ministry is a result of a similar root cause – too much is being asked of our professional ministers (in many cases). This is one area where I agree with Stuart Heath’s objections to the traditional church/ministry model. Chock a week full with programs, ask a minister to be a multi-tasking CEO style superstar who pastors and preaches – and expect them to have emotionally significant relationships and draining conversations with people and sooner or later they’re going to fall apart. From my observations of the guys ten years older than me that’s starting to happen much sooner than it is for guys my dad’s age (and it’s happening to them too).

      The burnout issue in the pews is again, I would suggest, driven by the same philosophy. I’ve spoken to people who have been heavily involved in ministry stuff, and on all the rosters (and experienced it myself) who stop one day (because they move, or their circumstances change (ie they get married)) and they realise they don’t want to get back on the roster horse because of the toll it takes. Who decided rosters are the best way to get things done anyway? They seem to limit acts of service on a Sunday to the people whose names get drawn out of a hat. Unless it’s a one person job why aren’t we encouraging everybody to chip in? Why aren’t we simply outsourcing (and paying) for some jobs to be done in order to prevent burnout? Is a working bee really the most productive way to use people’s time on a Saturday morning? Why not pay a professional cleaner and a professional mower to do the work and get people doing things according to their gifts and abilities, or hosting street parties for their neighbours…

      So I think we can go some way to dealing with ministry fatigue (at each one of these levels) by assessing and improving our systems of, and definitions of, ministry.

  2. Hey Nath,

    Good post. I didn’t read the other comments (they went off the page somehow – suggest you look into how the page is displaying in Chrome).

    ONe thing they don’t teach you at Bible College is that you need to get your work life balance (if there is such a thing, some Xns don’t) balanced.

    If you don’t do it at college you won’t do it in the ministry, at least not before a nervous breakdown.

    So mate, let me encourage you. Chill out. You can’t learn everything at College. Get the essentials. And feel free to leave a bunch of “stones” unturned for reading in your sermon prep.

    Lots more to say about this is you want to chat sometime.

  3. Why am I spend­ing 90% of my exam block doing lan­guage grunt work and not read­ing the Bible? Exams are dumb. Five exams for five very dif­fer­ent sub­jects is also dumb.

    I absolutely agree. Exams are dumb. Really dumb. And I was good at them (unless they involved the languages when I failed a few). I knew how to play the game. And that’s what it is. A game.

  4. Hey Gav,

    Thanks for the heads up on the comment display issue. I think/hope it’ll be fixed in a second.

    I agree with everything else you’ve said. Totally. But knowing that I can’t read everything and knowing when to stop reading what I can read are two totally different concepts.

    The purpose of this post isn’t completely self-centred. About 75% of it is good old fashioned altruism. Those of you who know me (and who read my blog) probably understand that I’m a pretty relaxed guy with a pretty phlegmatic disposition. But if I can get phased and stressed by this stuff then I can’t imagine how it feels for a melancholic perfectionist who overanalyses everything…

    Al,

    Yeah. I go alright at exams to. It’s not that I’m thinking I’m going to fail (I’m bothered by thinking I’m not going to do well). They’re just a dumb way of assessing knowledge in completely contrived circumstances that are in no way representative of any other game you’ll ever play in the real world – and they’re not fair. How is pitting me (an ex-professional writer) against a high school graduate and getting us to answer the same questions and then bell-curving the results a fair process? How does it assess if either of us is suitable for ministry?

  5. Yep. Totally true.

    Got any better ideas?

    I reckon that a good start would be to do away with marks. We should get a Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory grade and copious comments. Assignments, after all, are about learning and not about marking.

    Viva voce exams would be a good idea too. But then ex barristers might get an unfair advantage.

    What about this idea. No exams at all. Just some assignments. And compulsory lectures and discussion groups where participation is the key. A college should then be able to say “This student has sat through all our lectures and been to all our discussion groups and satisfactorily completed the assignments and we have sufficient confidence in the ability of our educators to say that the student shall be awarded their degree.”

    Put it back on the college to teach well rather than on the student to memorise stuff.

  6. You’ve identified three areas:
    The content and nature of pastoral training;
    The present nature of pastoral ministry; and
    Contemporary church life and it’s contribution to stress experienced by members.

    The individual’s experience of the training course issue, as you’ve identified, is somewhat idiosyncratic. Some people sail through it with the highest academic achievements, only to find parish life a stressful and negative experience (and then go on to be theological lecturers); while others find college and study the worst three or four years of their life, only to flourish when in the parish and never darken the door of a college again.
    Pastoral training is limited, and intensive. It is not normative, but that doesn’t inherently make it negative. It also revolves chiefly around knowledge of the content of the Old and New Testaments, their original languages, systematic theology, preaching and church history. The other courses flow from these.
    I did find college different from university: four units a semester at uni, to the multiple strands of college. But by that stage I’d had four years of assimilating material and churning out essays and two hour exams. The process was locked in, it was the content that was different. My colleagues in study, the majority of whom were older and did not have tertiary study experience found it an ordeal.
    But apart from cosmetic changes in assessment, mastery of process and content cannot be avoided, particularly in a connected, confessional church where we need to ascertain and be confident of the knowledge and orthodoxy of those who will enter the pastorate.
    Most of my cohort had been in local church leadership as elders. They had maturity and experience which helped them assimilate the academic material they were wading through.
    Part of that practicality meant that the motto ‘Fifty-one percent is a percent of wasted effort’, was not a cynical rejection of academic activity, but kept the main game, the main game. Graduate and get into service in the pastorate.
    The Queensland college popularly considered itself as being looked down upon by Sydney and Melbourne for elevating practical experience and aptitude over academic achievement.
    The student appointments were a significantly valuable balancing factor in stopping one becoming ‘too heavenly minded to be any earthly good’.
    (For the public record I again note that I passed everything comfortably, initially failing only final year preaching, but was rejected for licensing by my Presbytery because I was an immature, smart-alec, arrogant, jerk.)
    This is not a blanket endorsement of campus based – exam assessed pastoral training. I’ve also been gone from Queensland for thirteen years now, so I don’t know the current nature of the course.
    But in terms of your full post above, the question which strikes me is: does the nature of the course cause the distress, or is the distress a reaction of some as they deal with the course?
    Some distress reactions are to be expected in a short term intensive experience. What can we learn about ourselves from the experience? A deficiency in process, or something we can deal with as part of our own Christian growth.
    This is also not an endorsement of some form of ‘bastardisation’, that it is an intentionally negative experience which is meant to discipline the trainee and dull the full range of their emotional reactions.

    For what it’s worth, the training experience will bring out and magnify the personality tendencies which will prove least helpful (and also the most helpful, otherwise we’d go mad, or give up) should the individual make it into pastoral ministry.
    To use your illustration: a perfectionist in college will likely continue being a perfectionist in the parish. The sense of anguish, frustration and even physical illness that the training course can evoke will only be magnified in a context where the overwhelming number of duties is open-ended and seldom able to be carried out to personal satisfaction.

    I had to learn a lot about a need to justify my own sense of inadequacy which meant I behaved like an arrogant, know-all jerk.

    BTW, are you taking a little wine for your stomach?
    End part one.

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