Stress is often misunderstood as something that derives simply from “work.” If someone complains about being stressed out, we might tell them to obey the Sabbath more faithfully and to take some time off to unwind. Those are both good suggestions. Nevertheless, we may be confused as to what actually winds us up so tightly we need unwinding. It may be more than work. It may be the position a leader occupies within the emotional processes of church or family that causes every bit the stress the actual work does–if not more.

Meet the Executive Monkey Experiment, courtesy of Edwin Friedman.

He writes:

“A study dubbed the Executive Monkey Experiment serves as a metaphor. It has generally not been considered scientifically valid because it was not repeated, but it is a poignant metaphor. An effort was made to give monkeys ulcers or to promote some other kind of somatic disturbance through frustration. The monkey was taught how to get food and then frustrated when it finally learned. But no amount of frustration seemed to create the desired somatic dysfunction. Then someone got the bright idea to make the monkey responsible for getting food for other monkeys; then, they claimed, they did produce a somatic disturbance. Whether or not the experiment was scientifically valid, it captures an existential reality.”

Work is like weight-lifting. How hard it is to lift that 20-pound weight depends on the position you’re in when you try to lift it. It’s so easy for me to think I need to watch my workload–sometimes that’s exactly what would do me good. Not always.

You may not be overworked, after all. You may be lifting from an awkward position in your church or family–that’s why you’re burning out. Take time off without changing your position, and the source of your stress remains.

Friedman explains why:

“The position that is most dangerous to a leader’s health is what I call the “togetherness position,” in which the leader feels responsible for keeping a system together. Such leaders are most likely to suffer burnout, function badly, or suddenly die when forces pulling in opposite directions have stretched their capacity to hold things together to its breaking point.”

Church leaders often live in the “togetherness” position. This is why they often feel burdened, stressed out, etc., and have a difficult time explaining why to themselves or others. They look at their workload and find it substantive, but not overwhelming. So, why do we sometimes feel tired, down, overwhelmed, numb, or some other emotion that doesn’t match workload? Why is it that once we return from our vacation, the stress resumes all over again? It’s not usually because the “work” resumes. It’s often because the work is being done from that awkward position still.

If, as you head into the holiday or summer months, you’re going on vacation, let me encourage you not just to rest from ministry. Clarify any “togetherness” positions you are in–and begin to work your way out of them. Change your position to something better for lifting. You may find it does you more good than ten vacations.

Here’s why this matters: when not dealt with, stress can kill your joy for ministry, and often your ministry, period. A church might want to say, “Pastor, we know you can lift a lot. But, pay attention to the way you’re lifting. We don’t want you to hurt yourself seriously.”


***Note: This post adapted from a previous post