In my weekly column in Church Health Reader, “Ask Deborah,” I responded to the following question:
I am finding health ministry to be more stressful than I had imagined it would be when I was going through the Foundations in Faith Community Nursing course, even as a seasoned RN. I am well aware of the negative health effects of stress, and of strategies for dealing with it, but I am having trouble balancing all the demands and expectations. There is simply too much to do, and not enough people to do it!

This person named the root of the problem most accurately. I am convinced that we need to change our mindset about ministry (and that includes faith community nursing and other health ministries), or we won’t last long.

Some studies show that up to 80 percent of seminary graduates drop out of the ministry because of stress and burnout.

The stress can come from many sources. There is just one of you, and there are a lot of parishioners.

In fact, if the congregation has relatively few parishioners, you probably have even more work, as everyone expects that you should be able to do it all in a small church.

The stress can come from economic pressures – most clergy, and especially health ministers, are not paid all that much. And the stress can come from within.

Dealing with church growth and increasing the financial remuneration for church leaders is out of the scope of this column, but I would like to address the stress that comes from within.

One way to address the stress that you perceive is to change the way you approach your work. You are a catalyst.

We have all heard that word, but what does it really mean in the context of faith community nursing?

I think far too many of us in ministry either try to be the engine, powering the whole car, or a spark plug that eventually burns itself out, trying to get things going – “fired up” – over and over.

Instead, think of yourself as a catalytic convertor, which changes emissions and makes them healthier for the environment – turning carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons into carbon dioxide and water.

What does a catalyst do?

1. A catalyst speeds up a chemical reaction

You are helping to speed up and make possible what people wanted to do anyway (be healthier, have access to quality medical care, have a good death at the end of life and so on).

2. A catalyst does not change the products or reactants of the reaction and is not used up or consumed in the reaction

For example, biological catalysts are called enzymes, most of which are proteins, made up of chains of amino acids. Life is composed of connections, not solos.

We need these catalysts (enzymes) to digest our food and to synthesize DNA. Almost all chemical reactions in a cell need enzymes in order to occur at rates sufficient for life. Many drugs and poisons are enzyme inhibitors.

3. Catalysts lower the activation energy, or the energy needed to start a reaction

Your knowledge about health and the health care system and community resources can help people know more about health and health care than they would without you. You have lowered the activation energy for them to get needed information and resources.

So, having said that, what can you take from this for your own work to lower your stress level?

1. Catalysts don’t change the products

You can’t change people. You can be a catalyst, but people have to change themselves. Don’t bear that responsibility. That is between them and their Maker.

2. By removing barriers to change, you can lower the energy needed to start a reaction

For instance, you make connections for access to information, resources and support for healthy lifestyles and healthcare services. You are an educator, advocate and resource referral specialist – not all things to all people.

3. Enzymes (the primary type of biological catalyst) are highly selective catalysts, so choose where you will focus

The data we are collecting shows that you get the most cost savings when you spend your time on developing support groups that are then addressed by experts in the content area. This combines social support with good information.

The next best use of your time, related to cost savings and avoidance, is offering health education classes.

Alas, here is the rub (and we knew there would be one): enzymes do most of the work in cells.

But the good news is that the enzymes are mostly proteins made up of hundreds or thousands of amino acids. So, you aren’t doing this work alone.

In fact, everyone in your congregation is called to participate in the church’s work of healing and wholeness. Your task is primarily to equip the saints.

Whew! You don’t have to do everything. But we are all compelled to do something.

Deborah Patterson is the executive director of Northwest Parish Nurse Ministries and works daily with parish nurses, pastors, and health professionals. She is author of Health Ministries: A Primer for Clergy and Congregations, and responds to question in the Church Health Reader’s “Ask Deborah,” where a version of this column first appeared.

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