It is exhausting to keep your opinions to yourself. Even more taxing is holding the gospel inside when you know it should be spoken. Yet that is where many of us have found ourselves this past year.
As I read, listen, and watch the news there are always stories that cry out for God’s mercy and justice. Yet there have been times when I have been muzzled by my own fear of how my congregation might respond. Will they think I’m talking about politics? Will they think I am judging their actions and beliefs? Will they decide that there must be a gentler, more conservative minded pastor out there that could fill their pulpit? Somewhere I read an article that said that clergy aren’t just tired because of the challenges of the pandemic, they’re also exhausted from trying to figure out how to respond.
Clearly, I have not figured out the best way to deal with this particular type of anxiety. Knowing that I am the primary earner in my family has kept my tongue tied much too often, but as I prepare to start a new call, I am challenging myself to be brave or at least less fearful. And I am holding onto some very sage advice. It was given by Kelly McGonigal and it is from my absolute favorite TED Talk. It is titled How to Make Stress Your Friend. As a health psychologist, McGonigal has investigated what stress does to us and how to deal with it. She explains it much better than I do, but here are a couple of highlights.
When you are stressed, your heart may pound. Your breathing might be faster, and you might even break out into a sweat. These are normal signs of anxiety, but McGonigal proposes that we see them as signs that our bodies are energized. Your hearts beat faster because it is preparing you for action. More oxygen is getting to your brain. AND studies have shown if you can see these signs as helpful responses to stress, you actually experience less stress, less anxiety and you feel more confident.
McGonigal also talks about oxytocin which is a neuro-hormone that is released during stress. She says, “Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out as part of the stress response. It’s as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel, instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.
She goes on to say that oxytocin also acts on your body, as a natural anti-inflammatory. It helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress and it helps heart cells regenerate and heal from stress-induced damage.
And the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support. So, when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.
By now you are wondering where the political angle comes in. This is The Pastoral is Political, right? So, here is the thing I hope you will take away from all of this. When God calls you to speak a difficult word or to take on a challenging activity, you may experience fear, anxiety or stress. But in all God’s wisdom, your body has been built to deal with those feelings. Rather than being immobilized by fear, you can make it your superpower. You may still feel afraid, but you are not alone. We all face these challenges in one way or another. What is important is that we persist. Keep speaking the words that God has put in your heart and mind. And remember, being afraid does not mean you aren’t being faithful. It is simply a sign that you understand what is happening around you and you are choosing to be brave!
RevHRod mostly known as Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She is getting ready to serve her first interim call in August and hopes to finish her DMin project in time to graduate next spring!
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