All of us deal with distress in our daily lives — the reality of living in a broken world affects us in practical ways each day.
While each of us finds ourselves in different situations, the fact remains that we all face stresses both big and small, whether fear of an unknown future, loss of control when a day doesn’t go as planned, or hurt and pain after a loss.
Counselors call a person’s ability to manage the emotional distress resulting from these stressors “distress tolerance.” According to Michael Hillerman, Adjunct Professor of Counseling at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, the ability to tolerate distress varies from person to person. “Just like we all have different levels of physical strength… there’s a range in every aspect of human experience, and distress tolerance is just one of many ranges… You’re not good or bad or better or worse, depending on how much stress you can handle — it just is.”
Assistant Professor of Counseling Elizabeth Pennock thinks that some people guilt themselves for how hard it is to manage seasons of stress and distress. “I think what’s actually normal is more distress than people are comfortable with. We’re not meant to be able to just keep rolling and not be affected by things like a significant loss or big change. I want to normalize it for people — transition is hard. The ambiguity of it disrupts us, and that means you’re human.”
Tolerating Distress as Individuals
If distress is a normal, expected part of life in a broken world and it’s necessary to tolerate it in healthy ways, how do we build our distress tolerance? Hillerman explains that it takes a lot of self-awareness, usually aided by insights from trusted relationships. He encourages believers to look at the laments in the Bible, which model how we can move through emotional distress: expressing thoughts and feelings without minimizing or maximizing them, wrestling with the situation before the Lord, and then focusing on the truth in order to minister to ourselves.
Even if nothing changes, acknowledging our emotions helps us find a sense of relief that comes from being heard. Hillerman says that believers sometimes bypass the process of recognizing thoughts and feelings, moving straight to saying, “I’m going to trust in the Lord.” This can be harmful in the long run, because we’re ignoring parts of our brains that are wired to use emotions to draw our attention to real or perceived threats.
After recognizing thoughts and emotions, Hillerman encourages people to be mindful of any internal dialogue that may be happening, like ruminating on distress-maintaining thoughts. Finally, vocalize thoughts and feelings in prayer, a journal, or conversation before deciding what to think or do about it, whether that’s leaving it with the Lord or taking action.
Dr. Pennock, who teaches at the Orlando campus, shares that what we do with distress can be beneficial or harmful. “It’s not a sin to be disrupted, but we can do things in our disruption that are sinful,” she points out. “Being a mature Christian doesn’t mean you don’t have emotions or you don’t get moved by them… It’s more about learning ‘how do I have an awareness of what’s going on in me and the wisdom to respond to it in a way that isn’t harmful to others or sinful but actually increases my ability to care for others?’”
During times of intense distress, Dr. Pennock recommends focusing on the essentials, asking, “What are the non-negotiables that you need for a healthy life?” For some, it may be talking to a sponsor or spouse; for others, it may be simply staying hydrated. It’s helpful to remember that distress is temporary, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
Change is one form of distress that can cause disruption, although how we respond to it is often based on our specific temperaments. Dr. Pennock advises those who are especially challenged by change to seek community, not isolation. “Some people become rigid in their ways of coping, and they have a lot of difficulty when those ways are challenged because the coping skills are rigid and don’t flex.”
She finds that rigid coping skills are a form of self-protection, usually tied to past experiences or wounds. “That’s why we need each other, because you have people who are more naturally flexible who remind you that it’s going to be okay.”
Growing our self-awareness of how we deal with distress can also help us realize when we’re in over our heads. When attempts to manage the distress don’t bring enough relief in order to function, it may be a sign to seek help, advises Hillerman.
In crises or seasons of “acute distress,” Dr. Pennock shares that it’s normal to experience disruptions to sleep, increased anxiety, or difficulty concentrating for a few weeks. “If someone loses their spouse, they may feel this disruption for months. I wouldn’t want them to be isolated; I would want them to be talking to someone who can help them evaluate their new reality and get care in the midst of it.”
Tolerating Distress in Churches
For believers, sometimes distress comes from within churches. As sinners, we’re all prone to hurting one another in relationships, but sometimes situations can arise in our communities that we need to process. How do we preserve the peace and purity of the church when we find ourselves with concerns about our local congregation?
Dr. Justin Holcomb, Adjunct Professor of Theology at RTS Orlando, believes that humility and self-awareness are essential when deciding when to voice concerns. When we’re not dealing with concerns over sin, we should ask ourselves if we’re raising a preference to the level of an ethical problem or if we’re repressing an ethical concern out of a tendency toward people-pleasing. “Run it past someone you trust who is outside of the organization,” he recommends.
If you do decide that your concern is worth voicing, “actually have conversations with those church leaders,” says Dr. Nate Brooks, Assistant Professor of Christian Counseling at the Charlotte campus. “We naturally recoil from uncomfortable conversations, but they are essential if we are to act in ways befitting the kingdom… We might have misunderstood, or [the leaders] were less than clear.”
Dr. Holcomb also advises using pre-established channels for communicating concerns, whether a town hall, a contact person, or a process established through church polity. If your concerns are not addressed, handled well, or “only become more concerning,” as Dr. Brooks puts it, it may be worth speaking again with trusted outsiders for perspective.
Two common reasons to leave a church are undealt-with heresy or moral failure. “Moral failure can include bullying behavior, covering up abuse, or mocking and deriding theological, cultural, or political opponents,” Dr. Brooks explains. However, there can be other good reasons to leave a church. “The ethos of the church may be different than how your heart expresses Christianity. You might agree on doctrine but find the way that doctrine is lived out is very different.”
If you end up deciding to leave the church, “how you leave matters,” reminds Dr. Brooks. “Share your concerns with those who ought to know — usually the leaders and a handful of close friends within the church. For everyone else, just say you saw the Lord leading you in a different direction.”
Tolerating Distress as Leaders
How should leaders respond when congregants bring concerns, when change affects the entire community, or when a church is navigating a crisis or trauma? How do we build healthy communities that can withstand distress?
One of the best things pastors and church leaders can do is listen well. “Listening to the congregation will help to uphold church unity — not total agreement, but respect and space for disagreement. Church leadership that dismisses, ignores, or belittles the concerns of their members are working to fracture the unity of the church,” Dr. Brooks explains.
For Dr. Pennock, it’s important to invest in leaders’ spiritual maturity, which goes hand-in-hand with emotional development. “Spiritual maturity means we have been transformed by the renewing of our minds, but also in our hearts, our affections, and our desires. We are becoming more like Christ… Following Christ into places of humility and growth and pain and joy will change who you are as a person, not just what you believe theologically.”
If church leaders have grown in their own distress tolerance and emotional maturity, they can listen and respond in ways that are not self-protective or rigid. “When we’re not dealing with sin issues, there can be so much disagreement,” Dr. Pennock observes. “We find it difficult when people are upset with us.” Can leaders tolerate the distress that comes when half of the congregation is angry about a decision?
Dr. Brooks finds that communities can withstand changes when they aren’t “based around one leader.” If a church or ministry’s identity is shaped by only one man, there will be more shock if that leader takes another call. When possible, churches should have more than one man preaching. “The best thing an organization can do is create a community of mutual involvement, responsibility, and care.”
Another way that church leaders can cultivate healthy communities is through honest and compassionate communication about the mission and purpose of the church, including sharing expectations, ways to participate, and inviting feedback. Dr. Holcomb encourages leaders to communicate with an appropriate amount of transparency.
Fostering transparency starts with trustworthy leaders who are committed to the truth. “Their yes is yes,” Dr. Holcomb explains. For Hillerman, transparency also includes modeling confession and repentance. These practices and characteristics increase the trust and credibility needed to maintain stability during seasons of change.
Regardless of the positions we find ourselves in — individual, church member, community leader — or the stresses we’re facing, growing in our ability to lament, wrestle, and speak truth to ourselves will help us deal with the reality that “there is no escape from distress” in this world. As Hillerman puts it, “‘His mercies are new every morning’ means we have to go back for his mercies every morning. We sometimes get tired of going back, but that’s how we’re made.” As we go back for his mercies, we can do so with the gospel hope that — one day — God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.