By Ed Kelley, Executive Pastor of Bay Area Community Church, Chaplain for INLETS
Why does stress strike us so hard? Sometimes acute stress puts us on our back immediately, whereas at other times, stress hurts us a little at a time (death by a thousand papercuts, if you will). Either way, stress can be a killer of our joy, if not our health.
As a pastor who regularly works with police officers and other law enforcement personnel, I am often asked about a wide variety of topics. Officers talk to me about personal things such as problems facing their kids, communication problems in their marriages, issues of faith, and questions regarding God, the Bible and our society mores.
But the one question I get repeatedly is: “There is so much stress… How do I handle the pressure?” A lot of the time, officers are referring to the stress from their job, but they may not realize how the cause of their stress can be broader than that. Officers face many stressors in their life, including:
- Schedule. Sometimes an officer’s shift schedule is so subject to change that it’s impossible to set regular hours for things in their personal life. Officers often want to do things like coach, attend their child’s performances or school functions, or join different groups, but their schedules make committing to plans extremely difficult. It takes a lot of effort to try to make things work from a scheduling perspective and it can be a source of frustration for many people in the law enforcement community. For example, an officer I spoke with in Seattle had three straight 12-hour days, then three days off, and then three long days back on. This meant his days off were always different and he couldn’t commit to joining any group that met on a regular basis. This particular officer was interested in joining a men’s bible study, but couldn’t do it with his schedule, so I agreed to do ride-alongs with him. Once a week for six months, I joined him on his night shift and we’d talk about some scripture or other theological questions that he was grappling with. It was a great experience for both of us, but again, it was something that had to be worked around his challenging schedule.
- Social Unrest. There has been a lot of animosity towards law enforcement in recent years. There have undoubtedly been some incidents where individual officers have acted inappropriately. Everyone believes people who violate the law should be held to proper accountability, including police officers. However, the vast majority of police are hard-working men and women who joined the force because they wanted to help and protect people. Unfortunately, these are the officers who are taking the brunt of the public’s criticism of law enforcement. Sometimes officers will go weeks without running into someone with a chip on their shoulder and other times, it’s every other call that they have to deal with someone who disdains police. This is a major source of stress and anxiety for many officers. Law enforcement folks see the worst side of the human condition and, from my perspective, need to have spiritual guidance to help them keep a positive and healthy outlook on the world.
- Personal Problems. Stress can result from the lack of healthy relationships with friends and family. Especially considering an officer’s crazy schedule, it can be extremely difficult for an officer to be there for his or her family and friends. Many officers have schedules different than their spouses and children. This can lead to major communication challenges, which, of course, leads to stress. Officers must dedicate time and energy to working on their relationships. Talk with your spouse regularly and figure out the best way for the two of you to communicate. Be sure to spend time together, away from the craziness of life to remind yourself why you married each other. Marriage will always be difficult, no matter your profession, but it’s critical for officers to be deliberate about communicating with their spouse. And, if you are running into problems, seek out help sooner than later.
While these three things are often primary sources of stress for officers, there are many more things that can cause stress. The most important step towards dealing with whatever stress you face is to first acknowledge it’s there.
Once you’ve acknowledged and accepted the fact that you’re under stress, I believe the best way to fight it is to turn to your relationships. It is my contention that a person can be seriously lonely in the midst of a crowd. Facing stress alone is much more difficult than with the support of others. Remember that everyone needs to be needed!
Let me propose something that can be learned from the Bible, and stay with me on this. Everyone needs a Paul, a Barnabas, and a Timothy in their life (these are people from the New Testament). Paul was the chief Apostle. He was an older guy with a strong pedigree. People looked up to him and wanted to be taught by him. In fact, Paul was the writer of a good part of the New Testament. He was the intelligent, well-balanced, wise one of the group. His closest follower was Timothy, a novice whom Paul mentored. Paul was the teacher, Timothy the student. Lastly, there was Barnabas who was a peer of Paul’s. His surname meant “son of encouragement” and he was an inspiration to others. He was the kind of guy you’d like to hang around with.
I think we all need someone to look up to, someone to guide, and someone who will stand beside us. I believe these are three types of people who can help us deal with the stress in our lives. Paul represents someone who is perhaps older and wiser who can mentor you. He is someone you can share your stresses with and can help walk you through all the “stuff” you’re dealing with. This is a person who’s been around and someone you can learn from.
Then there’s Timothy. This is someone who is possibly younger and naïve who needs a mentor, whether they know it or not. This is someone you can share your knowledge and experiences with and who sort of “needs” you. You are more of a teacher to this person.
And lastly there is Barnabas. This is someone who is not impressed by you. But they are someone who will just be a cheerleader in your corner. We all need someone to encourage us and be a good wingman. This is a person who gives us energy, just by hanging out with them, and someone who makes you better.
Striving to have people like this in our lives can help us handle stress. Work to build relationships with individuals who can teach you things, individuals you can teach things to, and individuals who are fun and encouraging. We all need other people in our lives, but remember that it takes work to find these people and foster these relationships. Start looking for your Paul, Timothy and Barnabas. And then work on those relationships. Life will be better if you do.
About the Author: Ed Kelley has been a pastor for 35 years and is currently working as the Executive Pastor of the Bay Area Community Church in Annapolis, Maryland. As part of his ministry, he has been working with law enforcement officers for the last 30 years and is the Chaplain for the last four years with INLETS. If you have questions about life or the Christian worldview, feel free to contact him at Ed.Kelley@bayareacc.org.