9 Signs You’re Burning Out in Leadership

by Carey Nieuwhof | Your coping mechanism has gone underground or dark. Whether that’s overeating, overworking, drinking, impulsive spending or even drugs, you’ve chosen a path of self-medication over self-care. Ironically, my self-medication was actually more work, which just spirals things downward.

Burnout. 
Been there?
Seven years ago, I entered into the darkest period of my life.

People had always warned me I would burn out. I thought I could prove them wrong.

And usually I did. I would get tired – out of balance – but when I saw the edge, I could always pull myself back.

Until seven years ago.

I found the edge, and as I was falling, I knew this time I realized I couldn’t pull myself back. 

Although I’m not a person who suffers from depression, I’m sure I would have gone to the doctor and received a diagnosis of clinical depression that summer seven years ago.

It wasn’t your stereotypical depression.

I could get out of bed every day, and I did.

I kept praying and reading my bible.

But my speed decreased to a snail’s pace.

And hope felt like it had died.

My motivation and passion dropped to zero. (Make that zero Kelvin).

I had never been there before. 

I knew many in ministry had gone down this road before me, and what scared me is that some of them never made it back.

For them, ministry was done. And sometimes, tragically, they were done – hope never fully returned and they didn’t ever become the person they were before.

That was the last thing I wanted to happen to me.

Looking back, the diagnosis is still a little elusive and mysterious.

Who really knows what corrodes the soul to the point where it deflates?

But I’d say the most likely candidate for what derailed me is what I’d call emotional burnout. 

In caring for others I had not adequately cared for my heart or soul, or let others who wanted to care for it do so.

I spiralled down for about 3 months before I hit bottom.

Then with the love and assistance of a great wife, board, leadership team, close friends, a counselor, and a very gracious God, I slowly began to recover.

It took, honestly, a few years to really feel full stride again, but I recovered to 80-90% of full strength in the first year. The last 10% took two or three more years.

The good new is, there is life after burnout (my next post will be on ways to recover from burnout).

I’m writing this because burnout seems to be an epidemic in ministry leadership.

In fact, there are more than a few of you who know you are right on the edge of the cliff you could so easily fall of of.

And probably a few of you who are in free fall right now.

Why is that?

More than most environments, ministry combines what you do (your work) with what you believe (your faith) and  your community (your congregation/friends). Without skillful navigation, that can creates a roller coaster of emotions that push leaders toward burnout (I’ve written about the emotional roller coaster of ministry here).

So how do you know if you’re heading for burnout? 

Here are 9 things I personally experienced as I burned out.

I hope they can help you see the edge before you careen past it:

1. Your motivation has faded. The passion that fueled you is gone, and your motivation has either vapourized or become self-centered.

2. Your main emotion is ‘numbness’ – you no longer feel the highs or the lows. This was actually one of the earliest signs for me that the edge was near. I wrote more about emotional numbness here.

3. People drain you. Of course there are draining people on the best of days. But not everybody, every time. Burnout often means few to no people energize you anymore.

4. Little things make you disproportionately angry. When you start losing your cool over small things, it’s a sign something deeper is very wrong.

5. You’re becoming cynical. Many leaders fight this one, but cynicism rarely finds a home in a healthy heart.

6. Your productivity is dropping. You might be working long hours, but you’re producing little of value. Or what used to take you 5 minutes just took you 45. That’s a warning bell.

7.  You’re self-medicating.  Your coping mechanism has gone underground or dark. Whether that’s overeating, overworking, drinking, impulsive spending or even drugs, you’ve chosen a path of self-medication over self-care. Ironically, my self-medication was actually more work, which just spirals things downward.

8. You don’t laugh anymore. Nothing seems fun or funny, and, at its worst, you begin to resent people who enjoy life.

9. Sleep and time off no longer refuel you. Sometimes you’re not burnt out; you’re just tired. A good night’s sleep or a week or two off will help most healthy people bounce back with fresh energy. But you could have a month off when you’re burnt out and not feel any difference. I took three weeks off during my summer of burn out, and I felt worse at the end than when I started. Not being refueled when you take time off is a major warning sign you’re burning out.

Identifying with just a few of these signs might just be a sign that you’re tired.

If you identify with half, you might be close to the edge.

If you identify with most or all, well, you might be in the same place I found myself–burnout.

If you are burnt out, I would encourage you to seek immediate professional help – a medical doctor and a trained Christian counselor.  I would also encourage you to talk to a close circle of friends (again, my next post will be on recovery from burnout).

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from many of you on your stories around burn out?

What did you learn? How can we help each other?

Carey NieuwhofCarey Nieuwhof is a leader with over two decades of leading a local church, being a husband, dad, authoring books, speaking to church leaders around the world, podcasting and more…all the while learning to keep his heart and mind alive and healthy. Plus, every week he talk to world-class leaders who share their secrets through his blogpodcastbooksHigh Impact Leader Course, and speaking. You can also connect with Carey by subscribing to his email list. He has helped tens of thousands of leaders make real personal and ministry progress by sharing proven strategies to help them lead like never before.



Southern Baptist official resigns, cites ‘unfair’ critiques of decision to end inquiries

by Robert Downen | Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear speaks to the denomination’s executive committee Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. Just days after a newspaper investigation revealed hundreds of sexual abuse cases by Southern Baptist ministers and lay leaders over the past two decades, Greear spoke about plans to address the problem.

Alford’s resignation is the latest in a series of headline-grabbing events over the Southern Baptist Convention’s handling of sexual abuses. The newspapers found at least 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers had been accused or convicted of sex crimes or misconduct since 1998. (image: Mark Humphrey, STF / Associated Press)

A Southern Baptist Executive Committee official on Friday resigned, citing “controversy and angst” over his former committee’s recent decision to end inquiries into multiple churches over their handling of sexual abuse.

Ken Alford oversaw the bylaws committee that last Saturday announced it would end most of the 10 church investigations recommended by President J.D. Greear days earlier. Greear had made the recommendations after an investigation by the Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News that found more than 700 people had reported being sexually abused by Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers in the last two decades.

Six of those churches were in Texas, including three in Houston. The decision was met with swift backlash from survivors of sexual assault, many of whom said they were never contacted by SBC officials, as well as some prominent SBC pastors and figures.

In his resignation letter to the Executive Committee, which was obtained by the Chronicle, Alford wrote that “while condemning the report of our workgroup was unfair, I believe that it was understandable, especially coming from victims of sexual abuse and their advocates.”

“It was unfair in the sense that individuals accused us of ‘conducting a hasty investigation and quickly clearing six churches’ without interviewing victims, victim advocates, or other authorities,” he wrote.

But, he wrote, it was also unfair of Greear to ask the committee to do something that Alford said it was neither equipped nor intended to do.

“What should be obvious is that the task of conducting extensive investigations of churches is an assignment far beyond the capability of our small Bylaws Workgroup,” Alford wrote. “Beyond that fact, however, is the reality that neither the Bylaws Workgroup nor the Executive Committee has any investigative authority given to it by the SBC.”

The workgroup, he added, “conducted NO investigation, because we were not authorized to do so, and we did not ‘clear’ any churches, because that determination was not a part of our responsibility.

A spokesman for Greear declined comment Saturday night because Greear was about to lead services at his church in North Carolina.

Christa Brown, who for decades has called on the SBC to address sexual abuse, previously described the decision by Alford’s committee as a “Saturday night massacre of hope” for victims.

She said Alford’s resignation is further proof that the SBC should allow third parties to investigate sexual abuses.

“What’s ‘unfair’ is for any SBC insider group to presume to investigate the SBC’s own affiliated churches, ” she wrote in a text. “And that’s an unfairness that harms children, both now and in the future.”

Alford, who once resigned from a major SBC entity because of an affair he had, also said he understood why the incident – which he described Friday as a “moral failure” – raised questions about his ability to lead the group.

“Let me settle that question: I am NOT worthy!” Alford wrote. “I am not worthy of chairing that group, nor am I worthy of serving on the Executive Committee. Honestly, I am not worthy of serving as a pastor or of being married to the wonderful woman that I am.”

Alford’s resignation is the latest in a series of headline-grabbing events over the Southern Baptist Convention’s handling of sexual abuses. The newspapers found at least 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers had been accused or convicted of sex crimes or misconduct since 1998.

SBC leaders said they were outraged by the report’s findings, calling the acts “evil” and vowing to examine how the SBC can better handle the sexual abuses that victims and advocates have for years warned were at a crisis level.

One leading SBC figure has since apologized for his previous support of a church and popular religious leader at the center of a massive sex abuse scandal.

Alford’s resignation appears to be the first related to the series.

Days after the series concluded, Greear called for investigations into 10 SBC churches, including Houston’s Second Baptist Church, which the newspapers reported had been accused of mishandling multiple abuses by a youth group leader and contract worker, both of whom were later convicted.

Second Baptist has denied those allegations.

Unlike the Catholic Church, Greear does not have broad powers to implement any kind of sweeping reforms. The Southern Baptist Convention and its 47,000 member churches subscribe to the idea that each congregation is autonomous and self-governing, and thus don’t answer to any central figure or hierarchy.

That idea, called local church autonomy, has allowed sexual predators to sometimes move from church to church, the newspapers found.

Benjamin Cole, who runs the Baptist Blogger website, said Saturday that Alford’s resignation  “does not begin to address the systemic failure” of the SBC’s responses to the ongoing and public sexual abuse crisis it has faced since the investigation published.

“The convention does not merely need a change in leadership, it needs a change of culture,” Cole wrote in a text message.

Robert Downen covers general assignment and breaking news stories for the Houston Chronicle’s metro desk. Prior to that, he worked as a business reporter in Albany, New York, and as the managing editor of a group of six newspapers in Illinois. He is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Illinois University. You can reach Robert via @RobDownenChron



Pastors Should Take a Vacation for the Good of their Church

Stephanie Dyrness Lobdell | You are not the linchpin holding your congregation together (Images: Our Dream Cruises, Tracy Arm, AK, USA).
I sit on the couch, flipping through my digital calendar, trying to do the math. When can we actually fit in some vacation time? There are so many factors to consider: the launch of the combined summer service, Vacation Bible School, various camps, vacations for other staff members. I also worry about the summer slump, which is already upon us. Can the church really afford not to have their lead pastors present, if only for morale?

My husband and I, co-lead pastors of our church, have the vacation time. All the books and all the ministry blogs and all the professors say pastors must tend to their families, guard their souls, and rest. I know in my heart we need to take more than one week—that in fact we need two in a row—to truly decompress and separate from the beautiful but weighty vocation that is parish ministry.

But so much can happen in two weeks. My mind begins to race. A conflict might emerge, a pressing administrative issue could arise, someone might end up in the hospital with only a good word from my lips able to sustain them. As my thoughts careen out of control, images of a church in tatters, a mass exodus, and possible explosions flood my mind’s eye.

Get a grip, I tell myself.

The irrational fear and anxiety of taking a mere 14 consecutive days away from my parish has unveiled a wound within me that needs attention.

Why the Anxiety?

Vacation anxiety is not unique to ministry, but the pressure does have a unique faith-flavored flair to it. The stakes feel elevated for those in the field of soul care.

Practical concerns
There are, of course, practical concerns. Who will do what in our absence? How will the everyday, unseen tasks be completed? Who will honor the pulpit and preach faithfully when we’re gone? For those of us who feel a sense of scarcity in terms of local leadership, these practical concerns can paralyze us.

Perceptions
But vacation anxiety runs much deeper than the who, what, and how questions that arise when the pastor is out of town. There is also the anxiety of perception. Some pastors are more prone to this anxiety than others, but it merits mention.

As I plan time away, I find myself explaining, almost defending, our vacation. We haven’t taken any time off in 6 months. Or, We’ve been saving up for a long time to take a trip, and we’re doing it on the cheap, so we’re not being extravagant or anything! I secretly wonder, does my congregation begrudge me the time off? Will they perceive me as disengaged, selfish, and uncommitted to the church and the church’s needs? The fact that my paycheck comes from their tithes and offerings adds a new layer of angst, since I often feel the need to prove I’m worth the investment and that I’m not living large at their expense.

An idolatrous heart
But if I am truly honest with myself, my anxiety surrounding taking adequate time off goes even deeper than the practical concerns or the perceptions. I cannot in good faith say, “It’s them! It’s the congregation with their unreasonable expectations!” Because it is also me, with an idolatrous heart that has participated in and perhaps even propagated the narrative that the life of the church flows from, or at least through, the pastor.

In his ever-timely book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson quotes Hilary of Tours who describes a sin so often committed by pastors: irreligiosa sollicitudo pro Deo, a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.

And there it is: the sin of this pastor’s heart. I could blame the constant deluge of images that portray leaders as an organization’s capstone—the source of inspiration, motivation, and momentum. I could blame those highly “successful” pastors who peddle their systems and theories as necessary to salvation and vital to every church’s life together. I could even blame denominational leaders who present stories of visionary, gregarious leaders to mimic and ensure ecclesial growth and vitality.

But my accusations fall flat. I must take responsibility for the state of my soul and the lies I have believed—lies of my own self-importance, lies that my identity is contingent upon my vocation, even lies about the Spirit’s power to move and transform without direction from me. With that in mind, here are a few commitments I am making as I plan my upcoming vacation.

Commitments to Combat Vacation Anxiety

I commit to being honest about my vacation anxiety.
Some anxiety is appropriate. As the leader, I am responsible for ensuring that leadership is being raised up and trained to do the work of ministry. My husband and I are ultimately responsible for having all our bases covered. Pastors who leave town without a thought to what might go on in their absence send a message of disengaged inattentiveness.

However, some types of anxiety are not only inappropriate—they are toxic to my soul and lead to the sin of idolatry. I have to ask myself,

  • Is my anxiety rooted in fear or in a compulsive need to please the people of my congregation?
  • Am I micromanaging the people around me and doubting their ability to do good work without my presence?
  • Have I taken undue responsibility for the Spirit’s movement among the people of God to the extent that I believe that, apart from my physical presence, the Spirit will not (or even cannot) move?
  • Is my identity so rooted in my vocation that the idea of time away from work is disorienting and unsettling?

These are not easy questions to answer honestly, but my answers reveal the ways in which my heart veers toward that “blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.”

I commit to going.
Yes, I will actually take my vacation. This requires wisdom and discernment. It’s probably not ideal to take two weeks of vacation in the middle of Advent. But I won’t kid myself into thinking every church function requires me to be there in the flesh. I will work to empower my leaders, be they pastoral staff or lay leaders, and then let them do their jobs. Equipping the saints for ministry is sacred work.

I commit to being absent.
When I leave, I will be as fully “gone” as possible. This may not require a costly overseas escape. A simple, affordable “staycation” will work just as well, if I take the call to absence seriously. That means I will need to communicate clearly that I will not be responding to emails, calls, or texts. But that’s not enough. I must follow through and stay off my phone and email! I will probably disconnect from social media as well. It has the power to make us present in mind and spirit to the wrong things, even when we are absent in the body.

I will, of course, leave emergency contact info with someone who I trust to respect my absence—someone who understands the definition of emergency.

I commit to being present.
Being absent is only half the battle. As I embrace the call to absence from work, I must accept the challenge to be present—to my family, to my body, and to my spirit.

Present to my family. I commit to paying attention to my loved ones in intentional ways. Even if I don’t go on a lavish trip or even leave town, I will find a way to spend quality time with my family.

Present to my body. So much of pastoral work is work of the mind. After a long day of sermon prep, I find that I have left my seat perhaps only twice, but I am exhausted from the mental fatigue of studying. During times of increased stress and anxiety, my body lets me know through stomachaches, tight shoulders, and jaw tension—once so severe I could barely chew! I will use the time of absence from work to be present to my body through physical movement and bodily care. Exercise, even a simple walk, reminds me that I am a whole person, not a disembodied spirit or mind.

Present to my spirit. It never fails that when I have a moment of stillness, anxiety pounces on my peace. My initial reaction is to flee or distract. Hurry, get busy! If I’m constantly moving, anxiety can’t slither in. Or, Start that Netflix binge! My mind will be too busy with the steady stream of entertainment for anxiety to get a word in. In her book Don’t Feed the Monkey Mind, Jennifer Shannon says this is the wrong approach to our anxiety. It sends the false message that the fear we are experiencing is dangerous and should be avoided. But it’s not dangerous; it’s just uncomfortable. Shannon encourages her readers to open their minds and hearts to the anxiety and to sit with the discomfort, thereby debunking anxiety’s lies and stealing its power.

As I sit with the discomfort, I ask the Lord to remind me that I am his beloved, and with me, the Lord is well pleased. I confess the ways in which I have sought to do God’s work on God’s behalf. I ask the Spirit to heal the wounds that led me to these anxious behaviors.

Vacation as Co-laboring
Without a doubt, taking vacation as a pastor can be a challenge. But time away is not merely important—it is essential for both the pastor and the congregation. Those of us who bear the mantle of pastor need to be reminded that we are not the head of the church. Christ is.

Pastors are not, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “the linchpin holding a congregation together.” We are co-laborers with our flocks, cooperating with the Holy Spirit who is doing the work of calling, comforting, and convicting. Our congregations need a reminder that pastoral vacations can deliver blessings as well. They are not to be passive consumers of what the “professional” pastor has to offer, but rather to be engaged, contributing members of the body of Christ.

By refusing to participate in the blasphemous anxiety to do the work of God for him and confessing the idolatry in our own hearts, we will shape our congregation to follow Jesus faithfully—more faithfully than 365 consecutive days of work ever could.

Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I need to get back to planning my vacation.

Stephanie Dyrness Lobdell currently serves as co-lead pastor with her husband Tommy at Mountain Home Church of the Nazarene in Mountain Home, Idaho. She blogs at www.stephanielobdell.com.