Avoiding the On-Ramps to Burnout

I immediately felt sick to my stomach. Another messy issue with a church leader flooded my social media feed and was smeared all over major media networks; another black eye for the church. I read the comments below the online article and cringed as I thought of the pain the leader, the family and the church must be going through.

Over the next few weeks I cracked open honest conversations about this situation with half a dozen pastors. Every conversation seemed to echo the same thing: Something is systemically wrong. Something is missing. Something is awry. Christian leaders are crumbling while popular culture points and laughs. It stings a little worse each time.

A few months later I sat on a cold plastic chair preparing to speak to a room full of pastors. My glance scanned the room as pastors filed in, visibly marked with stress. They dragged heavy burdens that seemed to bend the floor beneath them. A few leaders paced in the back as they talked “business” to other leaders back home. Others were glued to their screens, banging away at sermons and emails. Others collapsed into chairs, their bodies overtaxed and aching for a break. Many showed obvious signs of fast-food lunches and forgotten exercise routines, probably in the name of gospel work. The room was absent of smiles and laughter.

If I were a young leader on the brink of discerning a pastoral call, I would take one look at these pastors and run. I wouldn’t sign up for that. Not today, not ever.

Both scenarios—the disgraced church leader and the exhausted pastors I addressed—replay frequently in my mind. The first one was more blatant, the second one subtler, but both are glaring markers that we’ve lost our way. Perhaps we’ve been distracted by good things and abandoned the best things. Perhaps we’ve taken our eyes off the prize. Perhaps we have no grid for anything different than weathered souls and tired bodies.

There is reason for both hope and serious caution among America’s spiritual leaders. The Barna Group’s recent The State of Pastors study reveals positive trends like an increase in pastoral longevity and an overall feeling of fulfillment. It also reveals major gaps such as the need for pastoral friendships, lower-than-average physical health and frequent spikes in exhaustion. Despite the deep fulfillment most pastors feel about their calling, pastoral ministry brings unique risks.


“If you were going to burn out, how would you do it?”

Every time I ask leaders this question, it knocks them off balance like a right hook to the jaw. After a quick stumble, they usually tease out an answer. Occasionally leaders tell me, “More of what I’m doing now.”

I take them deeper down the rabbit hole. “If nothing changes, how long do you have before you burn out?” I get concerned when the reply is anything less than six months. I’ve never met a leader whose goal was to burn out. No one dreams of accomplishing a few milestones then flaming out. We don’t land there on purpose.

I don’t speak from a high and mighty ministry tower. Early in my days as a pastor I nearly burned out. By the grace of God he met me in that season. He gave me a bigger perspective, helped me zoom out and get a wide-angle view of the topography of my soul. He reminded me of his role and his kingdom, and my fragility and my needs.

Our world is flipped upside down in this moment. On-ramps to burnout are everywhere. In fact, most roads naturally end up there. We are laughing less and stressing more. We live in what Tim Keller calls “the anxious age,” and kingdom leaders are as anxious as anyone else. We preach rest, limits and Sabbath, yet many of us live lives devoid of them.

Psalm 127:1–2 says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil.”

This is a snapshot of the internal life of most ministry leaders today. Late to bed and early to rise. Stressful work. Desperately longing for rest. I’ve lived there too. Perhaps you’re in that season right now, and it’s grinding your heart into a fine powder. Most ministry leaders I know perpetually live in this state of stress and exhaustion, what the psalmist calls “anxious toil.”

We didn’t land on these anxious shores overnight. We’ve been angled a few degrees off course for a long time. Occasionally a Christian leadership tale gone wrong earns a spot on the evening news, but most of the time it won’t. It’s a long drift.

When we look systemically at ministry leaders, there’s a small hole in the bottom of the boat, and we are slowly drowning in a health epidemic. Our hearts, souls, minds, bodies and families are paying the price. Unfortunately we’re on pace with the culture with no noticeable differences.

I get the privilege of coaching kingdom leaders and consulting with organizations about reaching impact. This has given me a unique vantage point to see backstage in leaders’ lives, and I’ve observed a trend floating to the surface: Pursue impact and you’ll find an unhealthy life. Pursue health and you’ll find impact. I call this the “leadership conundrum.” It’s a Catch-22. We want to experience impact, but when we recklessly pursue impact, it slips through our fingers like sand. Look at the backward picture of impact the apostle Paul paints in Ephesians 2:10: “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

First comes the workmanship, later comes the works. Let’s break this down.

Workmanship First. We are God’s poem, his craft, his masterpiece. This is a picture of our identity and the intention with which our Father designed us. If we lose sight of this, we’ll become insecure leaders. This can be deadly. Insecure leaders chase validation through production. Our good works will flow from striving with the hope of earning. We already have validation. Our identity as sons and daughters of the king is our foundation for ministry.

Works Later. God has good works waiting for us. God doesn’t need us, but he chooses to use us. In his upside-down plan, he invites us to join his work. The work is an invitation to uniqueness as we collaborate with work God is already doing.

Workmanship Before Works, Identity Before Impact. When we mix up that order, it always gets weird. We begin seeking something that work was never designed to offer. God has wired every human for impact, but we often build our leadership structures on swampy foundations. Our cultural narrative entices us to chase impact in search of identity. But running at impact with complete abandon breeds an unhealthy life as surely as elementary schools breed the flu.

This pattern will wear down your soul, mind and body. I bet you’re tired right now. And it may be worse than you think, because we often don’t recognize fatigue until it’s too late.

• Think you’re doing OK? You’re probably tired.
• Think you’re tired? You’re probably weary.
• Think you’re weary? You’re probably running on fumes.
• Think you’re running on fumes? You’re probably approaching burnout.

The incessant humming pressures of our age are wearing us down at an alarming rate. The tricky thing about these pressures is they’re internal. Other people won’t see how email consumption, phone-induced stress and slow-drip exhaustion are sucking us dry.


What can we do to stop this destructive pattern and have a more balanced life? We can’t avoid the people, technology and responsibilities of daily life—they are part of ministry today. But we can take some practical steps to keep fatigue at bay. Here are a few that have worked for me.

1. Go to Bed.

One of the most spiritual things you can do is go to bed. Some nights I find myself negative about the day. Chances are the day was decent, but my mind and body are tired. His mercies are new every morning, so turn out the light and wake up to them tomorrow.

2. Have Some Fun.

Fun and play are crucial parts of life. Investing in hobbies will take your mind off the issues you encounter as a leader and give you permission to be human again. A life without fun isn’t a healthy life. Martyr leadership doesn’t work long term, and the living conditions are bad in that prison.

3. Take a Real Vacation.

A long weekend isn’t a vacation. Neither is doing that next back-breaking project. To truly relax you need get your nose out of emails, trust others back at the office and let your “leader brain” stop spinning. Take at least a week; take two, even. Do something fun with your family. Lie in your hammock and take naps to reduce the adrenaline. You don’t receive vacation; you have to seize it.

4. Plan a Weekly Sabbath.

Vacations aren’t enough. You need to intentionally identify a day each week as a day to recharge and rest. Designate a day, even if it has to rotate, where you are off duty to the world. Turn your phone off. You can be more present to your family and less present to those who need you the rest of the week.

5. Be Practical.

If you live in the clouds, you’ll never see results. Find practical ways to pull yourself down to earth every week. Identify a few tools to make your time and energy visible on paper. Discover self-assessment questions you can ask every week.

6. Find Some Friends.

Leadership can be lonely. This isn’t all bad, but it certainly can be dangerous. Leaders of all kinds wrestle with the feeling of loneliness, but pastors are especially at risk. Barna Research Group reported that pastors are more likely to feel lonely and isolated than the average American. But here’s the good news: Pastors with high satisfaction in their friendships have a lower burnout risk. Friends matter. They’re a voice of reason and a source of laughs, and they’ll go soul-deep when you need to.

7. Invest in Your Physical Health.

Like any other investment, it will take time to see a return on the effort you put into your physical health. We need our bodies to help us with the challenges we face as leaders. This looks like eating healthy, working out, sleeping enough and giving our minds white space to reboot. Countless studies link rest to productivity, healthy eating to higher energy levels and regular exercise to stress reduction. Ironically, when we most need exercise, healthy eating and sufficient sleep, we’re least likely to believe we have time for them.

8. Get a Mentor or Coach.

Another thing Barna’s study revealed was the deep need for outside voices to help pastors through the tensions of ministry. Pastors reported administration, relational tensions and conflict and change management were 53 percent of the issues comprising the worst parts of their job. Those are things we can do something about, but they are wearing us down. We need people to walk alongside us and give us practical help.

I’m a huge believer in coaching. I’ve been a coach for several years and have seen over and over how life altering it can be. Coaching helps leaders gain crucial insights and find practical solutions. Coaches or mentors remind you that you’re completely unique and completely normal all at the same time.

In our upside-down, frenetically paced, “do whatever it takes to succeed” culture, we need to pave a new way to do leadership. We need to put down our phones, turn off our computers and learn to recalibrate our ministries at the speed of Jesus once again. We must give those far from church and those sitting in the pews an example of right-side-up leadership.

Read more from Alan Briggs »

Alan Briggs writes in depth on this in his e-book The Right-Side Up Leader: Choosing Health in the Age of Impact. He has other resources to help leaders get practical about beating burnout at StayForth.com.