Burnout and the Backstage

In pursuit of healthier pastors and church leaders

Any time I’m in a room full of pastors, I do a lot of people watching. What’s the general feeling? How are teams interacting? What are they talking about?

Our world is getting increasingly complicated, and leadership in the church reflects that. We feel both the primary and secondary effects of that complexity, which leads to a gnawing case of pastoral overwhelm.

It’s not just a feeling I’ve observed on the surface of ministry gatherings. I get to take deep dives into these complexities during coaching sessions with ministry leaders. This sense of overwhelm often leads to burnout. The State of Pastors report from the Barna Group found that more than one-third of pastors are at high or medium risk of burnout.

One thing creating overwhelm in our lives is the navigation required to move between our public and private lives. Pieces of our lives are easily visible—our leadership, preaching and social media posts, for example. Many see these outward-facing pieces, but what about the parts no one else sees? Jimmy Dodd, president of PastorServe, refers to the different pieces as “front stage” and “backstage.” We focus much of our energy on the competencies of the front stage, the activities that yield affirmation, while we neglect the backstage where we live most of life.

There’s a growing hunger for leaders with a solid backstage life. Recently I asked on social media, “What skills must a leader possess in order to thrive in this age?” Nearly every answer was about the backstage: humility, empowerment of others, integrity, honesty. I see similar themes across nearly every group of people I meet; they are tired of gifted front-stage leaders having poor backstage lives. In other words, they are tired of gifted jerks.

People hunger for spiritual leaders who are whole, not half.

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Perhaps we’re slowly steeping in overwhelm because we’re working toward the wrong things. The backstage of our lives is an investment, and every investment is based on delayed gratification. Working on the backstage won’t get you dopamine-raising comments after the church service, but it will set you up for health.

In The Emotionally Healthy Church, Peter Scazzero writes, “Our world treats weakness and failure as terminal. Few consider brokenness as God’s design and will for our lives.” I wish brokenness wasn’t part of God’s design, but it is. One scan through the lives of our faith heroes in the pages of Scripture reminds us God uses imperfect leaders. My friend Lance Witt says, “The greatest gift you can give your church is a healthy soul.” People aren’t looking for perfect church leaders, but they are looking for leaders with healthy souls.

How will you invest in backstage soul work? Is it time to take that long vacation you’ve avoided out of fear of it all falling apart when you leave? Is it time to start marriage counseling like you promised your spouse? Do you finally need to shut down that program that’s taxing you and your team? I’ve never met a leader who thought time invested in the backstage was a waste. Don’t wait. Start investing in the backstage today.

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