Leadership:  Leading on Empty

Orginally published on Sunday, February 08, 2009 at 11:29 AM
by Todd Rhoades

Are you tired? You know... weary in well-doing? Do the ministries you helped create, now seem to bog you down? Do the things that once made you excited now make you exhausted?

If so... you're not alone.

Wayne Cordeiro writes in his new book "Leading on Empty":

"For over thirty years my drive for excellence propelled me. It wasn't that I was compulsive; I simply had a deep desire to do my best. I drove hard on all cylinders, not realizing that being an entrepreneur means that everything you initiate, by default you must add to your maintenance list...

...Slowly, the unwelcome symptoms began to surface. Ministry because more arduous. My daily tasks seemed unending, and e-mails began to stack up. People I deeply cared about became problems to be avoided, and deliberating about new vision no longer stirred my soul.

Although I never doubted my calling and gifting, what began as a joy that filled me now became a load that drained me. But I didn't know where I could trim. People were coming to Christ and lives were being changed. How could all this be wrong?

Decisions -- even small ones -- seemed to paralyze me. Gradually my creativity began to flag and I found it easier to imitate rather than innovate. I was backing away from the very things that used to challenge and invigorate me."

Wayne writes extensively about his moment of truth in ministry...

It literally has changed his ministry.  In his new book, Leading on Empty, Wayne diagnoses a problem that is wide-spread among church leaders:  burnout.  He tells his story, and encourages pastors to learn from him and many leaders from the Bible who experienced burnout.  Leaders like Elijah, and Moses, and David.

If you think you’re the only leader that wonders how he can continue at the same pace, you’re not.  And if you think you can lead uninterrupted with vision and passion for year after year without a break, you’re wrong.

How’s your energy level?  Do you need a break?  Do you need to re-charge?  Might I suggest one way to do so is to pick up Wayne’s book and learn from it.  He will give you some great insight on how to lead well, and, best of all, how to FINISH well.

I’ll share more from Wayne in future weeks, right here!

This post has been viewed 692 times so far.

  There are 23 Comments:

  • Posted by Leon Alderman

    “When your output exceeds your intake, your output will be your downfall.”

  • Todd - It’s so great these resources are available to help the problem of burnout.  Thanks for highlighting them.

  • Posted by Tim Hall

    This is some excellent information. I look forward to hearing more of this. Pastors are under extreme pressure to do better every week and are considered the cause of any shortcoming within the church.

    Thanks for the insight.

  • Posted by

    For the longest time, I was doing what I was doing because I wanted other people to experience this AMAZING GRACE!
    Then after a while I was doing what I was doing because, I was trying to gain God’s approval and others…

    When we go from Grace to Works all the joy, all the love, all the peace, all the hope begins to disappear….
    How AMAZING IT WOULD BE if we really understood that AMAZING GRACE that FIRST saved a wretch like me, and realize it is His church not ours and let Him do what He wants not do what we think needs to be done!

  • Posted by

    I find it interesting that this article hit my mailbox today.  I am currently a solo pastor of a church of over 200.  I know that many of you will tell me it can’t/shouldn’t be done, but it can when you have the number of spiritually gifted and skilled people that I have surrounding me.  It’s a real blessing!

    However, much does fall on my shoulders, and I have times when I just can’t get away from it.  In the past two weeks I have only been able to get away for a couple of half-day periods.  This week I have meetings scheduled for every evening (this is what happens when you work with volunteer staff).  When this happens, this is when I lose all the joy of ministry.  This is when I dread the next phone call, or the next office drop in.

    I’m happy and I love what I do when I can get the rest I need. I just get worn out when I can’t take time to recharge, and that’s when it becomes difficult at times to even function, let alone minister.

    And yes, I agree with Scott that it is great days we live in when we have these types of resources to remind us of what is important.

  • Posted by Steve

    Can’t wait to read the book. I believe that there are thousands of pastors who relate.

  • What would be even more effective than simply reading a book is developing/following an intentional strategy for integrating the book principles into the fabric of your own personal journey.  This is something I do with pastors - but of course I’m certainly not the only possibility.

    I just know there are an awful lot of books and conference binders sitting on shelves collecting dust.  Where once the principles were new and exciting, they tend to wane over time and become forgotten.

  • Posted by

    I see it all around me and within me!

    Can’t help but wonder how much our own evangelical ("successful pastor") subculture feeds the vortex of over-extension? I remember Wayne & his ministry being front and centre on many conferences a few years back. So will he now become the poster (aka “resource")-child for pastoral recovery?  How much are we to blame for wanting a piece of him! Maybe we need to ask Wayne to forgive us for our unreasaonable demands?

  • Posted by Rich Landosky

    It is so easy to slide into the state of trying to lead while the tank is empty.  We as leaders need to be very careful.  One of the things that I’ve tried to do is identify how far and how long I can “sprint.” let’s face it, we all hit seasons where we have to run full steam.  But do that for too long and you’ll kill yourself.  I’m in one of those seasons right now as a youth pastor.  Just off a middle school winter retreat this past weekend, student service this weekend as well as a Valentine’s Dinner where our high school guys prepare the meal and serve the girls in the group, into a high school winter retreat the following weekend, and then right into our annual week-long missions conference here at the church, followed by a student missions conference.  It’s an all-out sprint over the next month.  What I needed to learn was how long I can sprint for (and that gets a little shorter sometimes as we get older) before needing to fall into a new season with a lighter schedule.  We all have seasons where we have to run harder and faster.  Ours is the job of knowing ourselves and planning accordingly.  If you can sprint all out for 6 weeks well - great.  Then move into a season where the schedule is lighter and affords you more rest, increased time with the family, etc.  And of course, even in the midst of the sprint seasons, we have to maintain our health.  I like to cycle.  Get on a 50-100 mile ride and don’t drink anything or eat anything and you’ll bonk.  same is true in our ministry sprints.  we have to maintain our spiritual intake - time with God in the study of His Word, prayer, community, worship, quiet, etc.  let that go and we’ll spiritually bonk long before the sprint is over.

  • Posted by Mary Beth

    Now am wondering whether to read this or “Mad Church Disease!” Any idea which one has a practical solution to implement?

  • Posted by

    Thanks Todd ...for giving the topic and Wayne’s book exposure. 

    I haven’t read the book yet but have a couple concerns about how some evangelicals address the topic.

    In my work among pastors, most have some kind of appreciation of the need for better integration, healthy practices, spiritual disciplines, “accountability”, boundaries etc. 

    But MOST clergy and leaders, when properly assessed for a progressing burnout, have something going on in the area of mental health (brain chemistry imbalances, hereditary disorders such as manic depression, predisposition for alcoholism, ADD, etc.) and/or unresolved early trauma or neglect.  Also there is an epidemic among pastors with regard to progressive, chronic and terminal drug addictions.  (substance abuse - perscription drugs and alcohol being the most prominant.)

    These critical areas, (frequently covered by denial, avoidance, stygma or shame) are the underpinnings that contribute to most burnout, fallout and drop-out symptoms - and they must be lovingly addressed if our spiritual shepherds are to become or remain healthy.

    The encouraging reality is that (in addition to the Spiritual solutions), medical and treatment advances are now available to cure or indefinitely put such maladies in check.  As for you and Wayne - write on!

  • Posted by

    I dont know if I will ever understand or adjust to burn out appropriately or completely.  It is good someone is addressing this elephant in the living room.  I look forward to eventually getting this book and reading it.  Thank you.

  • Posted by Paul Kuzma

    Mary Beth .... read BOTH Leading On Empty AND Mad Church Disease. As a ministry burnout survivor, my experience is that reading from different resources brings a healthy balance and practicality to my life. Some authors and speakers offer solutions that might work well for most, but not for me.

    I find it helpful to read more, and the epidemic of burnout among Pastors is kind of like the modern-day unveiling of what substance abuse and and sex addiction of the last several years. It’s just that burnout is “acceptable” because “who doesn’t get tired?” What some don’t realize is that life and ministry CAN be different from “what we’re used to”.

    I also heartily agree with Tom. The measure of chemical imbalances, past traumas, and all of those areas of impact have to be addressed, because so much of this is leading to burnout.

    He hasn’t done it, though he has left two comments. Scott Couchenour’s website is fantastic on this ... http://www.servingstrong.com.

    I am not trying to self-promote, but I am passionate about Pastors getting the help they need. I have a fledgling website/blog that is growing in this area. http://www.pastorforlife.org.It offers listings of Pastoral Retreat Centers and Counselors. I want to expand the list of both Retreat Centers and Counselors that work specifically with Pastors. If any of you know of any not on my list, please email me and let me know and I will add them

    There is an incredible series of posts that Rhett Smith is doing on this topic on his blog. The series starts at http://rhettsmith.com/2009/01/22/depression-burnout-ministry-deciding-to-get-honest-about-our-journeys/

    I work with and highly recommend Pete Scazzero’s book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. The website is http://www.emotionallyhealthy.org.

    I guess my point is there is a growing host of helps available out there. The biggest problem is we won’t admit we need it!

  • Posted by Charley Blom

    Thanks for the update on the New book by Wayne Cordeiro. I have spent the last 13 years working with pastors in this very area. I also spent 23 years as a pastor working on my own burnout.
    I really appreciate Wayne’s insight, and it is always helpful for pastors of large chruches share their weaknesses with us.
    But as others have said, just having a book without a strategy to implement will not help the basic problem.
    The biggest step i have found is to be intentional about taking time off, and not over scheduling myself.
    I need to sit down at least every other week and look at what I am doing and how busy I have been. This helps in keeping my energy up and slow my burnout.
    the other thing that helps is to check and see if I am putting healthy energy into my life.

  • Charley - You’re right on with the weekly review.  Good call.

    Paul - Thanks for the link love.  I firmly believe burnout can be eliminated from the ministry equation.  It just takes an intentional approach in the context of a supporting network of relationships.

  • Posted by


    Burnout is a very thing. I was working on a large church staff and the pressure was enormous to help people. We had to go so much and so long that the staff would skip church services because it was a better use of their time! After 3 1/2 of that I left and quit the ministry and wanted to never attend church again. God would not let me give up but it has been a long journey back… very slow almost 4 years now. I wish someone would of took us aside and talked about these real issues and helped us escape without all the damage.

    God is merciful but to avoid these mistake would be a much better course.

    Thanks for the blog Todd!

  • Posted by SSCoach

    Craig, your comment, “I wish someone would of took us aside and talked about these real issues and helped us escape without all the damage."…

    ...how do you see this happening with you and others you know as you think about the near future?

  • Posted by

    As the Lord gives me opportunities I will invest time in people and build trust. When you get trust with someone you will have influence. Then I will share my story and encourage them to find another course. I know people that have retreats that will do for guys that are struggling.

    I have a friend right now that is struggling and will wind up in a affair with a teen girl… he gives me no influence in his life. I comment about the relationship with the teen girl and he just throws off the idea. This burnout will probably cost him his family. What can I do in this situation?

    Keeping praying that God protects him and gives me a open door to talk to the friend about this relationship.

  • Posted by Charley Blom

    there are people who are concerned about pastors and burnout, but often when they speak with pastors they are shut out.
    often when i talk with pastors about caring for themselves, their eyes glaze over and they begin to back away.
    it is hard to admit when we are in need of help.
    that is why i am always excited when a pastoral personality writes a book about burnout becasue i beleve that some of the pastors will read it and listen just because of who has written it.

  • Posted by

    I agree!

  • Life balance and self care have to be seen important as any other leadership technique.  Unfortunately, they are thought to be tools to be pulled out to try and somehow rescue or rehabilitate the failed pastor.

    Integrating these into the fabric of the ministry is part of waht it means to be strong and effective.

  • Posted by

    I had a similar experience in my life. I was running on empty, trying to be excellent at everything, and feeling like I was dying on the inside. That’s when I realized I was driven. Driven by fears of inadequacy, by perfectionism, by wanting people to like me. I found the book, Running on Empty by Fil Anderson extremely helpful. Hope that helps someone out there. Please slow down, spend time with Jesus, and realize you’re just not that important! Recognize it before you crash! Because unless you do, you will!

    Pastor Tim English

  • Great article! This guide should be very helpful to a lot of people as they start their journey out of debt. This article is also applicable to a lot of other situations as well.
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