Leadership Burnout

People suffering burnout often mistakenly think their emotional and spiritual wounds are the sign of holy brokenness.

In their despair, they become soothed by God’s love in their woundedness. But that’s not brokenness. In true brokenness, we find not only new life, but sometimes literally a new life.

Where there’s true brokenness, there’s change and transformation at the core of who we are (if we are willing to meet God there). We become fundamentally different people.

Too many leaders – including church leaders – in their pride think that wounding is their badge of brokenness, but it’s not! It’s just hurt. Brokenness, however, brings new life – if we let it.

Over the last five years, God keeps bringing me alongside burned-out and wounded leaders. No one knows about it as I quietly walk behind the scenes with them through their woundedness into brokenness and then new life. Usually this process takes years.

Because I too suffered total burnout in my own life, and finally emerged as a very different man following several years of transformation and renewal, I find I can now help others understand and navigate the very recognizable steps of their own recovery.

My own journey was painful.

I was heading up a dynamic international law firm and several successful businesses I had started.

Between burnout and chronic fatigue from an autoimmune condition called scleroderma (systemic sclerosis), I simply could not function anymore in a way that was faithful to my responsibilities. Those who worked for me deserved someone they could depend on to lead the firms, and I couldn’t meet that standard any more.

Fortunately, I had enough integrity to step down – both for my own good and for the good of my clients and colleagues.

Among attorneys we had a joke that said: “The key to success in the law is sincerity, and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Maybe I could have faked it for awhile as I struggled with my own burnout in the business world, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to work too well with folks in ministry.

The turning point for me, and with most who hit burnout, was when I became so emotionally depleted of energy and life that I didn’t care any more. It was hard, but I started finding healing at that point – I hit bottom and decided to get out of the situations that were draining me. I then started being totally transparent and honest and accepting help from others.

When that happened, I was unable to fight God, or the circumstances of my life, any more. I no longer was able to pridefully hold onto all I thought I was or all I thought I had accomplished. I finally was able to totally, fully surrender to God’s love and mercy, and then let him begin to re-build me as he always wanted me to be.

I also was able to let God sovereignly strip away all the obligations, activities and “things” that I had accumulated in my life. All of those “oughts” had sucked the life out of me because they were rooted in my own strength and pride.

It is nearly impossible for a leader to get to brokenness until he or she comes to a point of total exhaustion and just doesn’t care anymore. Until then, they fight their own fatigue and hurts, which only leads to more fatigue and hurt. And so the downward spiral continues until there is nothing left – and that’s the place where God has been waiting for them to finally meet him.

It’s there that they finally find brokenness, because that’s were the one remaining thing of themselves that they’ve been holding onto – which is pride – gets stripped away.

Some never get to brokenness because in their pride they want to hold onto their hurt.

Those who find total surrender at brokenness, however, will slowly begin climbing out of their deep well of emptiness to begin a new, God-directed journey.

In that journey, they will begin to learn and finally do those things that recharge their emotional and spiritual batteries – even when those things are not super “spiritual” or part of their previous life’s agenda. As they find renewal, God starts to remake their lives as he intended them to be. Instead of a downward spiral of exhaustion and fatigue, now there is an upward spiral of life renewing life.

Sometimes when confronted with the need for breaking and totally surrendering everything to God – including his or her ministry or position – a wounded leader will re-double their efforts to “lead” and become “engaged”. Often this is their last gasp attempt to assure themselves and their people that they still “have it”.

What they don’t see is that God is not interested in whether they still “have it”, and is looking to strip all that away so he can rebuild them after his own image and likeness.

Typically, this final phase of re-doubled effort will last several months, but it is not sustainable because it still is coming from their own, ever-depleting strength. But that’s OK, because it gets them to total exhaustion, and thus brokenness, all the quicker. And from there, the journey to new life can finally begin.

If you are a wounded leader, and dealing with the years of accumulated hurt, fatigue and exhaustion that ministry often heaps on us as we function in our own strength, I invite you to brokenness. Embrace the process and stop fighting.

Surrender and give up all rights to your own ministry and your own position and your own crippling pride – including your own expectations of who you will be or what you may do after God renews and re-makes you.

Give it all up, and surrender totally and fully to God’s desire to remake you – not as an effective pastor or leader, but simply as a whole and complete person. From there, his plans for the rest of your life will start to become clear, and they will bring life rather than weariness.

Getting to brokenness will be painful, but the outcome will be life as God fully intended you to live it.

Recharging your emotional and spiritual batteries likely will take several years after you hit total brokenness, but this is your only hope. Otherwise, your sole prospect is to become ever more emotionally crippled, with eventual death.

Choose life, but understand that it will require true brokenness with total surrender of all you are, all you have become, and all you think you should be. Only then can God meet you at the deepest core of your life – where that knot of fatigue, anxiety, hurt, exhaustion and feeling trapped currently resides in the pit of your stomach – and transform you into the man or woman he created you to really be.

You know when you’ve gotten to the total surrender of brokenness when you no longer care about whether you are restored to ministry or not.

Maybe God will restore “your” ministry (but it no longer will be “yours”), and maybe he won’t.

Although it seems hard to believe while you are still in woundedness, on the other side of brokenness you will find such authentic joy and ongoing renewal – perhaps for the first time in your life – that you simply won’t be able to imagine being or doing anything other than who God made you to really be and do. And all preconditions and expectations of specific outcome disappear.

It’s a wonderful place of freedom when you can be and do those things that God ordained for you from the beginning of time, rather than being and doing all of the “oughts” that you have imposed on yourself.

~ Jim Wright

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9 responses

  1. Great blog entry Jim…very timely and true. I’m glad at seminary they are really stressing the need for surrender and for transparency in the mnistry God gives to us. We read a book called, “The Crucifixion of Ministry” which was helpful. I know that I must always check my motives. I also constantly asking God to reveal areas of my life that still need healing and He is faithful to do so. I do not want to minister out of woundedness, but from healing. Too often, we go into ministry to fill a void that may be lacking even if we are not totally conscious that we do so.

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  2. Awesome blog entry!! Jim, I want to thank you for being a part of our celebration of six years of ministry. Truly it was a word for every Pastor that was in the house. Bishop Eugene Reeves is an anointed vessel that the Lord uses mightly! Several people have asked for a copy of the message for their personal collection. A word spoken at the right time of what a person may be experiencing helps you to stay on the battle field for the Lord… Again I say thank you, and may the Lord continue to use you as you continue to do his will…

    For the Kingdom, Seymour Jordan

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  3. Jim, I’m not sure what your motives are here…but, in my very, very humble assessment, some of what you say sounds, well, prideful. Why would you say, “No one knows about it as I quietly walk behind the scenes with them through their woundedness into brokenness and then new life. Usually this process takes years.”

    It sounds like you have set yourself above your pastor, (other pastors?) — as a self-proclaimed authority. It sounds like you are the judge of some people’s/pastor’s hearts.

    Question: Have you been given a place of authority in these pastor’s lives? Have you been welcomed in as a person of trust? Or, are you imposing yourself in a place that is maybe not God’s place for you? I would think if you have a place of leadership/authority in this person’s (people’s) lives, you would not be sharing the above information so freely…

    Again, I don’t know your motives, but your blog made me very uncomfortable. Brother, I hope you aren’t talking about anyone in particular– because if you are, that is very hurtful to him/her — and anyone in that person’s church.

    While you may have intended your blog to be an encouragement; However I see it as a potential tool for divisiveness.

    We can have gift of tongues, prophecy, etc. — but if we have not love we are sounding brass.

    _________________

    How wonderful it is, how pleasant, when brothers live together in harmony! (Psalm 133:1)

    Col. 3:10-15 (NLT)
    In its place you have clothed yourselves with a brand-new nature that is continually being renewed as you learn more and more about Christ, who created this new nature within you. 11In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.
    12Since God chose you to be the holy people whom he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13You must make allowance for each other’s faults and forgive the person who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. 14And the most important piece of clothing you must wear is love. Love is what binds us all together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are all called to live in peace. And always be thankful.

    Ephes. 4:1-6 (NLT)
    Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. 2Be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. 3Always keep yourselves united in the Holy Spirit, and bind yourselves together with peace.
    4We are all one body, we have the same Spirit, and we have all been called to the same glorious future. 5There is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6and there is only one God and Father, who is over us all and in us all and living through us all.

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    • Barbara — The statistics on burnout among pastors (also known as “compassion fatigue”) are truly astounding. We do our pastors no favor by sweeping this under the rug or putting them on a pedestal where we can’t openly talk about it. Yet it is talked about — but behind the pastor’s back — in churches where it is an issue. If we stop making it an object of shame, and bring it out in the open, we actually will be serving and helping our pastors.

      Your church, my church, any church, is not exempt. And it is not dissent or dishonor to say publicly that pastors are not immune from human issues. Denying them their humanity by denying them the possibility of having feet of clay — just like everyone else — is no help and actually makes the problem worse because it makes our pastors untouchable and isolated. In that isolation, burnout progresses — thru very recognizable stages that are ignored — until it is often too late. At that point, it is the entire flock that usually is destroyed because the pastor — due to isolation — has latched onto pride to see himself through. But eventually that too fails and by then things in the church are so far gone that everything — the pastor, his family, and the church — falls apart.

      We do not honor our pastors or those they serve by keeping this epidemic of pastoral burnout on the list of “unmentionables” within our churches.

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    • Barbara — I don’t screen posts, so I was confused at first by your follow-up comment about blocking your original post. I took a look, and for some reason the automatic “spam” filter kicked in and prevented your original comment from posting. There was no decision on my part to block anything, and I apologize for the misunderstanding. I was able to figure out how to bypass the spam filter and get it posted, and did so.

      — Jim

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  4. Jim, I’m delighted to see the post here..and your response. It might have helped to include that info in your blog — that you are not referring to your current pastor.

    I think most of us assumed you were talking about your current pastor.

    Thx.
    Barbara

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  5. I appreciate your comments on burnout. I am not a minister as you speak about. But i was a minister in a different way. I was an ER nurse for 21 years until I burned out (to a crisp). I appreciate what you said about you have to get to that period of total exhaustion. And that is exactly what it was. The point where i could no longer care about others any longer. It was too painful and way too exhausting. I felt during that time and said that i lost everything, “my God, my soul and me”. I had to lose those things to find me again. (i may have lost God but he didnt lose me) The problem is as you said, that we sweep things under the carpet. People dont share and mentor and help each other during those times. It is something that we must do however. Thanks

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  6. what youve said is the solid having witnessed ministry burnout in people close to me and my own journey of burnout of sorts.
    I would add though that it is usually cyclical this side of the grave. No one arrives at a place of total surrender… more like surrender becomes a lifestyle and its highly likely burnout or exhaustion happens again but much less intense as lessons have been learnt and we can better spot the warning signals.
    So yeah I recognize there are significant moments and turning points, but its ongoing as the risk is always there.

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