From time to time every leader and pastor faces burnout. The well runs dry. He or she becomes weary in well doing. He runs out of gas. She simply has nothing left to give. When we totter on the precipice of burnout, what can we do? As I’ve faced those times during my ministry, I’ve learned a few ways that have helped me dig out.
- Recognize the symptoms
- Everybody’s burnout looks a bit different. Sometimes burnout comes from doing too much outwardly with over busy schedules. Sometimes burnout comes from an inner world in turmoil: worry, incessant anxiety, and fear. I suggest starting with self understanding. What does your burnout look like? Which of these factors might indicate you are burning out?
- The joy you once had seems to have disappeared. You seldom have fun anymore.
- You consistently sleep poorly.
- You feel non-localized, free floating anger in your heart.
- You catastrophize in your thinking, assuming the worse in people and life.
- You easily snap, lose your cool with friends, families, or people in the church.
- After you recognize the symptoms, I’ve found that rest really helps. Whether it means taking time off, taking more breaks during your work day, getting more sleep, or trimming your schedule, the body and soul needs rest. Neuroscientists have coined a term for excessive wear and tear on our body due to prolonged stress and burnout, allostatic load. When we don’t give our body and brains time to rejuvenate, we prolong our burnout and its negative effects.
- Third, revisit your core values and mission. I encourage every leader to develop his or her own mission statement, their mission God has called them to achieve with His power. Most weeks when I do my strategic planning, I revisit my mission statement and personal values. If you’d like to see mine, you can click here. In this post I talk about the importance of developing your own personal values.
- The final step is to re-orient your time and effort to best live out your personal mission, without burning out. I suggest taking a half day alone to reset your goals and adjust how you use your time. Here’s a post on how to plan a retreat.
If you’ve faced burnout, what has helped you?
Leader’s need healthy brains. Whether you are a pastor, a leader in a non-profit, or work in a business, without a healthy brain, you won’t lead at your best. My friend Brian Cygan is one of the most knowledgeable guys around when it comes to the impact of exercise on brain health. He is the Co-founder and CEO of The Exercise Coach, a tech-enabled personal training franchise with scores of locations nationwide. With a bachelor’s degree in Fitness Leadership from Northern Illinois University he leverages his 16 years in the fitness industry to apply brain-based insights to life and business leadership. He’s my guest blogger this week. You’ll enjoy his fitness based brain insights.
According to John Ratey MD, “Exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function.”
Ratey knows a thing or two about the brain. He is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of Spark, The New Science of Exercise and the Brain. It’s generally accepted that exercise is good for your body, but recent findings reveal that its every bit as crucial for the health of your brain.
The question is, “What kind of exercise?” While the study of exercise and the brain is relatively nascent some interesting findings are starting to emerge. Maybe the most interesting is that a number of brain-beneficial exercise effects are intensity-dependent. In other words, these findings suggest that to build your best brain you have to make your muscles burn. When you push your muscles, with resistance training and interval training, your body produces health and repair promoting protein combinations that aren’t nearly as responsive to leisurely activity. Here are just a few:
- Human Growth Hormone (HGH): This rejuvenating (and fat-burning) hormone is elevated after muscle-burning effort and in addition to its muscle building properties it is believed to increase brain volume, balance neurotransmitters and amplify the effects of other “growth-factors.”
- Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF): Known as miracle grow for the brain this substance is promotes the growth and strength of neuronal connections and well as protects neurons (brain cells) against the natural process of cell death. Research also indicates that BDNF levels in humans are significantly elevated in response to exercise and the magnitude of increase is exercise intensity dependent.
- Atrial natriuretic peptie (ANP): This recently discovered hormone is produced by muscle tissue in the heart and is known to have an anxiolytic (Anti-anxiety) effect. The harder your work the higher your ANP goes. ANP not only keeps your heart rate in check but also calms the stress response regions of your brain. When you stop exercising your ANP stays elevated for some time leaving you feeling more relaxed. Over time this helps to make your more resilient to stressful situations.
- Vascular endothelial growth factor (VegF): During high-effort exercise our body’s ability to oxygenate cells throughout our body is temporarily disrupted. This triggers VegF production. VegF is a hormone that builds new capillaries in the body and brain. VegF is also believed to enhance the uptake of other hormones and factors during exercise by changing the permeability of the blood brain barrier.
When you push your body you push your brain. If you want to protect your memory, blood-flow to your brain, and sharpness as you age, you have to “go for the burn.” Fortunately, at higher-effort levels time requirements are dramatically reduced. In fact, in just 5-20 minutes you can perform muscular work that makes a difference. Start by adding “effort intervals” to your regimen. An effort interval is simply a timed burst of exertion. Your intervals should be no more than 10-15 seconds and you should start with just one or two of these spaced by 45 seconds or more. Believe it or not, according to research, these 30 seconds might be worth as much as 30-minutes of taking it easy. That’s a lot of brain-bang for your buck.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, is often associated with negative effects that prolonged stress puts on our bodies. Those effects include weight gain, anxiety, heart disease, depressed immune system, digestive problems, sleep impairment, and even effects on memory. But could churches be negatively affected by cortisol as well? That is, if the leaders and culture of that church are constantly stressed, and flooded with cortisol themselves, could it affect the church negatively? I think it can and does in many churches. Consider these 9 tell-tale signs of a church flooded with cortisol.
- Your leadership team seems to always be uptight, tired, and sick a lot.
- Little trust between staff, elders, and the people in general exists.
- The leaders incessantly push bigger and better programs and ministries. They often switch from one great idea to the next.
- Your staff experiences lots of turn-over.
- An atmosphere of suspicion and “the wary eye” seems to pervade the church and your teams.
- Staff meetings are conflict filled or staff simply don’t say much in meetings for fear they will get reprimanded.
- A heavy spirit seems to linger over the office and even the church itself.
- Tension and conflict fill elder and/or deacon meetings.
- You seem to focus most on problems rather than victories or stories of how God is working.
How many of these did you check? Granted, spiritual forces are at work here as well. It’s not just a biological thing. But if more than two of these are true of your church, you might need to take a good look at your church’s stress level. Your church may be flooded with cortisol.
How might a church dial down a cortisol culture? Consider these potential antidotes.
- Create a ‘do not do’ list for your church. Pare down what you do so that leaders and volunteers don’t feel run ragged. Do a few things well.
- Teach your leaders how to build trust. Here’s a recent blog on building trust. When we build trust, we help activate the trust neurotransmitter oxytocin in our brains that creates a feeling of safety and belonging. Here’s a video of a recent talk I gave on building trust.
- Build fun experiences into your staff calendar. Don’t make every encounter revolve around pressing ministry issues.
- If you are the main leader, dial down your own intensity. Take breaks during the day. Deal with your own stress. Take your day off. Disconnect from technology 24 hours each week.
- Begin your staff and elder/deacon meetings with praises and victories.
- Share stories in your services that point to God’s blessings and changed lives.
- Over-communicate with your church. When people sense they know what’s happening, they will tend less to assume the worst. When we assume the worst we become anxious and cortisol ratchets up.
- Smile a lot. Our brain has what are called mirror neurons (brain cells) that prompts us to mimic the intentional, goal directed actions of others. Model give body language to others that you want them to imitate. And, make it positive.
Do you think churches can be affected by cortisol in leaders? Why or why not?
The Red Zone: unsafe areas in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, a region of France decimated during WWI, the area on the field between the 20 yard line and the end zone in American football (source: wikipedia). The term Red Zone is a fairly well understood term that designates either a problem area or a heightened sense of alertness, as in the case of football. I’m extending that meaning to the emotional place many pastors and leaders find themselves in, sometimes without there even knowing it. Consider these subtle clues that may point to your being in the stress Red Zone. Mentally check the ones true of you.
10 indicators you are in the stress Red Zone
- You quickly walk by someone at church or at the office to avoid a conversation simply because you don’t have the energy to engage.
- Fun in ministry and life seems to have disappeared.
- When you come home your spouse says, “You look terrible.”
- When you come home you could go to bed, right then.
- You can’t shake the free floating anxiety that seems to cling to you.
- Small things that once didn’t bother you now set you off.
- You often ruminate over and rehearse negative issues in your ministry and/or life.
- You easily default to worse case scenario thinking.
- You feel anger coursing deep within.
- You’re not sleeping very well.
How many did you mentally check? If you checked any of these, you may be in the stress Red Zone.
Often leaders lead in such stress-filled environments that their bodies and brains are awash in the stress hormone, cortisol. When under stress, whether good or bad, our adrenal glands (located atop our kidneys) release this important hormone. Cortisol is not all bad. We need it in times of stress. However, it becomes harmful when we are perpetually under stress and our body gets overexposed to it and other stress related hormones.
Here’s what can happen to your body if it’s perpetually awash in cortisol.
- dampened immunity: you’ll get sick more often
- digestive problems
- heart disease
- weight gain
- impaired brain functioning, especially memory
- sleep impairment
So what can you do if you realize you are in the stress Red Zone? Consider these ideas.
- Make sure you regularly exercise as exercise can help reduce excessive cortisol in your body.
- Practice mindfulness as part of your spiritual formation process. My latest book includes an entire chapter on mindfulness.
- Get 30 minutes more sleep each night.
- Take your day off…really take it off. Don’t even look at email for 24 hours straight on your day off.
- Talk to a friend, your spouse, or a counselor about your stress. Others can often give us a more objective sense of reality which can reduce our stress.
What has helped you manage your stress and avoid being awash in cortisol?
Peter Drucker, one of the world’s greatest leadership experts, once listed what he considered the four hardest jobs in the world. Here are those four: President of the United States, a university president, a CEO of a hospital, and a pastor. Wow, strong words from a wise man. Although I’ve not held the first three jobs, I have served as a pastor for over 35 years. It can be tough and pastors must care for their souls. Consider these 8 ways to refresh your tired soul.
- Do something totally different from ministry. Often pastors spend even their free time on ministry related pursuits and thoughts. Consider doing something totally different from the ministry vein. I once took improv classes I found very refreshing to my soul.
- Be okay with taking care of you. Pete Scazzero, most known for emotionally healthy spirituality, learned this the hard way and wrote these words.
- “The degree to which you love yourself corresponds to the degree to which you love others. Caring for ourselves was difficult for us to do without feeling guilty. We unwittingly thought that dying to ourselves for the sake of the gospel meant dying to marital intimacy and joy in life. We had died to something God had never intended we die to.” (www.christianity today.com/le/1998/winter/8l1063.html)
- Keep healthy boundaries with others. A boundary is a line that helps define those things for which we are responsible. They define who we are and who we are not; when properly managed they can bring us great freedom with others in our churches. I recommend Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s bestseller Boundaries for better understanding.
- Lighten up and laugh more often (not at others’ expense, though). Current research on how humor affects leadership has discovered that the most effective leaders use humor more often than less effective ones. (Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee, Primal Leadership, 34).
- Build relationships with no ministry purpose in mind. Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message Bible paraphrase said…
- “Pastors can lose touch with relational vitality when their relationships are driven by programmatic necessity. When this happens, pastors can lose the context for love, hope, faith, touch, and a kind of mutual vulnerability. In the midst of the congregation, pastors become lonely and feel isolated-and that isolation can be deadly to the pastoral life. Those are the conditions in which inappropriate intimacies flourish.” (http://www.alban.org/conversation.aspx?id=3280)
- Take care of your body through exercise, healthy eating, and adequate sleep.
- Master technology, don’t let it master you. I’m a techno geek. I was one of the original Mac owners and I use an iPhone and an iPad. I love electronic gadgets. I’m on Facebook. I tweet, text, e-mail, and blog. I’ve found, however, that technology can easily enslave me. It’s a battle yet when I control my technology, I’m more at peace. Interestingly, research has shown that the average worker is interrupted every eleven minutes and takes twenty-five minutes to refocus back on his job. I found that to be generally true in my life when I compulsively check e-mail.
- Periodically take a solo retreat. Occasionally I’ve taken a night and a day at a local retreat center. I’m usually the only one there. When I go, I think, pray, plan, write, and study. Those periodic getaways refresh my soul and help break me from the rigors of ministry, resetting my focus to respond appropriately to the stresses ministry brings.
What has helped add life to your soul as a pastor?