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?
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?
In my last post I discussed how ministry stress can sometimes make pastors feel like zombies: listless, unmotivated, and mentally distracted. Many of you took the Zombie Zone Quiz to find out if you were in that zombie zone. If ministry stress is draining you, this post offers some practical guidance.
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If you currently feel like a zombie pastor, what can you do to renew your passion, energy, and zest for ministry? Consider these 10 simple steps that can help you regain your joy and step into God’s healthy zone.
- Admit that something is out of kilter in your life. Simply naming the problem is your first step to solving it.
- Share with a safe friend that you feel like a zombie and ask him or her for prayer and support.
- Take an honest look at your average week. Does it include a full day of rest when you disconnect from all things ministry?
- Start getting 30 more minutes of sleep each night.
- Schedule time each day when you email or do social networking. Don’t get sucked into them every hour.
- Ask the Lord to renew your strength.
- But those who wait upon GOD get fresh strength. They spread their wings and soar like eagles, They run and don’t get tired, they walk and don’t lag behind. (Is. 40.31)
- Do something fun that you enjoy doing. Make a date with yourself each week and do it. Don’t feel guilty that you are taking time for yourself.
- If it’s serious, find a coach or counselor who can help you dig out. Even if it’s not serious, periodically see a coach or counselor to help give you perspective.
- Ask your closest friends and family to tell you when they sense you are mentally preoccupied. When they tell you, write down what was on your mind. Learn how to catch yourself when you become preoccupied with those thoughts so you can change them and become more present with others.
- Practice silence and solitude. See the related posts below for insight on this important spiritual practice.
How do you keep yourself emotionally and spiritually healthy so that you don’t become a zombie pastor?
Zombies are big today. Big budget movies, popular TV shows, commercials, and even zombie action figures have invaded our culture. Even before they became popular, when someone said, ‘I feel like a zombie,” we knew what they meant… they felt exhausted, lifeless, listless, and were simply going through the motions. How do you know if ministry stress has made you a zombie pastor? In this post you can find out.
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As a pastor for over 35 years, at times I’ve felt like a zombie pastor. Ministry stress, disappointments, and pressure sometimes seemed to sap my soul of life, energy, and joy.
So how do you know if you are a zombie pastor? Take the Pastor Zombie Zone Quiz. (Tweet this quote here)