The Causes and Cure for Leadership Burnout

Leadership is tough. Good leaders understand this and manage their lives and leadership demands to avoid burnout. Sometimes, however, even the best leaders get burned out. If you’re now facing it, examine the cause list below to see what factors may be contributing to it. Then, take one proactive step this week from the cures list to take better care of yourself.

4 Causes of Leadership Burnout:

1. Allostatic load.

This term describes the wear and tear on our body from chronic stress. Our bodies have limits. Yet, when we are under stress for long periods of time, our bodies suffer. Prolonged stress causes sustained high levels of the stress hormone cortisol which, along with an overabundance of other neurotransmitters and hormones, can cause heart problems, weight gain, impaired immunity, decreased memory due to brain cell atrophy, and diminished brain functioning. 

2. Power stress.

Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, authors of Resonant Leadership, coined this phrase to describe a kind of stress unique to leaders. “Power stress is part of the experience that results from the exercise of influence and sense of responsibility felt in leadership positions.” McKee and Boyatzis explain that when the demands of leadership get so high and leaders fail to manage it, they risk becoming trapped in what they call the Sacrifice Syndrome. Sometimes we leaders feel so overly responsible for the success of our organizations or churches that we get caught in a vicious cycle of unhealthy sacrifice for others that leads to burnout.

3. Continuous partial attention. 

Linda Stone, author and consultant, developed this phrase to describe the mental trap we easily fall into when we constantly scan our surroundings to look for the best opportunities to spend our time on. It happens when we ‘skim,’ and pay attention, only partially. When this happens to a leader, he will fail to focus on the most important tasks at hand and get further behind on mission critical issues. Then, he must rush to get the important things done which contributes to chronic stress.

4. Multi-tasking. 

“Many leaders have convinced themselves that multitasking leads to greater productivity. However, researchers have shown that when we try to process two mental tasks at once, our mental capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight-year-old. And it can reduce our mental capacities as if we missed a night’s sleep or smoked pot (Rock, 2009, pp. 34– 36). Multitasking can also diminish long-term memory (Foerde et al., 2006). Even college students who multitasked with their laptops while in a class scored lower on tests than did students who didn’t multitask. And students who could see others multitasking also scored lower. So multitasking decreases others’ productivity as well as our own (Sana et al., 2013).” (from People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone).

In fact, research shows that multitasking can add up to a 40% loss of productivity in a day. This decrease in productivity is called task switch cost. 

So, what can we do to combat these factors that lead to burnout? Consider these steps.

4 Cures of Leadership Burnout:

1. Exercise.

For years research has shown that exercise benefits our body. But recent research has discovered that it benefits our brains as well. When we exercise it causes our brains to release a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has been called the Miracle-Gro for the brain. It encourages new neuronal growth and protects brain cells from stress. The better we take care of our brains, the better leaders we will be. 

2. Statio.

Statio describes a Christian monastic practice that we might call a mini-transition between events of the day. It’s a moment between moments when we pause from once task before going to the next. It allows us to break our hurry, obtain closure from the prior task, and prepare our hearts and minds for what comes next. Leaders who practice this can turn down their body’s fight-flight system (the sympathetic nervous system) and engage the rest and digest system (the parasympathetic system) which makes us calmer. Read this post by Daniel Schroeder to learn more about statio.

3. Sleep.

“When we don’t get enough sleep, we rob our brains of important neural functions because the brain is actually very active during sleep. Although the brain never really shuts down, it’s only truly at rest during non-REM sleep, which accounts for only 20 percent of our normal sleep cycle. During the other 80 percent, sleep helps the brain encode, strengthen, stabilize, and consolidate our memories from the day. Our brain replays what we have learned during the day (Medina, 2009, p. 164) to make our memories stick. Sleep also plays an important role in learning.” (from Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry by Charles Stone (Kindle Locations 1671-1675))

4. Get off the grid.

In our 24-7 connected world, our smart phones can actually keep us on high alert and in stress mode. I find that if I choose a 24-hour period (my Sabbath) when I don’t check email, I’m much more at peace. Getting off the grid helps disengage my mind and slow my internal pace. I’d also encourage you to turn off the automatic notifications function on your smart phone and on your computer.

What has helped you avoid burnout as a leader?

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How Going to Church Benefits Brain and Body

As a committed follower of Jesus, I’ve gone to church literally my whole life. My parents took me when I was a kid. I wanted to go as an adult. And in another sense, I’d better go now. After all, I am a pastor. Most believers understand that church attendance does (or should) help us grow spiritually. But did you know that God wired our bodies and brains to benefit from both attending church and developing a healthy spiritual life? Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg notes that since the year 2000 over 400 papers have been published each year on this topic. Consider these ways science shows us that church attendance benefits both brain and body.

How Going to Church Benefits Brain and Body

First, two caveats.

  • I’m assuming your church is a Bible-based, grace-filled place. If your church atmosphere is legalistic, harsh, and overall condemning, it can actually harm your body and brain.
  • These studies don’t necessarily show a causal relationship (attending church causes such benefits). Rather, most of the studies show a correlation. That is, attending church and these benefits are closely related. Nevertheless, science continues to discover more body and brain benefits from walking with Christ and being with His people

1. It decreases stress. The stress hormone cortisol is released by the adrenal glands that lie on top of our kidneys. Good stress (eustress) keeps us keep motivated and alert. So cortisol is not all bad. But prolonged stress that keeps unhealthy high cortisol levels in our body damages both it and our brains. Heart problems, a dampened immune system, and diminished memory result from prolonged stress. However, church attendance can decrease the stress response thus decreasing the amount of cortisol in your body.

2. It increases the trust hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin is one of the ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters). If the church you attend is filled with kind and caring people, your brain will release this chemical helping you bond with others. Biblical community is really good for you.

3. It may thicken your brain. One brain study discovered that those who place a high value on spirituality (though not necessarily tied to church attendance) showed thickening in some brain areas. Many other studies now show that reflective and contemplative spiritual practices grow several parts of your brain.

4. It can help lessen depression. A group of Canadian researchers discovered that those who attended church more regularly experienced less depression. They surmised that social support made the difference resulting in people being more resilient. (see number 2 above)

5. It may help you live longer. One study showed that attending church increased the lifespan for whites by an average of 7 years and potentially 14 years for African Americans. The more people go to church, the less likely they are to die sooner than those who don’t go to church.

6. Finally, church attenders commit suicide less often, deal with pain better, have less cardiovascular problems, and recover quicker from surgery.

A final word.

We follow Christ, not because of the pragmatic benefits, like taking aspirin for a headache. We follow Him because he created us with a soul thirst that can only be quenched in Him. However, when we do turn to Jesus and His Body, He gives us some nice brain and body benefits as well.

So the next time you are in church, thank God for these brain and body benefits.

What other practical benefits have you experienced from attending church?

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Does the Bible have Refrigerator Rights in Your Life?

When I visit my parents in Georgia, within five minutes of my arrival I almost always open the refrigerator to see what’s in it. I’ve done this for years. And they don’t mind me doing so. However, I don’t have that freedom to do that in most everyone else’s home. If someone invited me over and I opened their refrigerator, they’d think I was either crazy or that I lacked key social skills. I liken refrigerator rights to how open we are to allowing God’s Word to shape our conduct and character. How do we know that God’s Word has refrigerator rights in our hearts? Consider five questions that might answer that question.

Before I suggest these questions, we can learn a key insight about ‘refrigerator rights’ from Jesus’ half-brother James who wrote the book named after him. In James 1.21 we find this insightful phrase, humbly accept the word planted in you.

The idea of accept denotes a welcoming reception you feel in a friend’s home, much like how my parents receive me when I visit them. Their welcoming atmosphere gives me the freedom to open up their refrigerator. Likewise, when we truly give God’s Word refrigerator rights to our souls, we welcome His Word to instruct, convict, and direct our lives.

Ask yourself these questions to discover the degree God’s Word has refrigerator rights to your heart.

  1. I read, meditate on, or study God’s Word several times each week.
  2. I approach the Bible as a living and God-breathed book, unlike how I approach reading a novel or a textbook.
    • For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Heb 4.12)
  3. I seek to connect the then and there (what the Bible says) to the here and now (how I need to directly apply it to my life). I don’t read simply for interest, but for life transformation.
  4. I read the Bible reflectively, slowly, and meditatively. In this post I write about a unique and fresh approach to Bible reading.
  5. I refuse to pick and choose the parts of the Bible that apply to me. I open up every part of my life and heart to God’s Spirit applying Biblical Truth to me.

The next time you open up your own refrigerator, ask yourself this question.

Does God’s Word have refrigerator rights in my heart? 

What has helped you keep your heart open to God’s Word?

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When You’re in the Belly of a Big Fish

Jonah, one of Scriptures most interesting characters, finds himself in the belly of a big faith after he ran from God. Sometimes crisis, pain, and difficulty can feel like we’re stuck in the same place Jonah found himself. So what do we do? I believe Jonah 2 (a prayer he prayed while in the big fish three days) gives us some insight.

First, what might it look like for you to be in the belly of a fish?

  • You are losing your job and there are no jobs on the horizon.
  • You hate your job but can’t get out.
  • Your marriage is on the rocks.
  • Your teens are walking down a very dark path.
  • Your church seems like it’s going nowhere and things look hopeless.
  • You never seem to have enough money to pay your bills (or pay the church bills if you’re a pastor).
  • You just got a bad doctor’s report.

Can we learn anything during those times? R. T. Kendall believes we can. He writes, “The belly of the fish is not a happy place to live, but it is a good place to learn.”[1]

So, what does Jonah teach us about what to do when we are in the belly of a fish, in a difficult situation, crisis, or pain.

1. Pray.

Verse 1 tells us that from inside the fish he prayed. Unfortunately, we often pray after we’ve tried every thing else. James counsels us to pray in James 5.13.  Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray.

2. Don’t stuff your emotion, suppress your pain, or pretend all is ok. 

Sometimes leaders fail to admit to others or themselves that things really are bad because doing so might us look weak. So, we stuff our emotions, over spiritualize, or busy ourselves to push the pain away. Jonah didn’t do that, though. He graphically describes his situation with words like these: distress, grave, currents swirling, waves and breakers sweeping over him, banished from his sight, engulfed, seaweed wrapped around his head, barred in forever, in the pit, life ebbing away.

Instead of stuffing, one way we can actually dampen painful emotions is to label them, put a name on them. Learn more in this post about dealing with painful emotions.

At the same time we must admit our painful emotions, we must not go to the other extreme and ruminate, replay, and constantly rehearse the difficult situation. Doing so will actually amp them up.

3. Stay hopeful by redirecting your thinking.

As Jonah recounts how difficult things have been, he shifts mental gears with the phrase, “But you (God).” In fact, the Bible often describes God intervening for his people with this phrase, But God. Stories about Noah, Joseph, Joshua, David, and Paul describe But God moments in their lives when the Lord rescued them.

When you’re in the belly, don’t deny the reality of the difficulty. And instead of rehearsing and ruminating, redirect your thinking to the But God’s in Scripture and in your life.

4. Remove any God substitutes.

In verse 8 Jonah talks about worthless idols, probably referring the pagan sailors who were in the boat and who practiced idolatry. For believers today, we can get easily get attached to subtle idols and false gods in our lives. Idols and false gods look different to different people.

Some people drive in their gods.

Some people live in their gods.

Some people live with their gods.

Some people work for their gods.

Some people serve in the gods (their church or their ministry).

The problem with all these gods is what my daughter Tiffany and I discovered several years ago when we took the Hollywood backstage tour in California. The tour involved riding a tram that drove by many familiar houses and buildings used in the movies and TV shows. However, the guide explained that all the sets were facades, false fronts. There was nothing behind them but junk.

Those sets parallel false gods and idols in our own lives. They promise to fill our hearts and give us life, happiness and joy, but they don’t stand up to the rigors of real life. They are all false fronts.

When in the belly of a big fish we often think about what’s truly most important. If you’re in the belly, use this time to root out and discard any God substitutes.

When you’ve been in the belly of a big fish, what life lessons did you learn?

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[1] Smith, B. K., & Page, F. S. (1995). Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (Vol. 19B, p. 241). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Are these a Pastor’s 5 Greatest Fears?

If you are human, you have secret fears. I don’t mean ones like fear of snakes or fear of heights, but deeper ones. You may have never verbalized them to anyone. Perhaps they have burrowed themselves deep into your subconscious. Perhaps they’ve become like a shadow that dogs your every step. Perhaps they’re no big deal. However you’d classify yours, I believe we all carry them. And pastors deal with them as well. Although I’ve not based my list below on science or surveys, I believe they capture several fears pastors often face.

A pastor’s 5 greatest fears (not in any special order):

1. What if my ministry is insignificant? In writing my second book (Five Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them, IVP, 2010, ), I included a quote by David Goetz that captures this fear well.

I often sat in the studies of both small-church pastors and mega-church pastors, listening to their stories, their hopes, their plans for significance. I deduced, albeit unscientifically, that often clergymen in midlife had worse crises of limits than did other professionals. Religious professionals went into the ministry for the significance, to make an impact, called by God to make a difference with their lives. But when you re fifty-three and serving a congregation of 250, you know, finally, you’ll never achieve the large-church immortality symbol, the glory that was promised to you. That can be a dark moment-or a dark couple of years. (Kindle e-book loc 1919).

2. What if I really mess up?

One of the rising stars in the Baptist world in the 80’s and 90’s in the US, Joel Gregory, rose to what was then the pinnacle of the Baptist world to pastor First Baptist Church of Dallas, TX and succeed W. A. Criswell. However, two years later he resigned, his marriage failed, and he sold cemetery plots to make a living. His remarkable journey (nicely chronicled here), however, led him to a place of redemption and he is now a respected preaching professor at Baylor.

3. When if people leave my church because they are upset?

I know of no pastor who has every led a church where 100% of the people stayed. Some leave for good reasons. Some don’t. And often the pastor is the last one to hear they left. When that happens, it hurts, notwithstanding the good feelings that come from ‘blessed subtractions.’

4. What if I can’t make the people happy?

In my third book (People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership), I surveyed over 2000 pastors and discovered that from 79%-91% of pastors self admitted that people pleasing affected their ministry to some extent. This common temptation is even wired into our brains. Social rejection lights up the same regions of the brain that physical pain does so when we know someone is not pleased with our performance, it actually hurts.

5. What if the people really knew my deepest struggles?

Acceptable struggles like overwork or eating too much usually don’t affect how church people see you. But, what about pastors who struggle with secret jealousies of more successful pastors, lust, or feeling that they often ‘fake it’ on Sundays. If the people knew their deepest struggles, what would they think? What would their boards think? What would those who hold them in high regard think?

The Bible says we are broken people. That’s what makes grace so good. God extends his unmerited love and mercy to us to restore, remake, and remold us. Salvation freed us from the penalty of sin. His Spirit is freeing us from the power of sin. Yet, it won’t be until heaven until we are freed from the very presence of sins, including our deepest fears.

Perhaps we should admit our deepest fears to the Lord and to a close, safe friend who can help us face them and conquer them with the Spirit’s power. In this post you can learn what to look for in a safe friend.

What would you add to this list?

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