Confession time: We leaders sometimes allow the burden for the organization, teams and people we lead to become all consuming. I know all too well the burden and stress of leadership and the toll it can have on an individual. As the executive pastor of a growing church, I have faced this terrible reality. So much so, that in our rebuilding years, I once contracted shingles on my face due to stress. I was dangerously close to losing my sight from the infection. It rang out like a siren that I had been pushing myself too hard; signaling to me that something seriously needed to change.
One of the things that came to the forefront of my mind was that a huge part of the stress was either self-induced or that I had allowed it to enter into my life in the first place. And if you are anything like me, this may be the case for you.
Of course, it may not be the same for everyone. There is definitely a genuine pressure and stress to being the leader. However, I believe the burden of leadership doesn’t have to be an early grave. In my own story, I was able to find success in this, and after some serious reflection and intentional changes, I have been able to not only continue in my role but thrive in a position that should probably be shared with at least two other people.
I still have a lot to figure out as I continue to grow and learn every day (as we all do), yet I hope that some of the lessons I have learned over the years can be useful for someone reading this right now. My hope is that you find not just a healthy balance, but if you have come to the point of burnout, that you may return to the place of excitement and passion you may have once had.
1. Don’t Expect More of Yourself Than What is Healthy and Make Sure Your Team(s) Understands
It is very possible that you are in an unhealthy situation, and what you need to do is quit before you burn out. You are not called to sacrifice yourself, your calling or your family on the altar of your organization. If you are not the top leader and you have talked with your supervisor about your longevity and no help is given when you share your need, then maybe you need to eject yourself from that position. Remember, you are not indispensable, and to think that you are may bring about more harm to you and the organization/team(s) you are looking to serve.
Let’s take it a step further. What about the unhealthy expectations you have on yourself? The deadlines you keep, the responsibilities you choose to handle, the performance level you expect of yourself, and the motivations you allow to drive you. Are your expectations for yourself things that only Jesus or Superman could keep? Don’t get me wrong, I believe strongly in hard work and a culture of excellence, but what we need to be careful about is moving towards a culture of perfection and people pleasing. We need room to fail so we will be able to take healthy risks. Also, we should never be driven or find our worth by the need of approval of those we look up to. Ask yourself this question: what/who is motivating me?
2. Be Disciplined In Your Time Management
What does your average work week look like? Are you constantly running out of time? Do you spend more time at the office than with family and friends? In the world of leaders, it can be easy to develop the bad habit of the 70 hour work week because we allow our schedules get away from us. Instead of us being in control of our time, information and projects, we let these things control us. We become slaves and are carried along by them. Many leaders don’t spend enough time developing habits and tools to manage their time. Maybe you don’t even know where to start. Let me let you in on something: the secret to time management isn’t even managing your time: the secret is managing your attention. It is knowing how, when, and what we put our greatest attention towards and becoming focused on those things. This means we don’t waste our greatest moments of productive attention on things that only waste our attention or in moments when our attention is low.
Even something as simple as having time limits on meetings or actually having fewer meetings will make a world of difference. I know that sounds harsh, but in no other profession would they let the person needing the meeting dictate the amount of time. I was amazed at how much time I had gained back once I became disciplined with the time I used and what I choose to focus my attention on and when. This is all about focusing on what is important and prioritizing the time I spend on it. If you are not sure how to start this or want to wrap your mind around this idea, a great book on this topic is How To Be A Productivity Ninja by Graham Allcott.
3. Recruit, Equip & Release
I know that it is easier said than done, trust me, I know. But part of our calling as leaders is not to simply call or demand people to do, or worse, do it all yourself. Instead, we need to inspire, equip and empower people. This means we need to do the foundational work of sharing the authority and responsibility of the vision and mission, not just delegating tasks.
When we can find the right people that get the vision and culture we are building, we can equip and empower them to be released to further that goal as a team. Remember, whether you like it or not, you are not the expert in every regard. Your role is to lead a team, not to know everything. It is to find the experts in a particular field or gift, recruit them, give them the tools needed and release them with both tasks and responsibility (which involves letting go of some authority to accomplish this).
Maybe you think you don’t have the time to invest in people like this. Let me correct you there. You don’t have the time not to. Maybe one of the reasons why you are burnt out is you are trying to do it all on your own. Maybe you are too scared to share responsibility, or maybe you have a hard time raising the bar for people.
Maybe you are in a role that leads mostly volunteers. How do you ask people to step it up when they are volunteers? Let me let you in on a little secret: people are dying to be asked to serve in their passions. The key word here is ‘passions’. As leaders, we need to connect people to their passions. Also, in the world of leading volunteers, some people quit because you ask too much of them, while others quit because you don’t challenge them enough. The trick is figuring out which is which, (and the simplest way is to just ask).
Maybe you are not the personality to do that, and that’s alright. But find someone who is and has the know-how, character and has gained the right to lead and empower that person to do so. They are wired to do it, so don’t feel guilty. Be willing to share the glory and reigns. Remember, you don’t need to be the expert in it all, you simply need to bring the best team together and bring the best out of them to accomplish the mission and vision.
Maybe think about it like this: Delegate anything that you don’t need to be doing to others who are passionate about those things, so you can focus on what you are wired to do and what no one else can do. You would be amazed at how many people are willing to step up when all they are waiting for is for is an ask. I have found that the big ask, in front of a large group, rarely works: people need the human touch. I recruited 60+ volunteers in 4 months for a project, simply by asking one person at a time. I got turned down a lot, but I also discovered a lot of people who were excited and gifted and have seen new teams form because of it. In a lot of cases people were simply waiting for the ask, or simply needed their questions or concerns answered.
4. Know When to Kill Something or Pass Something Off. You Can’t Do Everything
Don’t ever feel guilty to ask for help and inspire your team(s) to work alongside you. Remember, we cannot be the expert in every situation because we are not an expert in all things. I have heard it said from multiple leaders I deeply respect: “As the leader, it isn’t our job to be the expert in the room, but to get all the experts into one room together.” As a leader, our mission should be to work ourselves out of a job, not create more jobs for ourselves. There are so many people who are gifted in what you need and so ready to serve, it is simply being willing to see these people, ask, and release. Don’t create teams and fill the holes. Don’t ask people or try and fit them into things that they are not passionate about or gifted to do. Instead, find the passions and gifts of people and build teams and projects around them. Start with asking people what they are passionate about and see how they are gifted and build around them.
Furthermore, we can be much too busy in our organizations, because we are doing so much that we are never actually accomplishing anything. We are busy, but we are not actually productive. We need to be focused. Are there teams, projects, ministries that have lost their ‘why?’ for existing? If we can’t answer the question of why something exists, maybe those things should be killed. I know sacred cows can be hard to kill, but they sometimes need to die. Or as my friend, Brian McNarry, put it to me, “Sacred cows make the best burgers”. If there is no one to lead it and/or you can’t answer the question of why it exists… kill it. Change takes time—and you need to choose your battles—but in the end, you can’t do everything, and you (and your teams) need to focus on what really matters.
5. Get a Hobby That You Can Measure In Quantified Growth
If you work in a vocation that deals with the growth of people, so often it can be discouraging because growth is slow, sporadic, and when people are encouraged by your organization’s mission and are growing, we rarely hear about it. This is the hard reality of working with people. It would be awesome if those we worked with shared more good than bad, but this rarely tends to be the case.
One small thing we can do is find a hobby where we can walk away and say: “look what I did.” I worked with a pastor that gardened because he said he could actually see it grow. Find something where there is a tangible goal, something to strive for and accomplishments you can celebrate that aren’t tied to your vocation.
Ideally, this needs to be an outlet where you don’t need to be on, you don’t have to have your performance wrapped up in it all and your job security isn’t dependant on what you produce. As leaders, we all need something that we can do outside our ministries. This does not include reading a new theological book or personal development. Something that there are no strings attached, something simply for pleasure, but something that gives you fulfillment and accomplishment is an ideal balance.
6. Find Support Outside the Walls of Your Organization
Look for other colleagues or mentors to feed into you whom you also can feed into and give support to each other. This can be professional support and advice, but also find ways to minister to each other emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically. Maybe there is no one in your context and you need to get creative by using skype, phone calls, or something else. I am connected with someone who is on the other side of the world right now and is someone who keeps me grounded and focused.
Ultimately this creates a place where you can vent and mutually feed each other, do life together, challenge each other, call each other out, support each other, and a place where you can be yourself.
7. Give Yourself a Break
You don’t need to be perfect. No seriously! Listen to me: You are allowed to be human, to make mistakes, to have struggles, to not have perfect kids, to not be put on a pedestal and the perfect example for everyone else to follow. Help people to see this: show your blemishes and remind your team(s) that you and your family are human too.
We want to strive for excellence, but not perfection. No one can carry that burden. If you are a people-pleaser and worry about performance or have that pressure put on you, maybe you need a season to get away and deal with it. This can kill you if you don’t!
When is the last time you rested? I mean, really rested. And I don’t mean a vacation, I mean time to get away, be fed, feed yourself, seek God for your life, your family and even your vocation. We can get so busy with the details that we never find the time to stop and just be.
Find the things that feed you and give you life away from your position/vocation/organization. Look up Spiritual Pathways, it’s a good place to start. Don’t carry the world on your shoulders.
9. Add More Things That Give You Life, and Kill the Things That Drain You
Obviously, leading can be draining. But, if you can be using 70% of your time on the things that give you life and excite you and 30% on the things that drain you, you will be more likely to last.
You will go through seasons when the latter will be higher, but fight back to a healthy split. If you are doing too many of the things that drain, give it away. Trust me, there are people around you who would love to do that one thing you hate because they want to be involved and are wired that way (this might need a culture shift of everyone realizing they are a part of the team, but the work is worth it and the shift usually starts with us). I know that seems weird, but it is only because what you think is work is a passion for someone else.
I remember, early in y journey, having someone come up and ask me if they could help with my paperwork. What got them excited was Excel and spreadsheets. I remember thinking: “There is something seriously wrong with you.” After I got over feeling guilty of handing this over to someone who enjoyed this, it became easier to empower people to share the load because I recognized everyone is gifted and passionate for what they are wired to do.
Start asking this question to people: “If you could do anything, what would it be? What are you passionate about, no matter how weird you think it is?” You will be surprised by what can be accomplished when you empower others who are gifted.
10. Closing Thought to Ponder: Change Isn’t Easy But Is Possible
Now, I know all this is easier said than done, but I would still challenge you to really give it a go. Although there are likely many external factors pressing in against you, there is a good chance that a large percentage of the battle is internal also. We put way too much pressure on ourselves, and in a lot of ways that no one else actually feels. Change isn’t easy and will take time, re-training, and some hard work. But you can’t afford to not make some changes.
If this resonates with you and you don’t know where to practically start, find someone to help you walk through it. If you have no one, let me be the first to say I would be willing to start that conversation with you and get you on the right foot. And I’d wager a guess that there are leaders in your own community who would be just as thrilled to hear from you too.