By Carey Nieuwhof
Throughout my 30s, my trajectory was up and to the right. Our church grew as did my leadership. But I operated with a poor formula: more people at our church equaled more hours for me as the leader. I had people tap me on the shoulder during this season, “Carey, you’re going to burn out.” Arrogantly I thought, That will never happen! Other people burn out. Weak people burn out. But that’s not going to happen to me.
To be fair, things had been going really well for our church for over a decade. We were one of the fastest growing and largest churches in Canada. This growth attracted a lot of attention in a culture where churches don’t often thrive.
Falling off a Cliff
In 2006, I was asked to speak at a large leadership conference. I prepared for this event like it was the Super Bowl. My wife and sons traveled with me, and I stepped on stage and gave a 40-minute keynote. Afterward my wife responded, “That was the talk of your life.” In fact, to this day, people in attendance still remember it. By all accounts, I had knocked it out of the park.
However, upon returning home, I felt like I fell off a cliff. For the first time in my life, let alone my leadership, my passion had disappeared. My joy for ministry was gone. My feelings were flat. I had never experienced anything like this before.
I kept thinking I would shake it off. But I didn’t. It got worse. For a month, I just went through the motions. I had already scheduled vacation time and just thought if I could push through until that time off, I’d come out the other side. But after that vacation, I felt even worse.
I finally began to recognize that my experience might be burnout. I shared with my elders that though all appeared to be well on the outside, I was a mess on the inside. They began to pray with and for me, showing me grace and understanding. About six weeks after this time, I started to see a glimmer of hope on the horizon. It took months and then years to finally feel whole again.
Recovering from Burnout
If you’ve ever experienced burnout as a leader, then you’ve probably had the same thought I had, I just want to go back to normal. I never lost my faith during this season. I just lost the feelings associated with my faith. But the problem with wanting things to be normal again is that normal brought about your burnout in the first place.
I started to ask God how to reconstruct a new normal. I came to adopt this particular phrase, “Learn to live in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow.” In the decade leading up to my burnout, I lived in ways that were unsustainable. My biggest fear in my 30s was that if I slowed down, then I would lose my effectiveness as a leader. But after experiencing burnout, I’ve actually found that by doing less I accomplish more. My productivity has skyrocketed.
If you’re experiencing burnout now, I encourage you to take a look at your health. Take a look at what you’re doing in ministry and in leadership. Focus on the things that are sustainable and scalable. Doing so will help you to live in ways today that will help you thrive tomorrow.
Check out Carey’s exclusive Ministry Grid leadership courses here.