Leading on Empty by Wayne Cordeiro is a book for burnouts. I picked it up back in February of 2013, when I finally realized I was experiencing long-term exhaustion (the formal diagnosis). I was a classic case — I didn’t know I had arrived at burnout, until I was actually coming out of it. A friend pointed me to this text as a classic on the subject, specifically written for Christians.
The book was not overly helpful for me, because I had stumbled into solutions or had recognized and addressed many of the symptoms already. It did help me to make sense of the troubled waters I’d just passed through and gave me a few tips or reminders to get back on course. But, that doesn’t mean this book would not be very helpful for you. If you are five, ten or fifteen years into some area of church leadership (or, any other vocation), you are probably approaching the time of crisis when you find yourself a bit disoriented, exhausted, experiencing a lack of interest in your work (and, the people you serve) or fantasizing about a change of life, place, or position. If you’ve already arrived, then you will definitely find Wayne’s insights and advice to be very helpful.
Because I was already on my way out of that season of exhaustion in ministry, there was really only one standout anecdote that I remember to this day. From page 25:
My friend went on to say that he didn’t know what he should do next in life. He only knew he had to quit the pastorate. For the past couple of years, he told me, he had found himself burned-out on the inside, and he could no longer keep up the pace. He had simply concluded that the best thing for his health and for his church was to resign.
“How long had you been a pastor?” I asked.
“A little over twenty years,” he told me.
There it was again. Twenty years. I was beginning to catch the hint.
I have never experienced a theophany, where Christ appears physically to a person, but this would be as close as it gets.
After reading this, I reflected upon people I knew who had experienced some kind of burnout in their career and, like Wayne, I had an epiphany! Twenty years is about as long as a person can hold up under extreme circumstances. I had be pastoring bi-vocationally for over 20 years and was in the middle of replanting a church, when the brakes were slammed and I came to a complete stop. I remember the sensation as being like driving a 40 foot moving van, full of all your household items, going at 60 mph and running into a wall. Everything came rushing forward.
But, that’s in the past. What does this book have to offer you, the leader who may not yet be at that point of burnout, but noticing some of the telltale signs that day may be approaching?
- Wayne begins by retelling how he found himself experiencing something only seen in others, including real-life characters in the Scriptures like Moses, Elijah and more. Then, he moves on to fairly recent examples like William Cowper, Charles Spurgeon, and Henri Nouwen to demonstrate that, if you find yourself in this season of weakness and perceived failure in ministry, you are not alone. In fact, it may actually demonstrate that you are a member in good standing in the hall of faith, because you all share something in common! Yes, you may have become weary in well-doing and serving God’s people, but you are hanging on tenaciously to the Gospel and know that it will continue to bear fruit in you — it will just be fruit in the right season, after receiving strength and nourishment.
- Chapter four is the “hinge,” where the author moves on to the warning signs, which I had already passed along the way in my big 40 foot moving van on the route to burnout, but you see approaching ahead. Do you feel hopeless or chronically depressed and irritable? Is it hard to concentrate and, though you still make decisions, are they becoming more and more difficult? Do you feel like an outsider or alone and spend more and more time at home or by yourself? How’s your health? Are you losing sleep, gaining/losing weight or experiencing pain and discomfort you never have before? You may be leading on empty.
- The remaining chapters zero in on how to rest, get a new perspective and find your way back home, getting back to what you loved doing before your vocation almost killed you! He has some helpful lessons for the future and things you can do to stay healthy and help others, who may be losing their passion in serving Christ and His Church.
Bill Hybels says this book is “a must read for all leaders.” I think that’s overstating things. Plenty of leaders have made it without this book and without losing their way.
I think Larry Osborne says it better:
Sooner or later, we all find ourselves trying to lead on empty. It’s a tough place to be. But the wisdom, transparency, and godly advice Wayne offers in these pages can spare us the grief. He shows how to keep the tank from running dry–or how to refill it if it’s gone empty. If you’re in ministry, you need to read this book.