9 Warning Signs Church Leaders Are Facing Burnout


I'm thrilled to share my interview with Lance Witt of Replenish Ministries with you. Lance is the author of Replenish, a book dedicated to helping church leaders identify burnout and pursue emotional health. Burnout is a topic we talk about extensively with both clients and candidates here at Vanderbloemen, so I was excited to ask Lance for his wisdom regarding the issue. 

Holly: A key part of your ministry and book Replenish is having a proper attitude towards one's ministry. Why is attitude so important?

Lance: Because Jesus taught us that the Christian life is “inside out.” Proverbs 4 says “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Nothing is more important than guarding the attitude of your heart. The analogy I like to use is that of the front stage and back stage. Front stage is the public world of leadership. It is where the spotlight is on us and where we use our leadership gifts. The front stage is seductive, and it’s often the place where we find our significance and identity. However, the back stage is the private world of the leader.  The back stage is dark, usually messy, and people usually aren’t allowed there. There is no spotlight on the back stage.  I would call the back stage the “soul” of the leader.  And, according to Jesus, the condition of the back stage will ultimately inform what happens on the front stage. 

In the last 25 years, we have put so much emphasis on leadership, vision, strategy, and impact that we have inadvertently de-emphasized the priority of caring for our souls.  And the result is that we have a lot of pastors who are better leaders but whose backstage is a mess.

Holly: At the beginning of your book, you say, "After being in local ministry for thirty years, I understand why leaders walk away. I understand why they can be disillusioned and cynical. I understand why those who used to be filled with vision and passion are empty and filled with resentment and regret. I get it." What are the most common reasons you see church leaders walking away from ministry?

Lance: The most common reasons I see are disillusionment and discouragement. Pastors by the droves struggle with feelings of failure. Our intoxication with church growth has led us to infer that unless your numbers are all up and to the right, you are not an effective pastor. The truth is that some pastors have been called to pastor in hard places where the chances of seeing much numerical growth is slim. I fear we have replaced “faithfulness” with “external fruitfulness” as the ultimate measure of a pastor. Add to that the pressure that many pastors feel to be CEO’s, dynamic communicators, organizational leaders, fundraisers, caring counselors, staff managers, and social media experts that some just finally give up. 

But I think there may be an even deeper problem. More than anything, many pastors don't just want a different kind of ministry, they long for a different kind of life. Until we can help pastors learn to “live well,” we will continue to see an epidemic of pastors leaving the ministry. Living well begins with owning the health of your own soul. It is realizing that self-care is not selfish; it is good stewardship.  Living well includes embracing your limits, establishing a healthy rhythm of life, pursuing Jesus more than your ministry, and getting emotionally healthy.

Holly: I love the idea of embracing limits and living well, but as leaders, we are often in "go mode," rarely stopping for rest and rejuvenation. Many of us don't know that we need to slow down until it's too late. What are the indicators of a church leader who may be headed toward a need for replenishing?

Lance: Whether they realize it or not, most leaders are headed toward a need for replenishing. The pace of life, the demands of ministry, the strain of leadership, and spiritual warfare are a constant drain. Every leader needs to tenaciously pursue a rhythm of life that allows for regular replenishment.

Here are some common warning signs that should tell a leader he or she needs to refill his tank:

1. Loss of joy
2. More easily irritated and angered
3. Cynicism and disillusionment
4. Feeling disconnected from Jesus
5. Depression and isolation
6. Escapist behaviors (often secret sin)
7. No motivation
8. Addiction to technology
9. Exhaustion and fatigue

Holly: What are healthy boundaries or practical things church leaders can implement in their lives before they get to the point of wanting to walk away?

Lance: The single most important thing a leader can do get healthy is to take full ownership of the health of their soul. I think it is easy for us in ministry to either play the martyr card or victim card.  One of the best days of your life is the day you take full ownership for the health of your own soul. It will require courage, breaking free from people pleasing, and learning some new habits.

The other thing I would tell leaders is that they must get back to pursuing Jesus more than their ministry. I often remind pastors, "Jesus is your life...not your church."

Living and leading from a healthy soul in today’s culture is not small task. And that’s why Replenish Ministries exists.  It is our desire to come alongside pastors and their team to help them do ministry from a “healthy” place.  Because the greatest gift you give those you lead is your own healthy soul.

Holly: Thank you, Lance! I know your wisdom has been encouraging for me as I think about what boundaries I need to put in place to take care of my own soul. 

Do you struggle with burnout? How do you take care of your emotional health?