How To Succeed Under A Burnt Out Leader

Working with a staff member who is experiencing burnout can be a huge drag. When they walk into the room, you can almost feel the barometric pressure drop. They can seem dedicated to stopping initiatives and excel at complaining during meetings. When that burnt out staff member is a senior leader, this becomes an issue that isn’t just annoying, but insidious to the team as a whole.

In our work helping churches and organizations all over the world build great teams, we’ve been brought in to serve a church in the wake of a tired senior pastor or leader more than once. Whenever a leader or pastor messes up, it’s usually a tired leader or pastor. More often than not, it’s a situation that could have been prevented.

If you're a staff member or friend to a tired senior pastor or leader, here are some pieces of advice.

1. Approach with caution and encouragement.

Tired pastors are not receptive to criticism. They likely know they’re not performing well and have built up some major defense systems as a result. Many senior pastors and senior leaders in general are strongly convicted and invested in their church or organization succeeding. The feeling that they’re lacking motivation is likely already gnawing at them. For that reason, don’t be surprised if they react strongly if you try to approach them with constructive criticism.

Instead, look for ways to encourage them. Invite them over for a meal. If there’s a project they’re pouring a lot of focus into, find some encouraging words for them about it. Bring them an encouraging story that you’ve seen recently. Words have power to stir our hearts. A few words can provide buoyancy to a sinking heart and tired spirit.

2. Make their success your mission.

If you’re anything like me, this is will be the hardest piece of advice to follow in the entire lineup. As someone that has led multiple high-capacity teams and has been mentored by extraordinary leaders, I have a high standard for leadership. It goes against my grain to humble myself before someone who is doing leading out of a place of exhaustion, but it is humility in these situations that can grow your soul and develop you as a leader yourself.

It’s overwhelming to have the responsibility of a senior leader or pastor no matter the size of the church or organization. Senior pastors of small churches or church plants find that they have many hats to wear, making it hard to keep up with every piece of ministry. Senior pastors of large churches find that the sheer magnitude of the church and logistics behind even a Sunday service can be overwhelming. When a senior pastor feels like they’re losing ground or not going anywhere, they’ll eventually tire.

A successful staff member working under a tired senior leader is one that makes that leader’s success their mission. Taking tasks off the plate of the senior leader and going the extra mile to make their days easier can alleviate enough of their strain so that they can take a breath.

3. Find a source for seasonal guidance.

More than likely, if you’re working under a tired leader, you’re not being poured into spiritually, let alone encouraged in your day-to-day responsibilities. Most of the time, it’s quite the opposite. During this season, it’s important to seek out spiritual and professional guidance elsewhere.

If you have a close friend that you respect spiritually and professionally, have dinner with them. Let them know up front that you’re struggling with something and get their take on it. My wife can often hear me out and offer great insight to my problems during times of great stress. Note: be careful about going to your significant other to unload about work stress, though. If your work stress becomes a theme of every conversation, your spouse can feel burdened by it. Finding a friend or mentor to talk shop with and get spiritual inspiration from is invaluable.

4. Gracefully intervene.

During my time as a project manager in the software industry, one of the most helpful axioms was “escalate when you smell smoke.” If you’re sensing that your senior pastor is wearing out, then that’s the smoke before the fire. As mentioned before, whenever we see a pastor make a career-changing mistake, it’s a tired pastor. As a member of a team and likely a friend to the senior pastor, it is your responsibility to call attention to a pattern you’re seeing before it becomes a bigger issue.

But to whom do you go? It depends. In the corporate world, there is usually a concrete escalation path in place. In a church, however, this is likely a lot murkier. Is there an Elder Board or some other structure of leadership? If your church is part of a major denomination, then there are likely more crystalized paths that you can follow. 

The best place to start when intervening to help your leader is with those that care for your senior pastor. Does your pastor have a mentor or a friend that speaks at your church occasionally? Does your pastor have a group of founding members with whom he is close personally? First, express your concern to someone close to your senior pastor. If that path bears no fruit, pursue a more professional means of escalation. As you seek to help the situation, make sure you are acting prayerfully and with discernment in everything you do.

If you’re working under a senior pastor or leader that is burnt out, there are likely reasons behind it! Every day at Vanderbloemen Search Group, we strive to distill our knowledge from working with great churches all over the world into articles like this one that will hopefully bless you and your team on your mission. 

If you liked this, then you'll also like 10 Ways To Prevent Burnout In Ministry.