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9 Signs You're Burning Out in Leadership

9 Signs You're Burning Out

Burnout. 

Been there?

Seven years ago, I entered into the darkest period of my life.

People had always warned me I would burn out. I thought I could prove them wrong.

And usually I did. I would get tired – out of balance – but when I saw the edge, I could always pull myself back.

Until seven years ago.

I found the edge, and as I was falling, I knew this time I realized I couldn’t pull myself back. 

Although I’m not a person who suffers from depression, I’m sure I would have gone to the doctor and received a diagnosis of clinical depression that summer seven years ago.

It wasn’t your stereotypical depression.

I could get out of bed every day, and I did.

I kept praying and reading my bible.

But my speed decreased to a snail’s pace.

And hope felt like it had died.

My motivation and passion dropped to zero. (Make that zero Kelvin).

I had never been there before. 

I knew many in ministry had gone down this road before me, and what scared me is that some of them never made it back.

For them, ministry was done. And sometimes, tragically, they were done – hope never fully returned and they didn’t ever become the person they were before.

That was the last thing I wanted to happen to me.

Looking back, the diagnosis is still a little elusive and mysterious.

Who really knows what corrodes the soul to the point where it deflates?

But I’d say the most likely candidate for what derailed me is what I’d call emotional burnout. 

In caring for others I had not adequately cared for my heart or soul, or let others who wanted to care for it do so.

I spiralled down for about 3 months before I hit bottom.

Then with the love and assistance of a great wife, board, leadership team, close friends, a counselor, and a very gracious God, I slowly began to recover.

It took, honestly, a few years to really feel full stride again, but I recovered to 80-90% of full strength in the first year. The last 10% took two or three more years.

The good new is, there is life after burnout (my next post will be on ways to recover from burnout).

I’m writing this because burnout seems to be an epidemic in ministry leadership.

In fact, there are more than a few of you who know you are right on the edge of the cliff you could so easily fall of of.

And probably a few of you who are in free fall right now.

Why is that?

More than most environments, ministry combines what you do (your work) with what you believe (your faith) and  your community (your congregation/friends). Without skillful navigation, that can creates a roller coaster of emotions that push leaders toward burnout (I’ve written about the emotional roller coaster of ministry here).

So how do you know if you’re heading for burnout? 

Here are 9 things I personally experienced as I burned out.

I hope they can help you see the edge before you careen past it:

1. Your motivation has faded. The passion that fueled you is gone, and your motivation has either vapourized or become self-centered.

2. Your main emotion is ‘numbness’ – you no longer feel the highs or the lows. This was actually one of the earliest signs for me that the edge was near. I wrote more about emotional numbness here.

3. People drain you. Of course there are draining people on the best of days. But not everybody, every time. Burnout often means few to no people energize you anymore.

4. Little things make you disproportionately angry. When you start losing your cool over small things, it’s a sign something deeper is very wrong.

5. You’re becoming cynical. Many leaders fight this one, but cynicism rarely finds a home in a healthy heart.

6. Your productivity is dropping. You might be working long hours, but you’re producing little of value. Or what used to take you 5 minutes just took you 45. That’s a warning bell.

7.  You’re self-medicating.  Your coping mechanism has gone underground or dark. Whether that’s overeating, overworking, drinking, impulsive spending or even drugs, you’ve chosen a path of self-medication over self-care. Ironically, my self-medication was actually more work, which just spirals things downward.

8. You don’t laugh anymore. Nothing seems fun or funny, and, at its worst, you begin to resent people who enjoy life.

9. Sleep and time off no longer refuel you. Sometimes you’re not burnt out; you’re just tired. A good night’s sleep or a week or two off will help most healthy people bounce back with fresh energy. But you could have a month off when you’re burnt out and not feel any difference. I took three weeks off during my summer of burn out, and I felt worse at the end than when I started. Not being refueled when you take time off is a major warning sign you’re burning out.

Identifying with just a few of these signs might just be a sign that you’re tired.

If you identify with half, you might be close to the edge.

If you identify with most or all, well, you might be in the same place I found myself–burnout.

If you are burnt out, I would encourage you to seek immediate professional help – a medical doctor and a trained Christian counselor.  I would also encourage you to talk to a close circle of friends (again, my next post will be on recovery from burnout).

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from many of you on your stories around burn out?

What did you learn? How can we help each other?

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  • Thank you for sharing.

  • Love this. It would be interesting to turn some of these into questions… Like.. 1-2.) What are you most excited about accomplishing today? 2.) Who did you help this week that encouraged you? 3.) In what areas of your life did you experience unmerited irritation? 4.) What did you accomplish before noon today? You get the point. Would love to see you turn these into BURN OUT questions. Thanks! As always, keep writing!

  • myrvl

    I agree to it all except the ‘talk to friends’. My experience is you loose them. No one can keep up with a perpetually tired deflated person. And that means there is no one to come back to when you feel better. And in the long run once you are seen as weak and whiny (which is what you are seen of when you admit to how you feel for longer than a week or so) you will keep that mark on you. So take care there: confide in some, pretend to be well to most. You need a life to return to.

  • Mira

    I think I’ve reached this point lately, although I can’t afford a councellor. Is there anyone I could ask for help for free?

  • Mar

    Hello! Thanks for this article … I discovered it, when was I in the horrendous other land… That I experienced in my time of depression and burnout! Excellent article and I could relate to it totally! I’m On the road to recovery now… I can’t believe that I made it out of there…. But I did! And for anyone, who is suffering now… The best advice is KEEP GOING… things will get better… And YOU CAN RECOVER… There is HOPE

  • Mols

    Seems I accidentally cut part of my comment on my previous post as I was about to post it. My husband burnout nearly 5 years ago. He was a church leader. Before his burn out he just managed to cope with what had to be done in church. I could sense that he was not himself & was withdrawn. As I worked & supported people with mental health issues I could tell something was wrong. I tried talking to him & he fobbed me off. ( think you can carry on reading from previous post)

  • Mols

    counsellor.going on as I work with people who suffer from various mental health issues. It probably affected me as well as I had to sit in the pews listening to him every Sunday. He almost seemed to have multiple personalities as he was one man in church & another at home. He became more withdrawn at home & we just seemed to start living separate lives as he was inclined to do his own thing Monday to Saturday & we seemed the perfect couple on Sunday’s. During this period I was studying & had my own pressures of college work & assignments & I worked as well. I told my tutor at college as I just broke down one day whilst having a tutorial. She arranged for me to see the college counsellor. Meanwhile I wasn’t too motivated to go to church as I felt like a hypocrite painting this picture to everyone else. I tried talking to my husband, but because I was persisting in having these conversations I became the bad guy. As everything that seemed to be going wrong in his life wasn’t fault. He shut me out of his life & I agree most men don’t have a lot of friends & the ones that they may have they may not always tell them the whole truth of what’s going on. ( Open up more guys). I had told a few of my praying partners & we kept praying about the whole situation. We eventually separated as my husband felt that all of a sudden I was the wrong person for him & we were not compatible. I suggested marriage counselling, but he didn’t think some one could help us work through what we were going through. After his burnout he did see his Doctor & was told he was suffering from depression. He started medication & also started seeing a counsellor. When he suddenly resigned from the church some of the leadership & congregation members felt betrayed & others were really angry at us. My husband did tell the leadership that he was burnout & needed time out to deal with personal issues. It’s sad as most of the leaders did not really support us as looking back now I’m sure they didn’t know how. During our separation he did do drastic things & made irrational decision. I kept believing in him & praying for him. Initially he cut off all communication & eventually we started chatting 8 months after separation. We reconciled a year later after working through things. He seems his normal self now & has been looking at churches to join, but it appears when he mentions about why his been out of ministry for this long some churches/ leadership teams where his applied to don’t get it. They almost see it as a weakness & maybe at the back of their minds think it might occur again. I feel sorry for my husband as he has been doing work he doesn’t really enjoy. It’s helped to pay the bills & keep the roof above our heads. When his been invited to preach I have seen him come alive, or when he casually counsels someone it comes naturally. I’m praying Hod will open the right door for him. I also hope that leaders out their will be more open about such issues & may be aware of the burn out signs & take action.

    • Wow. That’s quite a story. I pray you both continue to find healing and your true callings and grace in each other and Christ.

  • Damian

    Hi Carey, your struggle is a common one these days, its sad to say. I am in the middle of burnout myself which has led to anxiety and clinical depression. I’m an Engineer and was laid off 4 months ago after leading a very stressful project. I don’t now if i’ll ever be able to return to my profession, which scares me. I find it hard to concentrate for long periods and i’m on anti-depressants. I’ve had to turn down some great opportunities and probably won’t be able to take any job for a year. I see no future whatsoever and if it wasn’t for my family i’d have ended my life months ago. I have sacrificed so much for my profession and for what?? How will I get through this? Any advice would be great

    • Damian…so sorry to have waited a week to get back to you. Was at a conference all week last week. You will make it…you can make it. The first step was you left a comment. I would get a counsellor this week (a good, trained Christian counsellor) and start unpacking what’s going on. See your doctor and circle in a close friend or two who can walk with you through this. That will get you started!

  • Sarita…thanks for this. And thanks for helping other leaders. So glad you’re doing better!

  • Monica

    Thank you for talking about the symptoms of burnout and not talking about the cause. I have read many posts on burnout and they imply that you must be in a certain situation to become burnt out, because my situation never paralleled these people’s situations, I never knew if I should label myself as burnt out or not. I can say that at one point I could check off every single item on your list and this list has brought me better clarity. I feel that I am doing better because the situation has changed and it has taken time to move out of this difficult time, but I never saw a counsellor. (The minister I worked with was emotionally and spiritually abusive and was eventually let go, but I am not allowed to talk about the situation and many people have no idea why he was let go). Even when your situation has improved, (We have a new and good pastor now) would you recommend still seeing a counsellor? How high is the chance of burnout recurrence with or without a counsellors guidance?

    • Monica…thanks for this! And thanks for leaving a comment and ‘reaching out’. For sure, I would recommend seeing a counsellor at any stage. We all have ‘junk’ (I do!) and it’s always good to go to a trained Christian counsellor and prayerfully work through our issues. Even if it’s just a tune up at this point, it’s a good practice. And for sure, you don’t need to be in a particular set of circumstances to burnout. If you show the signs, you’re burnt out!

      • Monica

        Thanks for your advice. I’ve just started seeing a Good Christian counselor and hope it helps me be the best I can be in my ministry.

  • Anonymous

    Carey – I have been having some ups and downs in my life for the past 1.5 years. I am working as a scientist and am all set to be amongst the creme-de-la-creme of my field. Everything about me looks great from the outside. But, the truth is I have been going through lot of internal struggles. I have worked really hard for the past 7 – 8 years professionally. I also come from a lower middle class background and undertook a very intense journey to get to where I am today. I did not realize then, but today I see it took a toll on me. I wanted to fully commit myself to getting ahead professionally and in the process ignored personal relationships. However, over the past 1.5 years, I have been seeing somebody. Things were decent between us, though I felt that this person was sometimes not so nice to me and we have had our share of issues. Over the past 6 months, this person proposed to me multiple times. I finally agreed to this and now this person says he has second thoughts. This has left me feeling completely drained. Over the past few weeks, I have been feeling that I am giving a lot to life but I am not at ease or I am not feeling good about life anymore. I am completely burnt out. Its hard to focus and all I want to do is talk to my mom and hug her and cry. Any suggestions to me ?

    • Wow. That’s a tough one, but not at all uncommon. My advice? Go see a trained Christian counsellor and talk to some close, wise, Christian friends. Ask them to help you see what’s going on. Pray about it, and do what you need to do get well. Marriage is not about what you get, but about what you give. So is life. The healthier we are on the inside, the more we have to give. Counsellors and great Christian friends helped me immensely in my burnout.

  • Justin Meier

    Carey- I’ve been serving in denominational ministry for the past 5 years and burned out. It has caused me to lose my job. I had identified the problem 7 months prior to being asked for my resignation. None of the issues I was asked to resign were moral failures, but were issues that I have read generally are evidence of burnout. I also was asked to continue my job for two a half months after my release. My final day is April 30th. I know I need to heal and get better, can you point me to any resources that can help in that process?

  • Marcus A. Cylar

    I experienced burnout and departed from pastoral ministry a year and a half ago. I wish I would have seen a post like this back in 2012 when my burnout first started. As one who is dedicating the rest of my life and ministry to helping pastors recover from or prevent burnout, this and your 12-steps post greatly resonated with me, so much so that I allowed my excitement about it to cloud my better judgment and previously post something way too self-promotional. I apologize deeply for that. My only point was to communicate to you just how much this material has meant to me and to thank you for it. God bless you and your ministry.

    • Marcus. Thanks for sharing your story. So glad to hear it. If your comment had a link, it might have been automatically caught by my spam filter. I’ll check. So glad you’re feeling better and helping others. Amazing!

  • ErinErin

    Thought you might appreciate this quote from the book “Changing the Conversation” Anthony B. Robinson, p. 99

    Ministry is certainly demanding, and congregational life is
    at times taxing. But I have come to believe that the word and phenomenon known
    as “burnout” are more symptomatic than accurately descriptive of what
    is going on for church leaders and congregations who use the term. It is not simply a matter of being overworked; it is often a lack of clarity about the nature of
    the work we are engaged in. “Burnout”, the word and the lament is
    symptomatic of the absence of a reasonably clear and compelling purpose.
    Lacking clear and compelling purpose, congregations (and clergy) tend to become reactive: they try to respond to every need, itch, hurt, and crisis that comes along. And that is a recipe for burnout, because people’s needs, itches, and hurts are limitless and endless. Moreover, when there is a lack of share purpose, congregations and clergy tend to become too focused on keeping everyone happy and together. Instead of being captain and crew n the Mayflower, a vessel bound for the new world, the church begins to look more like the Love Boat, which goes nowhere but promises fun and entertainment for all!…in a Christian congregation, losing a member of even a group of members is not, in truth the end of the world; indeed it may be a consequence, albeit a painful one, of reaching clarity about missional purpose.

    Erin
    I certainly related to the mention of “being reactive”

    • Erin…I agree with much of what he said. Very helpful. Thanks!

  • Jim Williams

    Hi Carey,
    I’ve been there and still working my way back. Connection with those who truly care has been a big help. I truly appreciate your posts in this.

    • Thanks Jim. Pulling for you and praying for you. Keep going!