A Decade Later: My Top 10 Insights On Burnout

burnout in leadership

Burnout is almost an epidemic among church leaders today, and it’s increasingly common among business leaders as well.

Even young leaders are burning out. No longer is burnout an “I’ve been at this too long” kind of phenomenon.

So what happens if you burnout?

Can you come back?

Can you lead again?

Can you thrive again?

Is there hope?

10 years ago this summer, I burnt out.

It was the first time my fatigue pushed me over a cliff and left me unable to get back. It was more than physical exhaustion…it was emotional exhaustion. I had led for 12 years, but clearly, I had not processed my leadership properly. My first decade in leadership pushed me past the brink of burnout.

If you want more about my story, I write about the descent into burnout in this post and about my recovery here.

Personally, I’ll never forget the depth of the despair.

And yet, a full decade later, I have never felt better, never felt more alive, and never been more productive in my life.

Here are 10 ways my burnout changed the way I lead, and 10 insights that can help any leader lead better (whether or not you’ve burnt out).

1. Limits exist for a reason

As a young leader, it’s so easy to think limits don’t apply to you. In some ways they don’t.

Until they do.

People kept telling me I would burn out.

I thought I was invincible. I was so wrong.

I have a much greater respect for God-given limits: limits for how much I can do, what I should be involved in, and even how much sleep I need.

I’ve discovered that when I respect limits, I ironically get far more accomplished. The desire to burn through all limits many leaders feel, is, in the end, counterproductive.

2. God is still present, even when he feels absent

It’s hard to feel God’s presence when you’ve hit bottom.

There were months where I simply went through the motions—praying, reading my bible and following God as best as I could, even though I felt nothing.

There were moments in which I felt there was no way God could be present because clearly I had failed him, or I wouldn’t be feeling the way I did.

But that simply isn’t true.

God was very present when I was burning out. In fact, he was doing some deep work in me: prodding, shaping and refining who I was. You could even argue he was preparing me for what was ahead.

Did it have to be as painful as it was? Of course not. Had I listened earlier and heeded the warning signs, I probably wouldn’t have burned out.

But God is sovereign, and his faithfulness doesn’t depend on me.

God is still present…even when he feels absent.

3. Your unresolved past will sink your future

Unprocessed ‘issues’ are deadly.

My wife had urged me to go to counselling for a few years before I actually went. I was too proud to go. I sent people to counselling. I didn’t go to counselling.

How stupid.

She saw issues I couldn’t see. Others saw issues I couldn’t see. I had issues…things that were driving me to hurt others unintentionally.

The truth is we all struggle with unresolved issues. The sooner you deal with them, the better everyone around you is.

Your unresolved past will sink your future, unless you deal with it.

4. Grieve your losses

A mentor once told me that ministry is a series of ungrieved losses. He was right.

Think about how much loss is involved in leadership. Someone leaves your church. A staff member quits. A decision doesn’t go your way. You lose a friend.

Many leaders pretend it doesn’t hurt when the reality is it does.

Worse than that, we don’t know what to do with our losses. So we just go back to work.

For years when I read the scriptural stories of how people grieved, I thought to myself, “What’s wrong with these people? Why did they take 40 days to grieve the death of Moses? Couldn’t they just get back to work?”

Little did I realize that taking the time to grieve your losses is one of the healthiest things you can do.

I spent an inordinate amount of time in August 2006 crying. It’s like all the losses I ignored for decades couldn’t stay inside anymore. And once they left…I found closure, even healing.

Now, I pay much more attention to feelings of loss. I pray about them. I process them. Occasionally I do shed tears over the deeper ones. And then I move on.

So much healthier.

5. If God wants to go deep, it’s because he wants to take you far

The #1 question I had in the middle of my burnout is will this ever end? 

It took me three months to start functioning semi-normally again. Within a year, I was at 80%. But it took a full 5 years to be at 100% of normal, which wasn’t the old normal, but a new normal (the old normal would have landed me back in the ditch again).

I realized God was doing some soul surgery in me that went very deep. I believe he wanted to get to the root of some heart issues that would have held me back from doing what he wants to accomplish with my life.

Over the last few years, I’ve been able to encourage other leaders going through burnout, spending some time to pray and talk with them, sometimes at length.

The question they always ask is this: when will this be over? All of us A-types want burnout over quickly.

My standard answer these days is “don’t rush it and don’t delay it. Let it take as long as it takes.”


There’s a promise underneath the pain. If God is doing surgery, it’s because he wants to bring healing.

It’s also a sign of his love. If God wants to go deep, it’s because he wants to take you far.

6. Your heart will heal and you will trust again

Your heart gets mangled in leadership because:

You trusted people who betrayed that trust.

You hoped only to have your hopes dashed.

You believed only to discover what you were hoping for never happened.

That’s the natural stuff of leadership, but in the process, your naiveté and innocence are lost.

As a result, it’s hard not to grow cynical. It’s hard not to let your heart grow hard.

How do you thrive long term when leadership can be disappointing?

For me, it’s a combination of realism and optimism. Yep, it can be hard. Yes, there will be disappointments. But despite that, I will believe again. I will hope again. I will trust again.

Here’s something I’ve discovered: leaders who thrive see life for what it really is but keep their hearts fully engaged.

7. Your emotions eventually catch up to your obedience

When you’re burnt out, your emotions stop working properly. You sometimes feel nothing. Or you feel a deep despair. And at other times, you feel emotions but they are not proportionate to what is going on around you or what you should be feeling.

I think a lot of leaders simply quit because their emotions have stopped working.

What I’ve learned is that obedience is greater than my emotions.

I stayed in ministry because I believe God had not released me from my calling. So I just obeyed.

The amazing thing is, eventually, your emotions catch up to your obedience. As you get healthier, the emotions begin to work the way they should. Sometimes they work better than they ever have.

8. Managing your energy is more important than managing your time

Prior to my burnout, I worked on time management.

Since I burned out, I still work hard on optimal time management, but I’ve discovered a much better approach: energy management.

Your energy waxes and wanes throughout the day. Rather than fight that, I’ve learned to cooperate with it. I’ve discovered that there are probably 3-5 hours a day when I’m at my best (for me, that’s usually in the morning).

I’ve moved all my most important work to those hours when I’m at my best.

Doing what you’re best at when you’re at your best unlocks a world of potential many leaders miss.

I write more on how to manage your energy here.

9. Sleep is a leader’s secret weapon

Exhaustion was a major reason I burned out. Not the only reason, but a major reason.

Now, I guard my sleep zealously, when I’m at home or on the road. I’ve embraced naps. And I watch my fatigue levels like a hawk.

I’ve come to realize that most of us are like our phones. You start off in the morning with 100% charge and at various points in the day, you need to be plugged back in.

A quick nap at lunch can recharge me for a few hours. Getting 7-8 hours of sleep every night has become essential for me to perform at my best at work and at home.

If you want more, I wrote a blog post on why sleep is a leader’s secret weapon.

10. Your best days may actually be ahead of you, not behind you

Here’s some hope for anyone struggling with burnout.

When I was burning out, I was mostly convinced my best days were behind me. With a decade’s distance from my burnout, I can see that wasn’t true in the least.

I came back from burnout (again, here are the 12 keys that helped me), and I’ve accomplished more in the last 10 years than I ever imagined was possible.

I planted a church that has grown into the largest church I’ve ever been a part of.

People told me all through my 30s that I should write a book. I never did. In the last 6 years, I’ve written three.

My blog has grown to millions of readers a year, I launched a weekly leadership podcast, and I’ve had the chance to speak all over the world.

If you had told me God would open up doors like this when I was in the depth of my burnout, I would never have believed it.

I’m not sure I could have handled what God brought my way before I burned out. There were things he needed to do inside me before he did things through me. I see that clearly now.

The point is simply this…if you’re burning out, keep moving through it. Maybe your best days are ahead of you, not behind you.

Those are my top 10 insights on burnout a decade later.

What’s helped you move through your toughest seasons? What are your top insights?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

A Decade Later: My Top 10 Insights On Burnout


  1. John Thoresen on May 8, 2021 at 6:48 pm

    Amazing to hear this lifeline story. Thank you for sharing this and for showing that we can get back on our feet after the all-to-common state of burnout.

  2. John Thoresen on May 8, 2021 at 6:46 pm

    Thank you for sharing this unique story, and showing that it is possible to overcome this very serious and all-to-common syndrome. Thank you.

  3. Anna on February 16, 2021 at 11:00 pm

    Thanks Carey. As always, your post seems like you just listened in on my thoughts. I’ve been struggling with feeling angry at key leaders/friends who I had trusted and who left our church, and who hurt a lot of other people in the process. But also the sense of failure, and uselessness. Wondering if God has finished with me? Wondering if theres even any point in doing more study or continuing in ministry, because it just seems too painful and exhausting. Sometimes I wonder if ANY of the past 9 years has made a difference. Then I beat myself up for my negative thinking.
    Just reading you name the experience as GRIEF is helpful. I’m grieving my hope, and my dreams and my youthful optimism.
    I hope that on the other side I can be of use for God’s kingdom.

  4. Michael Meade on September 29, 2020 at 10:53 am

    I cried reading this. I feel understood. I’m 32 and I just celebrated 10 years of ministry, but I relate with everything you wrote. I have had ongoing health concerns over the last year and a half that have brought on a lot of anxiety and fear. Also, this pandemic has brought out childhood trauma as well as grief from people/friends leaving our church at different points. Your article gave me some hope today and encouraged me to keep obeying. Thank you!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 29, 2020 at 5:53 pm

      Glad to hear it Michael.

      I’d encourage you to not do this alone, reach out to a mentor or counselor and let them know about this.

      You need a team of people to help you lead through this time.

  5. Kathleen McMillan on September 28, 2020 at 3:56 pm

    I really needed this today. Especially the last bit about the best days may be yet to come.

  6. Dean Cothill on September 28, 2020 at 2:06 am

    Hi Carey

    Thank you so much for this. My goodness.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 28, 2020 at 8:33 am

      Glad to help!

      Cheering you on.

  7. Cindy on September 27, 2020 at 10:27 am

    Thank you Carey for sharing your experiences and insights and putting things into perspective regarding burnout. You helped me recognize and understand what it looks like and for me to acknowledge and put into word my own experience. And you’ve shown and given us hope that we can come out of it stronger. Thank you for the content and the practical applications. Thanks for making it real.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 28, 2020 at 8:35 am


      Burnout is so real and so crippling. Glad to help you find your way through it.

  8. Don EASTON on January 13, 2020 at 1:31 am

    Hey Carey,

    Thank you for the transparency that a you write with. I appreciate your courage.

    Journeying through acute burnout in 2014, I can concur with you. Yes, there is hope.

    Burnout is the toughest thing I have dealt in over 40 years of ministry.

    I concur with your timeline in the “12 keys that helped me” – after six months I started back a day a week. It took 5 years to feel great. I don’t consider I am back from burnout, as I am not the same. I call it beyond burnout.

    Carey your blogs on this are so helpful.

    People like you talking openly about this helps to reduce the stigma for not being well.

    Being a survivor of burnout, I love asking the question “Who is helping you keep well or get well as the case maybe? I thought I was emotionally intelligent before burnout, but like you and most people didn’t see it coming. In the journey to recovery, it was a mentor who helped me become self-aware, develop self-reflection and build the resilience I need to stay well.
    Yes, burnout is an epidemic in pastoring and caring professions globally. Thank you for encouraging people not to do this alone. Help is available.

    Thanks for making a difference here.


    Don Easton

  9. […] I burned out 11 years ago, I thought sleep was for weak people.  Since I burned out, I’ve found a new enthusiasm for […]

  10. […] Almost every day, I get questions from leaders who are burning out. Some of the most read posts I’ve written have to do with burnout (you can access most of them directly through this post). […]

  11. […] is God’s idea. And, as I discovered when I burned out, if you don’t take the Sabbath, the Sabbath will take […]

  12. […] leader can run hard for a season, but even if you avoid burnout, eventually it becomes counterproductive to run hard all the […]

  13. […] My Top 10 Insights On Burnout […]

  14. For HIS Glory on June 21, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    Thanks u for this article. Been trying to make sense of what I’m going through. I’ll definitely look into ur other resources. Thank u so much!!!

  15. Lawrence W. Wilson on June 21, 2016 at 6:14 am

    Carey, thanks for being forthright about your own experience. I think most people who’ve been in pastoral ministry have faced this–whether they would label it as full-blown “burnout” or not. Good advice here.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 22, 2016 at 6:52 am

      Thanks Lawrence. I think you’re likely correct.

      • DAVID DELGADO on February 12, 2021 at 9:29 pm

        no burn out here, but on fire, share with us what made the church grow so big back then. I am sure if it was the Lord it may still work today.

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