How to Lead When You’re Facing Constant Loss and Continual Bad News

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Let me guess. You keep thinking it’s going to get better, only to discover…it hasn’t.

As I’ve been catching up personally with leaders over the past couple of years, I sense a deep exhaustion and fatigue when talking about the road ahead.

For church leaders, in particular, this is a discouraging season.

When I talk to pastors of any sized church, in their candid moments, despite being open in person for months or longer now,  they tell me:

  • In-person attendance is still running at 40-50% of what it used to be.
  • Online attendance has dropped.
  • People they’ve known and trusted for years have left the church.
  • Volunteers don’t want to serve as they used to, and many have bailed.
  • They get criticized for being too political, not political enough, being too left, too right, too..whatever.

And they wake up tomorrow and face the same thing all over again.

Sure, there are a few glimmers of hope: New people are coming. There are stories of life change. Not everyone left.

But when you’re facing unprecedented loss after leading for 18 months in perpetual crisis, it’s no wonder people are quitting and leaving.

Success is, as Winston Church famously said, moving from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

But the question is, how do you keep going?

Here are five things that I hope can help you when you’re under constant stress and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. I know they’ve helped me in hard seasons.

1. Grieve Your Losses

One of my mentors, Terry Wardle, taught me that ministry is a series of ungrieved loss. So is life.

Think about how much loss you’ve endured in the last few years. The list above will barely get you started.

Ministry is a series of ungrieved loss. So is life.  Click To Tweet

From every lost friendship to the death of someone you know, to personal illness, to things as simple as a lack of progress on a key issue…all of it is loss.

I used to be terrible at grieving losses. Then during my season of burnout, it was like a dam burst. I spent a month (August 2006 to be specific) crying every day, sometimes for an hour at a time. Often inconsolably.

Since then, I’ve tried to remember to grieve as I go.

For driven people, sadness often comes out as anger, irritation, or frustration. When I feel that way, I pause to ask what’s happening. And (I know this sounds so woo-woo, but trust me, it works), I let myself feel the sadness. Often it’s not tears, but it’s just coming to terms with the fact that, yes, I’m sad. Yes, that’s a loss. And no, I’m not immune. 

And when it lifts, I move on.

Grieve your losses.

For driven people, sadness often comes out as anger, irritation or frustration. Click To Tweet

2. Stop Imagining that Everyone Else Is Winning

Another game that’s easy to play in tough seasons is to imagine that somehow everyone else is winning and you’re the only loser. I play that game way too much.

In the last two weeks, I’ve checked in with leaders and asked them to be completely honest with me and with each other.

When you strip away the bravado a lot of us try to manufacture to pretend we’re winning when we’re not, here’s what you discover: almost everyone is struggling.

And while that may not help you…it’s strangely comforting.

You’re not the weirdo.

Stop imagining that everyone else is winning when you’re not. You’re not losing nearly as bad as you think. And they aren’t winning as intensely as you think, either.

Leaders, stop imagining that everyone else is winning when you're not. Click To Tweet

3. Deal with your Triggers: Respond. Don’t React.

When you’re under prolonged, even constant, stress and discouragement, the unhealthy side of you leaks out.

You dealt with the first ten people who asked you about X gracefully, but if you’re not careful, it’s easy to lose it on person #11.

Similarly, the people closest to you will often bear your discouragement and frustration.

The adage is easy to understand but hard to do: don’t react, respond.

Just know in this season, it will be easy to be triggered.

Triggered leaders become ineffective leaders. I really can’t think of a single exception to this rule.

Triggered leaders become ineffective leaders. Click To Tweet

4. Find Some Small Wins

Never give up on your mission. Keep trying to make progress.

But when you’re not winning on the big things, it’s important for your own sanity to try to win on some small things.

I was having a particularly intense day recently. Nothing quite felt like it was getting done the way it needed to be done.

That night, I hung patio lights in my backyard. Best of all, they worked.

I’ve found repeatedly that small wins make a big difference. If you’re not winning at work right now, don’t give up, but try to win somewhere else. Clean out your junk drawer. Clean your desk. Rearrange your bookshelf.  Mow your lawn. Move some little project from start to finish.

If you don’t think small wins make a difference, think again. Psychologist Henry Cloud believes small wins can make a big difference.

5. Craft a Sustainable Pace

There’s a fatigue that can come with leadership that’s a little hard to describe.

The adrenaline that got you through the first phases of a crisis gives way to the sustained drone of decision after decision, assault after assault, and disappointment after disappointment.

A lot of leaders mistakenly look to time off to heal them. We tell ourselves, I’ll be fine if I can make it to:

  • my next day off
  • vacation
  • the week at the beach
  • Christmas

That’s pretty much a completely false hope.


When the way you’re living and leading isn’t working, all the time off in the world won’t fix it.

We’ve seen an uptick in the number of leaders who land on this site after Googling phrases like:

  • ‘tired of everything’
  • ‘why am I so exhausted?’
  • ‘tired of life’

Oh man, I feel for leaders. That’s almost always a sign of burnout.

Wondering how exhausted or tired you are?

My team and I put together a burnout indicator assessment you can take for free, and it assesses whether your burnout level is low, medium, or high. You can take it for free here.

Time off won't heal you when the problem is how you spend your time on.  When the way you’re living and leading isn't working, all the time off in the world won’t fix it. Click To Tweet

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Even if you don’t feel comfortable talking about money right now.
Even if you’ve never seen your congregation fully engage with that kind of conversation.
Even if you’ve tried other methods without success.

And yes, especially, if you could make a bigger difference by increasing your budget by 20%, 30%, or even 40%.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.