Burnout – An occupational hazard of Christian Leadership

Burnout – An Occupational Hazard of Christian Leadership

Article by Cathy Gates

Christian leadership is not for the faint of heart. The fact that God commands Joshua to “be strong and courageous” not once, not twice, but three times in the first chapter of Joshua should be ample warning that leadership in God’s kingdom presents significant challenges. And yet, many of today’s most courageous Christian leaders face times in their journeys when they “hit a wall’. Wayne Cordeiro, Bill Hybels and Carey Nieuwhof have spoken openly about their personal experiences with burnout. While they might be among some of the most visible Christian leaders to address the issue, they certainly aren’t alone. According to Barna’s State of Pastors research (2017) 1 in 3 pastors is at risk for burnout and 46% of pastors have experienced depression. If we were talking about the Swine Flu, we would have declared a pandemic long ago!

This is the first article in a series dealing with the multifaceted issue of burnout.


Burnout is a state of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations. The progression from stress to burnout is slow and insidious (it can sneak up on you) and eventually can lead to depression if not addressed. Many Christian leaders are blind to their progression towards burnout. Sadly, not only are they not aware of how they are doing, they are not aware that they are not aware of how they are doing!

That is why it is important to be aware of and watch for the three main symptoms of burnout.

Let’s start with some general burnout symptoms that will be common to everyone. These include:

  1. Emotional and physical exhaustion: You feel worn out physically and emotionally. You have no energy; feel depleted, debilitated and fatigued.
  2. Depersonalized response toward others: You find yourself displaying negative or inappropriate attitudes toward people. Your sense of idealism disappears. You are irritated by others much more easily.
  3. Reduced sense of personal accomplishment: You experience reduced productivity and low morale. You find yourself withdrawing from your responsibilities and from others. Your ability to cope with day to day stress is significantly decreased.

Symptoms of burnout are specific for each individual and fall into four major areas: (This is a very short version of the list. See Symptoms of Burnout for a comprehensive list))

  1. Physical Exhaustion can include sleep disturbances like insomnia, sleeping more than usual and nightmares; frequent or lingering colds, flu or viral infections; headaches; gastrointestinal upset; anxiety and panic attacks; and over or under eating.
  2. Behavioral symptoms include low job performance and low job satisfaction; forgetfulness or poor concentration; impatience and irritability; escapist behavior; and dread of work.
  3. Interpersonal Relationships are marked by increased marital and family conflict; loneliness and isolation; trust issues; overreacting to comments of friends; and increased expression of anger.
  4. Attitudes that are common include feelings of inadequacy, inferiority and incompetence; cynicism or negativism; low morale or a sense of futility; feelings of anger, bitterness, resentment or disgust; over-confidence or taking unusually high risks; and a sense of hopelessness.

As you read this list, you, along with two other people out of every ten may realize that you are experiencing some symptoms of burnout. You may be wondering ‘So what do I do now?’ My first suggestion is do something – this will not go away on its own. Know that help is available and there is a path to recovery. You simply need to take the first step.


Talk with someone familiar with burnout to discuss what you are experiencing. A counselor, doctor or colleague who has recovered from burnout are places to start. If you don’t know anyone you can speak with about this, please see the resources provided at the end of the article for suggestions.


Learn everything you can about burnout – even if things are going great for you right now. The information will be extremely useful to you in the future and for those you mentor.

This list is just a sampling of symptoms of burnout. What is key for you is to become familiar with your own early warning signs that generally begin to appear when you are not handling stress well. Unless you deal effectively with your stress when you recognize the early warning burnout signs, you will continue on to burnout.

If you are interested in learning more about symptoms of stress, burnout and depression, please visit our Resource page or Retreat page of our web site to sign up for an upcoming retreat or to put your name on a waiting list. Visit our Suggested Reading area for suggested books about burnout.

Try our Self Assessment, read about Symptoms of Burnout or learn more about Burnout Prevention.

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