One morning several years ago, I woke up and immediately started vomiting. I couldn't stop vomiting so I was taken to the hospital, given an MRI and told I had experienced a brain aneurysm. A blood vessel in my brain had burst. The hospital I had been taken to could not treat this condition, so I was moved to another hospital. When I was tested there, they couldn’t find the aneurysm. So, either I was misdiagnosed at the first hospital, or God healed me on the way to the second one.
Regardless of which of these situations had occurred, the trip to the hospital was a wake-up call, and it became clear to me—and to the elders of my church—that I had reached a place of exhaustion in my ministry, and if I didn’t take some time to intentionally rest and recover, my physical, mental and spiritual health were at risk.
When I left the hospital, the elders put me on a plane to the Virgin Islands. Once I got there, I was so exhausted, I slept for five days and only got up to eat. When I returned home, things changed, and the elders held me accountable, challenging me to incorporate rest into my life—not just several months every 10 years, but monthly, weekly and daily patterns of intentional rest into my life.
Before I went into ministry, I used to work in a government job, and I always took pride that when the day was over my inbox was empty. I didn’t have stuff to do leftover from the previous day. But ministry is not like that. You’re always going to have a need, always someone to counsel, always a phone call to make, always a sermon or Bible study to prepare, always a meeting. Ministry never stops, and it will never be finished.
Statistics and psychologists tell us that pastoring is one of the most stressful jobs on the planet and that one 20- or 30-minute sermon is equivalent to the stress of eight hours of work. Preparing the sermon is sometimes the easy part when you consider the decisions that have to be made and the people you have to deal with are not always kind, compassionate, sensitive and understanding.
When you get to a place where you’re overburdened and you’re making quick or poor decisions, when you’re flying off the handle and treating people unkindly, when you’re acting out of your nature—that’s a sign of leadership fatigue. The following are five key principles I have learned—sometimes the hard way—for avoiding leadership fatigue.
There was a time in my ministry that I made the mistake of compromising and allowing ministry to become more important than my family. The fact that I have a vibrant relationship with my kids today is a miracle from God because, like so many other pastors, I was so much in pursuit of significance—in connecting with the right people to advance my ministry—that I neglected my marriage and my kids. It’s not that the things I was doing were not good. They were. But they were not the most important things.
I was very insensitive to my wife. I thought all of life revolved around me, my wishes and my wants, and my wife was doing everything she could to keep me happy. God convicted me one day and reminded me of 1 Peter 3:7:
Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.
If I wanted Him to answer my prayers, I needed to enter into my wife’s world, to engage with her and to be sensitive to who she is and what her needs are.
If I had to do it over again, I would never compromise time with my wife and children. Your children’s lives breeze by so fast, and as I look back on 40 years, I wish I could go back and make more memories, roll in the grass, play more games and pray with them more.
The Lord Jesus already made a sacrifice for us, so He’s not asking us to sacrifice our families on the altar of ministry. God will honor you when you put your marriage and your family at the top of the agenda.
It’s natural for leaders to not want accountability, but it's absolutely necessary. Accountability is an important part of identifying the signs of leadership fatigue, and I have several relationships with people who are holding me accountable. Although I am a pastor, I also have a pastor. I think every pastor needs to have a pastor—somebody to whom you submit, whose authority you're under, who has the right to tell you to sit down when you're out of order. My pastor has the right to ask me any question. And my promise and commitment is to always tell him the truth.
But I also have peers, people who I have personal relationships with—they're not my parishioners, but they're my close friends and will see when there are signs of leadership fatigue. I don't think you should even go into ministry unless you have these relationships.
I recognize where my strengths are—what it is that I'm good at and what it is that I have knowledge and gifting in. But leadership is being smart enough to recognize what you're not good at and empowering those who are to do those things.
An important principle in avoiding leadership fatigue is to only do what only you can do. In other words, if somebody else can do it, Delegate it, empower and authorize other people to take your load. This will allow you to do the things that only you can do.
I’ve come to realize that I don't have to come up with every solution. Instead, great leadership is recognizing who can get it done and empowering those people to do it. I believe that, in whatever industry or field you are, God gives you everything you need to do what you need to do—and that includes people. The secret of delegation is finding them, identifying them and empowering them in the gifts and skills that they possess and that you don’t.
BE OPEN TO CHANGE
Church has changed in the 30 years since I began in ministry. I could talk about a hundred things that are different, some of which are significant and others not so much. But I didn’t just make these changes by barking out commands and saying, “This is what we're going to do.”
For every change I made, I taught the biblical principles behind it. I showed the people of my church why we were going to make the change, what the need was for the change and what we expect the fruit to be because of the change. The more dramatic the change, the more time I took to teach the change. There are some things that may be changed in months, and some things I had to teach on for over a year.
A lot of pastors don't have patience, and it can lead to exhaustion as they constantly push for change without prioritizing and being content with the slow speed at which some things will need to change. Instead, they come in and expect people to change just because the pastor said so. Teach, teach and teach before you change.
TRUST YOUNG PEOPLE
One of the biggest pitfalls older leaders make is an inability to trust younger leaders to rise up and do some of the things that need to be done. It's essential that older leaders are training and empowering the next generation to step up to the plate.
The last thing I want to do is to be crawling out on the platform at 80 years of old with a cane or a walker. Instead, I need to be empowering others, putting them forward and letting them carry out the vision. A lot of pastors still want to be “the man,” but what makes you “the man” is when you have the capacity to train others to do what you've been doing.
This failure to trust who God has chosen to take the baton of leadership can be due to fear and insecurity on the part of us as leaders. Other times, it may even be that we didn’t prepare for retirement and need to keep working to provide for ourselves, and therefore are not willing to pass on the ministry—and the salary that comes with it—to someone younger.
As you can imagine, operating this way is exhausting. Instead, I’ve learned that I know who I am, and I know whose I am. I know the gifting God's given me. I'm not jealous or threatened by anybody. My glory has become empowering the younger generation to rise to the occasion and get the job done.
There are many factors that can cause a church leader to become ineffective in ministry—whether it be financial disarray, moral failure or theological ignorance. But leadership fatigue may be one of the most overlooked. On the exterior, a leader may appear to be perfectly fine—perhaps even successful—but inside, he or she is a ticking time bomb, not unlike the aneurysm that was lurking in my brain.
Don’t make the mistake I did. Before it’s too late, enjoy your family, delegate responsibility, be open to change, pass the baton and enjoy watching the next generation take what you’ve built and make it even better.
This article was extracted from Issue 4 (Winter 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.
John K. Jenkins, Sr., has been preaching since he was 15 years old. From an early age, he developed a love for the Lord and felt a call to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. Today, he serves the Gospel to over 10,000 people at the two campuses of First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Maryland as well as over 35,000 online viewers. The recipient of an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Southern California School of Ministry in Inglewood, California, Pastor Jenkins is a husband, father, grandfather and licensed pilot.
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