“Leading on Empty”

In 2006, Pastor Wayne Cordeiro gave a talk at the Willow Creek Association Global Leadership Summit called, Dead Leader Running. The talk struck a chord with me, at the time, and Cordeiro’s experience has stuck with me. In fact, when my ordeal began 19 weeks ago, it was one of the first things I thought of.

A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of Cordeiro’s follow-up book, Leading on Empty, but I finally got around to reading it in the last several weeks. The book is very practical and offers tremendous help to all leaders, especially leaders who need replenishment!

Ironically, in early Methodist writings, former or retired pastors were often called “Worn-Out Preachers.” I just read a statistic this morning which revealed that only one in ten pastors will actually retire from the ministry. The reality is, all leaders need constant replenishment (see my last post, The Discipline of Replenishment).

One of the most helpful things from Cordeiro’s story is what he learned from his (Christian) psychologist about serotonin and adrenaline.

Here’s what his psychologist said …

Serotonin is a chemical like an endorphin. It’s a natural feel-good hormone. It replenishes during times of rest and then fuels you while you’re working. If, however, you continue to drive yourself without replenishing, your store of serotonin will be depleted. As a substitute, your body will be forced to replace the serotonin with adrenaline.

The problem is that adrenaline is designed for emergency use only. It’s like those doors in a restaurant that when opened cause an alarm to sound. Our problem, though, is that we use these pathways designed for emergency use only, but no alarm sounds. Not at first, anyway.

Should you continue to run on adrenaline, it will destroy your system. You will burn out sooner on the inside than you’re able to see on the outside. The fuel of adrenaline that keeps your engines running in the beginning will turn on you and destroy you in the end. (25-26)

The psychologist concludes, “The only way to finish strong will be to first replenish your system. If you don’t, prepare for a crash” (27). Cordeiro adds, “To finish strong, you must learn to rejuvenate your spirit early in your ministry” (33).

There are plenty of statistics which reveal that the physical and emotional health of pastors is in a state of trouble. No one is immune. Cordeiro contends, “Sooner or later every long-distance runner encounters the wall. Regardless of how well-trained the athlete, he will meet it one day, and he will meet it head on (34).”

Cordeiro’s discussion of depression should be helpful for those who experience depression. He lists some warning signs (60-64) …

  • Sense of hopelessness
  • Frequent tears
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Decision making comes hard
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Lowered activity levels
  • Feeling alone
  • Lack of marital attraction
  • Eating disorders
  • Aches and pains

One of the great reminders for me is the need to focus more on spiritual health than on my leadership development. While I will always work on leadership development, spiritual health must always be my top priority. I love Cordeiro’s quote of Philip Yancey …

I wonder how much more effective our churches would be if we made the pastor’s spiritual health—not the pastor’s efficiency—our number one priority. (69)

Cordeiro goes in-depth on seven hard-learned lessons (113-143), but I’ll simply list them here …

  1. Do not overproduce.
  2. Steward your energy.
  3. Rest well.
  4. Exercise your way to recovery.
  5. Eating your way to a good life.
  6. Recharge daily.
  7. Fight for your family.

One of the most helpful parts of the book for me was Cordeiro’s discussion of daily, weekly, and monthly (or seasonal) activities. He lists prayer, exercise, planning, reading, and devotions as daily activities, in addition to a weekly sabbath. He also suggests a monthly personal retreat day. Joleen and I have done a monthly personal retreat day on occasion, but not in recent years. I can see the value of adding it back to our lives!

Perhaps the most important part of the book for me, though, is the challenge to discover what fills you and what drains you. Cordeiro says, “You need to know the difference” (89). He also admits, “The busier I became, the less time I had for activities that replenished me” (90). He goes on to warn, “You can get along for a while with ‘more drain that fill,’ but it will eventually catch up with you” (90).

Well, there’s a lot more in the book. But these are some of the highlights that impacted me the most. I hope it’s helpful to you!

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