How To Recognize And Avoid Burnout For Ministry Leaders

This post has been adapted from episode 8 of our podcast. You can listen to the full podcast here, watch the video below, or keep reading.

Kevin Fontenot: Hey there. I’m Kevin Fontenot, and I’m here with Scott Magdalein. We’re your hosts of the Thriving Ministry Team’s podcast, where we talk about all things related to church leadership, discipleship, and training.

Kevin Fontenot: I’m really excited about today’s episode, and if you’re watching this on YouTube, you may notice that Scott has a little bit of a different background behind him today, and that kind of goes along with today’s episode where we’re going to be talking about burnout. Scott, where are you at right now?

Scott Magdalein: I’m in Hope Town in the northern Bahamas, in the Abacos Islands.

Kevin Fontenot: I’m trying not to be jealous.

Scott Magdalein: Yeah. Yeah. This is something that my family does, or tries to do on a yearly basis is to come out here and get some island time. So it’s not too far from where I live in Florida, so not a long trip.

Kevin Fontenot: Nice. I’m a little jealous, but I’m trying to hold it in, ’cause I definitely have all the heat here in Texas, but none of the fun.

Scott Magdalein: All the heat, but not the clear waters and swimming with sea turtles and dolphins and stuff, right?

Kevin Fontenot: Yeah, none of that. No island of pigs or anything.

Scott Magdalein: Okay, yeah. You know about the island of pigs? Awesome. Yeah, the swimming pigs are something else. That’s a podcast for another day.

Kevin Fontenot: Awesome. Well I want to dive into the thought of burnout. For me, this is something that I’ve experienced in my ministry life, and when we’re talking about burnout, what it really means and what we’re talking about is when you just become so stressed or overworked that you become mentally and physically exhausted, and it just kind of pours out into every aspect of your life.

Kevin Fontenot: That’s really what we’re talking about with burnout. And for me, I’ve experienced this personally. I was serving on staff at a church, my wife and I had joined the church, and we served there for about two years. During that time, we were pouring everything we had into the ministry. We were doing so many things, wearing so many hats. Anything that could be done, we were doing it. And towards the end of it, we just became so frustrated. We became grumpy all the time. We were taking every little piece of frustration out on each other at the end of it, just ’cause we reached a point where we were just stressed out every time. Everything we did, it wasn’t joyful for us anymore. It was just so stressful.

Kevin Fontenot: So for us finally, we knew that it was time for us to move on. And for us to get out of that burnout situation, first we took a break of a couple weeks, and then finally during that break time, we’re like, “Okay, I don’t think this is the way that we need to keep living our everyday life, or otherwise it’s not gonna be good for our marriage or our family or any part of our lives at all.”

Kevin Fontenot: And so we had to make a difficult decision to move on. Scott, I’d love to hear, do you have any experience with burnout?

Scott Magdalein: I do. You know, I’m not sure if it’s clinical burnout or whatever, but I definitely hit a time when I was in my mid to late 20’s, that I wanted to quit. And so I was just kind of done. I was at Life Church working on the YouVersion Bible App and the Church Online platform and church metrics and all that kind of stuff that the Life Church digerati team does. I was project manager there and I had a lot of plates in the air, a lot of things on my shoulders.

Scott Magdalein: At the same time, I had kind of personal crises happening that I was kind of having to manage as well. My mom was going through another divorce, and our family was kind of … like my extended family was kind of in turmoil, my sister … At the time, also about a year before that, my younger sister had passed away, and so there’s lots of personal stuff, a lot of work on my shoulders, and even at work, it was not just a lot, but it was also big scale stuff, so it felt like heavy, weighty stuff that I didn’t feel like I could step away from.

Scott Magdalein: And of course, what’s funny about this is I didn’t feel like I could step away from it until my own emotional breakdown kind of forced me to step away from it. I guess we could probably get into that, but essentially what happened is I didn’t want to step away, didn’t want to step away, didn’t want to step away, and then my own breakdown forced me to step away in a way that was not healthy for me or my team, and it put my team at risk as well.

Scott Magdalein: So that was my story with burnout. It wasn’t pleasant.

Kevin Fontenot: Yeah, I think mine was a little bit better than that, but it’s still not fun in any situation for sure.

Scott Magdalein: Yeah, in those times, I learned a bunch of things. I guess we’re gonna get to this a little bit later, but I learned some things personally, like how I deal with stress, both personally and professionally in my job.

Scott Magdalein: So during that time, some of the stuff I did wrong, some of the stuff I was doing wrong was I was working really long hours, not because I felt like I had to, but I really actually loved the work. That’s probably one of the more dangerous things, right, ’cause if I hated the work and I was being forced to work long hours, you know, that’s when you start looking for other jobs. Like, I hate this work. But for me, I wasn’t looking for another job. I loved what I did.

Scott Magdalein: We were having a global impact on a scale of millions and millions of Christians reading the Bible. So when I was working 12 and 15 hour days, neglecting my family, neglecting my wife, and loving the work, but at the same time not realizing that I was running out of wick in my candle.

Scott Magdalein: So for me, one of the things I was doing wrong was working too many hours, and I was also not spending enough time on my personal life, spending time with people that I loved, spending time in my own walk with the Lord. Even though I was working on the Bible app, I wasn’t actually reading the Bible very well. And so burnout just … And also, I wasn’t dealing with the personal crises in my family. And so I was just kind of sweeping those under the rug, and I guess at the time, I wasn’t thinking I’ll deal with them later. I just was thinking I’ll just not deal with them and they’ll go away, and of course, not only did they not go away, they grew some warts, and when they came back, they came back with a vengeance.

Kevin Fontenot: Now, that’s definitely good insight, and I’d like to spend some time just talking about warning signs, ’cause I think there are a lot of people that don’t realize they’re burned out. We just kind of get to a point where, especially in the church world, we love doing what we do. We get really excited, we feel called to the ministry, it’s not just a normal job. And there are sometimes where we can get frustrated, we can have bad days and we want to quit and throw in the towel, but I think for the most part, for the people listening, recognizing burnout is something that’s difficult because of the weight of the calling that we have and the desire to continue doing the work that we do really enjoy.

Kevin Fontenot: And so some of those warning signs that I know I’ve recognized in my life, and I’ve had to learn how to continually figure out and kind of scope myself to make sure that I’m not continually seeing these things every day, and know when to recognize them. Some of those warning signs for me are when I feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders.

Kevin Fontenot: So if I feel that there is no way for me to take a vacation, I probably need to go and take a vacation. Some of the other things are not being able to think about anything else outside of work. And so this is something that my wife and I have to check each other on a lot, because we both get really dedicated to our work, we get really excited about the things that we’re doing, or really frustrated about the things that we’re doing in some cases, and every conversation we have can become about work and can become about the things that we’re trying to do, the frustrations we’re having, and that’s not a healthy place to be in.

Kevin Fontenot: So we’ve had to develop a system where we just finally get to a point where we’re like, hey, maybe we should talk about something else for a while, and we try and figure it out. Sometimes, those days look like, well, I have nothing else to talk about besides these things that I can’t get out of my head. And at that time, that’s when I know that I need to take a step back, try and refocus myself, try and think about something else. Maybe just have a night where I don’t do anything, where we don’t talk, because if we talk, we’re gonna get a lot more frustrated at each other just based on the things that are in our life that are frustrating us.

Kevin Fontenot: Those are some of the things that I’ve seen. Another one, especially for me, and this is just something that I struggle with, is a lot of shortness and anger. So if I start seeing myself becoming really short and being snarky, that’s a time where I know that there’s something in my life that I need to reevaluate and figure out how to make an impact and move that out of the way so that I can get the rest that I need so that I can tackle the problems that I want to tackle.

Kevin Fontenot: What about you, Scott? What are some other warning signs you think?

Scott Magdalein: Yeah, for me … it’s probably a little different for everyone, but for me, my warning signs are losing sleep … I’m the kind of person that needs more sleep than maybe a typical CEO type of person. I used to have a boss that only needed five hours of sleep, and I was like, “Dude, I would die if I only got five hours of sleep on a regular basis.”

Scott Magdalein: No, I need like eight hours sleep … seven and a half to eight hours’ sleep every day, and so if I start losing sleep, if I can’t get to sleep at night, or if I find myself waking up early with my work on my mind, then that’s a sign to me that there’s something wrong.

Scott Magdalein: Another one is a few times I’ve gained weight suddenly, like over the course of a month or month and a half, two months, I’m gaining a good amount of weight just because of the stressors that are going on. There’s something scientific about it, something that has to do with stress and cortisol and all that kind of stuff. But, when I gain weight suddenly, that’s a sure sign that I’m approaching a burnout level of stress.

Scott Magdalein:  And then of course also when I lose discipline in other areas of my life, so when I stop doing quiet times, when I stop going for runs, which I like to do. Running, for me, is a big stress reliever, so when I stop running, not only is it a sign that I’m being stressed out, but it’s also a sign that I’m losing one of my outlets for removing stress.

Scott Magdalein: So those are some physical signs for me. Some spiritual signs for me is that when I stop wanting to spend time in my Bible and prayer, that is a sign that I’m slipping away, not just from a physical emotional burnout, but also a spiritual kind of [inaudible 00:09:37].

Scott Magdalein: Losing a repentant spirit, so you know, not feeling like I need to repent, apologize, and set things right when I fight with my wife or when I’m too rough on my kids, or when I let something at work drop.

Scott Magdalein: And also finally, in ministry areas, when I’m starting to grow envious or critical of other ministries, either other ministry areas in my church, or other churches, when I see so-and-so church is growing and I’m like, “Ugh,” instead of rejoicing in that. If I’m upset about that, then that’s a sign of something’s wrong in my heart. I don’t know if that’s necessarily burnout, that might just be sin in my own heart, but in the past I’ve noticed that those things tend to be connected.

Kevin Fontenot: That’s good. I think that last one, I wasn’t even thinking about that until you started saying that, but I definitely get that same way when I’m thinking about … We talked about goals and stuff like that a couple weeks ago, and especially if I’m not hitting goals or I feel like we should be further along in something, that one’s a really easy one to slip into, and I don’t even think I recognized that beforehand.

Scott Magdalein: Yeah. And honestly, it’s the same in business. When TrainedUp is doing well and things are easy, it’s great, but when we have slow months or we have some bugs and some customers are getting upset at us and I don’t handle it well, that’s to me a sign that if I’m not handling customer requests well, or if I’m not handling slow growth well, then that’s a sign that maybe I need to hit the stress relief valve.

Kevin Fontenot: That’s really good. And so let’s kind of shift a little bit and talk about what that looks like. What are some practical ways that you think we can deal with burnout, Scott?

Scott Magdalein: Yeah, so I just mentioned the stress relief valve, so for me, when I say stress relief valve, I think of that valve in terms of like a pressure cooker or a pressurized system, right? So I’m kind of a mechanical guy, and on this boat, we’ve got a lot of pressurized systems that sometimes need a release valve to release the pressure.

Scott Magdalein: Burnout for me has always been related to some kind of pressure, internalizing pressure, taking on pressure that I don’t need to be taking on. And so some of the release valves for that pressure for me are a vacation. Taking a vacation for me is … obviously, I take a vacation every year, that’s a significant vacation. For me, that gives me something to look forward to so that I know there’s a vacation coming up or a trip coming up and so I can carry some more weight for a little longer because I know that there’s a release valve coming up.

Scott Magdalein: Or when I’m on vacation, I tend to take extended vacations with minimal work time. Kevin’s nodding his head like, “Yeah, he does take long vacations.” But I work little bits during long periods of time instead of just taking a long weekend or one week where I don’t work at all. And for me, that’s a big pressure release valve.

Scott Magdalein: Other things are being able to have a confidant, and maybe not everybody agrees with this. Maybe people are like, well you should just pray, but I believe in having somebody that I can just vent to, who’s not going to judge me, who I can just be angry and talk to, and then they can say, “You know what? God has it. You have what it takes. God’s designed you and given you the skills to do what it takes. This isn’t the end of the world.”

Scott Magdalein: Kevin has been that for me from time to time. They used to all me … used to, not anymore, they used to call me the Chicken Little, like the sky’s falling down. Kevin used to hear me vent a little bit, and he would always be like, “Man, it’s all right. The sky’s not falling.”

Scott Magdalein: I haven’t done this in awhile, I don’t have an assistant right now, but having an assistant to be able to delegate to. Not just delegate big responsible things, but even just delegate answering emails and scheduling meetings for you. That’s a big one.

Scott Magdalein: And then finally, is just having fewer meetings. Having fewer commitments of things you have to be at at a specific time. That’s been a huge one. Honestly, that’s a trend, like a high-level trend for me, is fewer meetings, because when you feel obligated to be at something when you’re not ready to be there, when you’re not in an emotional position to have to be at a place and to talk about a certain thing, that is a pressure builder. And so when you have too much of that, you don’t have the option to hit the release valve on that pressure. Those things are stuff you have to be at.

Scott Magdalein: So I don’t even book meetings if I don’t have to. At TrainedUp, we do as much as possible over chat, an asynchronous chat, so we don’t all have to be at the same place at the same time talking about the same thing. And in church, when it comes to church, I do as much ministry as possible without booking committed meetings where lots of people have to be there.

Scott Magdalein: So anyway, those are my ways of dealing with or avoiding burnout, if you will.

Kevin Fontenot: That’s really good. I think that last one is one we can all get better at. It’s amazing how many times I’ve taken pointless meetings that could just be an email or a phone call, a quick phone call, instead of something that’s scheduled out, that’s blocked out 30 minutes of my time. Because we typically will schedule something out for 30 minutes or an hour on the calendar, and even if it needs to take five minutes, since we scheduled it for 30 minutes or an hour, we’re gonna fill up the whole time with stuff that are just gonna stress you out a little bit more. So that’s definitely a good insight.

Kevin Fontenot: For me, some of the things that I’ve done, obviously things like taking a vacation. One of the things that I’ve had to learn more is how to delegate better and get help on tasks, because my personality type is I just want to do it all. I’m an INTJ, so I’m the architect, and want to go in and do as much as possible and be able to make sure that there’s perfection in everything, and that’s something that definitely puts the weight of the world on my shoulders a lot of times, and stresses me out more. So I’ve had to learn how to get better at that. I’ve definitely gotten a little better, especially in the last few months. Scott’s made sure of that, but it’s something I’ve had to grow in a lot.

Kevin Fontenot: Learning how to delegate is something that, if you’re not used to it, can be a difficult thing to do.

Scott Magdalein: Yeah, absolutely it’s hard to do. And also, we could talk at length on delegation, but one of the things, just a quick idea about delegation, that’s one of the things I feel like I’ve done pretty well. I should rather say, I’ve learned pretty well. I didn’t start out as a delegator, I started out as a doer, and I had to learn how to delegate.

Scott Magdalein: And so to me, one of the things is understanding who to delegate to you. You don’t have to always have a down line. You don’t have to be a boss to be able to delegate. You can delegate to colleagues and you can delegate even up chain to your boss.

Scott Magdalein: I love it when Kevin delegates to me, honestly because that means it’s something I can help him do, and if I’m helping him do something well, then it means he’s performing better. So I’ve had to talk to Kevin about, you know, you can delegate to your, quote, “Boss,” if you need help with stuff.

Scott Magdalein: So, delegating is a big one for pressure release, ’cause honestly, the pressure a lot of times is like my to-do list is bigger than my time. I don’t have enough time in my calendar to get everything done that I need to get done, and that puts pressure on you. So when you can delegate, pull some of those things off your to-do list, delegating to somebody who you know who can handle it so you can not just delegate it to somebody and then stress about are they gonna do it well, is a big pressure release valve when you have a big to-do list.

Kevin Fontenot: Yeah, absolutely. And then kind of the last one for me is having an honest conversation with someone. I think a lot of times, the reason we get burned out is ’cause we internalize everything. We think that something is happening one way, but in reality, the other person or the other parties involved have no clue that you’re feeling that way.

Kevin Fontenot: And just having an honest conversation, whether that’s with your boss, with a colleague, with a friend who’s stressing you out, or even a family member, those situations can really relieve a lot of stress and relieve a lot of the effects of what can lead to burnout. So making sure that when you’re feeling something, don’t just internalize it. Don’t talk to your friend or your wife about it without talking to that other person, because if you just go and have that conversation, be like, “Hey man, you said this the other day, and for whatever reason, I can’t get that out of my head. What did you mean there?”

Kevin Fontenot: And just approaching it in a way, not where you’re trying to belittle them or berate them in any way, but just having that conversation where you can be like, “Hey, this is what I thought you said, or this is what I’m feeling based on this thing.” Or, “You did this and it hurt me.” Just having those simple conversations will lead to a lot of pressure release in that valve analogy that Scott’s talking about.

Kevin Fontenot: And I know for me personally, that’s something that I don’t do well at, at all. It’s something that I’ve definitely learned a little bit how to be better at it. It led to a lot of stress, a lot of burnout early on in my ministry years and my work life years, but I’ve consistently had to get better at that, and I know that’s something that doesn’t come natural for a lot of people. Instead, we’d like to internalize that, but I think that’s one area we can definitely all try to grow in.

Scott Magdalein: Yeah, having an honest conversation with somebody is a big point of pressure release, because a lot of times, the pressure that you feel is relational. It’s not necessarily because you have too many meetings or you have too many things on your to-do list, it’s probably just because you have a conversation that needs to be had.

Scott Magdalein: I’ve had a ton of those situations where I’ve spent evenings talking to Erica about how do I have this difficult conversation, and it’s produced stress that was completely unnecessary.

Scott Magdalein: And then of course, the conversation happens, and it’s a five minute conversation where it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I wasn’t even upset about you. I don’t remember you even doing that. No problem.” Or, “I was upset, but I’m over it.” Or something that you really shouldn’t be upset about at all because it was something that you invented in your mind.

Scott Magdalein: So these difficult conversations, although they can add to stress, don’t have to be a continued source of pressure for you.

Kevin Fontenot: That’s really good. I think all these tips together can hopefully help a lot of people, just because burnout is something that is real. It definitely happens a lot more I think in ministry circles than it does even in the business world. And as church leaders, it’s something we have to consider a lot in our lives in order to make sure that we’re serving both God and people the best way possible for us.

Kevin Fontenot: That does it for today’s episode of the Thriving Ministry Team’s podcast. Like always, you can talk to me and Scott online at TrainedUp.church. It’s something we love and really enjoy doing, so if you have questions or comments, or you just want to run something by us, head over to TrainedUp.church. You can chat with us directly on the page there. We promise we’re friendly. We don’t bite, and it really is us having conversations on the other end. We really do love engaging.

Kevin Fontenot: The last thing we want to talk about is if you’re struggling and you’re looking for a way to kind of delegate and take some things off your plate, that’s one of the big reasons that we built TrainedUp. Scott talked about the reason behind not having a lot of meetings and a lot of in person meetings, and really with TrainedUp, what we’ve built is a way for you to be able to automate yourself when it comes to those training meetings, those things that you’re saying over and over again to new volunteers, to teammates, to leaders inside of your church.

Kevin Fontenot: Instead of having yet another meeting on your schedule, checkout TrainedUp.church, and if you use the coupon code Thriving, you get 50% your first month. We have a 30 day happiness guarantee, so if it doesn’t work out, just let us know. We issue a refund, no questions asked. Really simple, really easy. Head over to TrainedUp.church, and we’ll see you guys next week.

About Scott Magdalein

Scott Magdalein is the founder of TrainedUp. Previously, he worked as project manager for YouVersion and Church Online, a software developer at Treehouse, a digital director for an ad agency, and as an Executive Pastor in multiple local churches. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida with his wife and three kids.