Leading on Empty

Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion
A Review of Pastor Wayne Cordeiro’s book by Tony Cooke

Wayne Cordeiro is founder and senior pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in Honolulu, Hawaii. Wayne is an author, songwriter, and highly sought-after conference speaker around the world. He is a church planter and heart and has helped plant over 100 churches in the Pacific Rim. Wayne and his wife, Anna, have three children and live in Honolulu.

Leading on EmptyWayne Cordeiro has done the Body of Christ—leaders in particular—a great service by sharing his journey into and back from burnout. In this book, he chronicles his experiences of (1) building a great church and ministry, and (2) experiencing personal depletion and complete mental exhaustion in the process. Best of all, though, is that he also shares excellent insights on how to get healthy – how to recover from and prevent future burnout.

I’ve given away many copies of this book to various friends (all of them 20+ year ministry veterans) in recent times, and many said that the book struck a deep chord within them. Some recognized that they were already into various stages of burnout; others acknowledged that they were dangerously close to the brink.

Instead of trying to give my summary of the contents of the book, I’m simply going to share a number of quotes from the book. If these resonate with you, I hope you’ll get the book. If you know a leader that you think may benefit from this book, please recommend it or purchase it for them.

Some of the quotes from the book include:

  • “A tragic flaw of many leaders is that they cannot recognize their limits or acknowledge their need for others as the demands of work or ministry scale up dramatically.”
  • We don’t forget that we are Christians. We forget that we are human, and that one oversight alone can debilitate the potential of our future.”
  • “I had developed the discipline of image management, but on the inside I was experiencing a slow-motion implosion.”
  • “Everything you initiate, by default you must add to your maintenance list.”
  • “Now I found myself managing more than leading and dropping as many plates as I was spinning… Slowly, the unwelcome symptoms began to surface. Ministry became more arduous. My daily tasks seemed unending, and e-mails began to stack up. People I deeply cared about became problems to be avoided, and deliberating about new vision no longer stirred my soul… What began as a joy that filled me now became a load that drained me. Decisions – even small ones – seemed to paralyze me. Gradually, my creativity began to flag and I found it easier to imitate than to innovate.”
  • “I always felt guilty when I took a break. But now. . . I had to find permission to heal.”
  • “One pastor told me it’s like giving birth on Sunday; then on Monday, finding out you’re pregnant again! After thirty years of this weekly pattern, the pressure of coming up with one more inspirational sermon had worn me down and I couldn’t stop the train. I was expected to lead on empty.”
  • “There was a growing disconnect between who I was up front and who I was in private.”
  • One of the chapters in the book is on “Early Warning Signs” (of Depression). In it, Cordeiro lists and elaborates on: 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.
  • “‘Your soul,’ my psychologist friend explained, ‘is like a battery that discharges each time you give life away, and it needs to be recharged regularly. You haven’t given it time to recharge, and that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual, slow recharge.’”
  • “When we see things dimly, we invite depression, which can be defined as a perceived inability to reconstruct your future.”
  • “I had to establish some guardrails and make some restrictions in my life. The only one who can do that in your life is you! It is not a board decision or your response to a spouse’s complaints. It has to be you!”
  • “When the pain is sufficient, and hopefully the time is not too late, you will need to borrow all you can from your ministry in order to make up for the famine in your relationship with God, your family, and your health. If you don’t, you may face a breakdown, an affair, or a divorce.”
  • “One of the greatest lessons I’m learning (and yes, I am still learning it) is that rest is not sin. Taking a break doesn’t mean you’re lazy, or that you’re not valuable. Catching your breath now and then doesn’t mean that you’re not carrying your load, or that you are somehow less than committed to your church, your company, or your calling.”
  • “Rest has to be a primary responsibility. It brings rhythm back to life and a cadence that makes life sustainable.”
  • “We will all experience fatigue in the midst of a demanding ministry unless time is set aside to rest and realign ourselves back to God and His original design.”
  • “Your personal retreat day gives you a chance to get the scattered pieces of your life back in order and bring clarity and focus back to your life. It gives you a prolonged opportunity to talk with God and let Him talk to you.”
  • “Genuine growth is only found in honest growth. Our very first commitment must be to truth – the truth about ourselves, our failings, our shortcomings, our habits. you cannot take shortcuts by going through the land of make-believe. Your first commitment must be to discover and accept new truths no matter how difficult or unpleasant they seem at the time. You cannot rectify problems if you deny that they exist.”
  • “People’s needs are great, and their expectations are endless. You cannot base your life and ministry on the expectations of others.”
  • “In our fast paced, full-scheduled world, taking extended breaks is a luxury afforded only the affluent, old, or sick. It has fallen out of consideration as a vital component to success. But… let me persuade you to reconsider the imperative of the Sabbath rest. Sabbaths and sabbaticals are biblically designed to increase our fruitfulness and deepen our faith in God along the way.”
  • “These lessons learned do not mean that I will shrink back. Rather, it means that I will live much more deeply, with far more security. I will laugh more often, think with more insight, and find moments of solitude and Sabbath without guilt. I have walked through a long season. I have learned many lessons. I have discovered what is most important: how to live intentionally and how to run with hope. I have learned the importance of being utterly committed to the truth and how to be honest about who I am.”

As I re-read the above quotes, I was impressed how helpful this brief collection is. I also realized that they only represent a fraction of the richness and wisdom found in the book itself. To every minister, I applaud your efforts to reach the world, impact your community, pastor your church, and help individuals. Just be sure you don’t short-change yourself in the process. Keep yourself healthy and strong, and invest deeply in yourself so that you’ll have the resources from which to minister to others.

May we all remember the One who said, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn t live freely and rightly” (Matthew 11:28-30, MSG).

I’ve given away many copies of this book to various friends (all of them 20+ year ministry veterans) in recent times, and many said that the book struck a deep chord within them. Some recognized that they were already into various stages of burnout; others acknowledged that they were dangerously close to the brink. …read more