Every pastor is susceptible to burnout, Wayne Cordeiro, pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship, told a group of seven influential church leaders Wednesday.
Cordeiro was speaking at an event called the Elephant Room in Aurora, Ill., which featured "conversation's you never thought you'd hear from pastors." The Honolulu pastor acknowledged that getting burned out isn't an issue many pastors discuss publicly from the pulpit. But he recently released a book called Leading on Empty that centers on a period of burnout he went through in the ministry.
"It doesn't matter if you are in a small church or a big church," it can happen to anyone, he said at the conference, which was broadcast to over 60 locations across the U.S. Cordeiro explained that when he first started feeling burned out he didn't acknowledge it, and tried to keep going.
"I felt like Schindler. I could've saved one more marriage. I could've led one more person to Christ." But he said he finally realized he was wrong in thinking he could do everything he felt he had the capacity for if it wasn't actually what God had called him to do.
Oftentimes in ministry "you can't stop the train," he explained. "You think you're Superman at first because you link four or five successes together and you think you're bulletproof. We don't forget that we're pastors; we forget that we're human. You sleep with your Superman suit on."
T. D. Jakes of The Potter's House in Dallas, who was among the pastors at the Elephant Room, compared the Superman analogy to "a silent scream." He said if a plane is going down the passengers are going to be screaming, but the leader going down with it is not allowed to scream.
"We (pastors) have not been taught to scream," he said. "Whatever we go through we eventually go under, and then when we go under all the sharks come out and the whole church comes out to watch."
Cordeiro told those in the audience that in order to avoid going under he had to realign his priorities. Many pastors think they have to put themselves last in the ministry, but Cordeiro said he had to make his priorities become: "God, self, spouse, family, ministry."
James MacDonald, mediator of the event and pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, said he has also experienced two periods of burnout in his ministry where he had to realign his priorities.
The first time he experienced it he had to take time away and figure out a new plan. "The Lord gave me some spiritual insights. I had neglected my soul. I had neglected my walk with the Lord. I was able to dial up my relationship with the Lord," he said.
MacDonald said getting support from others helped as well. "I had to make myself accountable to a group of people who could tell me, 'You're not going there. You're not doing that.'"
The other pastors participating in the event also spoke about sabbaticals, an extended time away from the ministry, as a good way for a pastor to avoid burnout. Crawford Loritts has been in the ministry for over 40 years and said that taking these breaks is different for everyone, but they are important.
He also said part of the problem that leads to burnout is that in today's church culture "everyone focuses on conferences about leadership development, when we need to focus more time on leader development. My identity is not my ministry. Younger leaders get on a treadmill of performance, when the truth of the matter is, God breathed on us."
Loritts told pastors at the event and those watching the broadcast that they had to stop separating their relationship with God from what they do. "Lead with that [relationship] instead, and that's when the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts and helps us listen."
The Elephant Room discussions were first organized in 2011 by MacDonald and Mark Driscoll, who heads Mars Hill Church in Seattle. It features unscripted conversations between various Christian leaders. Other pastors who participated in this year's event included Jack Graham of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, and Steven Furtick of Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C.