Top tips to resist burnout in leadership

Leadership is demanding, and leading people through change even more so. Church leadership, both lay and ordained, involves navigating complex power dynamics and strong emotions. Sometimes this can lead to burnout.

During a workshop at the Whole Hearted conference in January 2024, a group of lay and ordained church leaders defined burnout as:

Feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, unable to do any more, having lost pleasure in things that used to bring us joy. This may show itself as anger, cynicism, exhaustion, a lack of interest in usual activities. Burnout may come from staying in 'rescuer' mode for too long: trying to care for or 'save' others without having what we need. 

The group put together this list of tips for flourishing in leadership and giving us the best chance of resisting burnout:

 1. Let go of perfection.

Accept that perfection is not possible. Delegate work to others and accept help where it's offered. We can't do anything perfectly, but we can do some things well.

2. Prioritise and create strong boundaries.

You cannot do all the good things there are to do. Whenever you choose to do something, that's a choice not to spend the time on something else. Decide on your priorities: what's absolutely essential; what's important, but non-essential; what you can let slide. Say no to the things that aren't essential, and have the courage to maintain that boundary. Dip into Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman - it's a book about time and how to use it well.

3. Look after your physical needs.

Rest, sleep, eat well, exercise, take annual leave. Looking after your physical health will benefit your mental health too. When you have what you need, you're in a much better position to give others what they need. 

4. Get outside.

Go and spend time somewhere green. Reconnect with your senses. This is good for your physical and mental health. Being out in nature calms the nervous system.

5. Figure out what refreshes you.

Some of us need lots of company; others need lots of alone time. Some of us are refreshed by painting, drawing or knitting; others by sports or music. Some of us are readers, some are reflecters, some are activists. What refreshes you may be different from what refreshes your colleagues, and that's OK.

6. Seek connection.

We are not islands: we need other people. It may be our family who provide those connections that keep us going. Or maybe it's our chosen family: friends that are there for us no matter what. Sometimes, especially if things are tough, it can be easier to talk to someone we don't know so well - an acquaintance or a work colleague. As Rabbi Menachem Mendel so beautifully put it: human beings are God's language. God gives us one another. When people you trust ask, "how are you?", answer honestly. Don't suffer in silence. For some of us, this is really hard. If you can't be honest with people close to you, talk to a professional.

7. Talk to your Supervisor, coach, or spiritual director.

Carve out a space where you can reflect on your practice of leadership with someone who is trained to help you. Ministers all undertake Supervision through The Methodist Church, and part of the role of Supervision is to be attentive to the wellbeing of church leaders. Coaching and spiritual direction are complementary disciplines, and are open to all: coaching is future-focused, aiming to help coachees figure out what to next, and can be really helpful for untangling complex issues. Spiritual direction focuses on noticing the presence of God in our life, including in our leadership. You can find out about coaching in the Methodist Church here, and you can find a spiritual director here.

8. Get professional therapy.

Sometimes we need the help of a professional counsellor or psychotherapist to support our mental health. Ministers and their families can access therapy through the Churches Ministerial Counselling Service. Lay workers can access therapy through occupational health - contact the Connexional Wellbeing Advisors if you need any help getting what you need. Alternatively, have an honest conversation with your GP and access help through the NHS.

9. Watch over one another in love

We all have a responsibility to watch over one another, noticing when someone else is struggling and helping them get the support they need. If human beings are God's language, let's embody grace for one another by watching for early signs of burnout in those around us.

10. Get outside help with conflict

Sometimes burnout can be caused by prolonged conflict in the church, and there are times when outside help is needed. Training and support is available through Positive Working Together.

You can find further advice and information on these pages:

Mental health and wellbeing for ministers

Wellbeing in The Methodist Church