Limitations and Burnout


My wife can read me better than I can.

When I say I feel “numb” she knows that I am in deep need of rest.

I became keenly aware of this “numbness” while we were living overseas a few years ago. I found myself at times more fearful, more angry, more tired, and less refreshed than ever before. Certainly some of that was living life in a new culture and in a high momentum work environment. Some of it wasn’t that at all.

In my role I have had many conversations with leaders who experience these symptoms all too often. 

Sometimes we describe this sensation as “burnout.” 

“Burnout” is an interesting term.

We know the feelings, but the circumstances and causes are difficult to define.

As I have considered this notion in my own life, as well as in the lives of others, I have simply defined the primary causes of burnout as either being “under relation-shipped” or “over taxed” . . . or both. 

By “under relation-shipped” I mean we are thin on our relationship with God and/or other people who can give us life and perspective. By “overtaxed” I mean we simply work too much. Usually this is because we think we are indispensable.

During the time we were living overseas I came across a book called Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Barton.  Maybe I can entice you to pick up a copy with the following thoughts on burnout. Barton offers the following nine symptoms of what it looks like to go beyond your limits and to be heading towards burnout.

1. Irritability or hypersensitivity  This is when things that don’t normally bother you put you over the edge. This can manifest itself in outward or inward rage.

2. Restlessness  This is when we have a vague sense of something that is not quite right. Or it can reveal itself as a strong feeling of wanting to bolt from our lives.

3. Compulsive overworking  This is simply the very American concept of workaholism . . . when we can’t seem to quit or shut down.

4. Emotional numbness  This occurs when we can’t feel anything emotionally . . . highs or lows . . . good or bad.

5. Escapist behaviors  When we do get a break in the action we “relax” in ways that not only don’t give us life, they actually steal life from us. Sometimes these escapist behaviors can be very damaging to our leadership lives.

6. Disconnected from our identity and calling  This takes place when we feel as if we are just going through the motions of life, ministry or work. We have lost our sense of why we are doing what we are doing and we find ourselves at the mercy of other people’s expectations.

7. Not able to attend to human needs  This reveals itself when we don’t have time to care for basic human needs like exercise, eating right, sleeping enough, etc.

8. Hoarding energy  This takes place when we feel threatened by exposing ourselves to additional people or situations. We become overly self protective and sometimes even reclusive.

9. Slippage in our spiritual practices  Routines that are normally life giving . . . like reading the Bible, prayer, personal reflection, journaling . . . become burdensome.

Barton says that even if a few of these things are true of you and me then we are living and working beyond our limits and need to examine our lives. We must recognize that what we are doing is not good for ourselves or the people we are serving.

Leaders must ever be growing in self-awareness.

Leaders must know their limitations.

Leaders cannot lead passionately and effectively from a shallow well.

And if you are a spiritual leader . . . there is no true Christ-centered leadership if something else is at the center.

(photo credit)

2 replies
  1. Lance
    Lance says:

    Hey Gary:
    Thanks for writing this. I’m eager to get the book now, after having experienced what I think was burnout about 1.5 years ago.
    As I embark on a new ministry in a few weeks, I think this book might be a great tool to take with me.

  2. Eric
    Eric says:


    I took your advice and bought the book, the nine symptoms sounded too much like my life.

    I CAN’T RECOMMEND THE BOOK HIGHLY ENOUGH. It has been fantastic and I would recommend it for every leader, especially those with driven personalities or are part of driven organizations.

    Thanks for recommending it.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *