Must We Burnout?: Thoughts On Not Falling Off the Cliff

Published on
May 16, 2024

Throughout my career, I’ve worked in high-pressure, mission-focused, and critical response organizations. My professional role was to care for the people, wherever we were. Leaders with a passion for serving others sometimes neglect their personal growth and self-care, resulting in burnout.

Burnout is associated with emotional health and is a complex psychological syndrome comprised of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment.

Soul Care

Multifaceted soul care positively affects the emotional well-being of leaders. Effective (relational, physical, emotional, spiritual) soul care enhances our daily well-being, helps us manage stress, leads to greater flourishing - and, to the point of this post, makes burnout preventable.

For a season early in my ministry career, I pastored recovering people with an addiction in a faith-based program. Many would leave and fall back into their addiction, time after time. It was challenging, arduous work encouraging our clients to do whatever was required to allow God to do the deep work of inner work necessary to put addiction into their past.

During this season, after much trial and error, I learned to leave work at work and understand that my staff was present to care for them while I was at home. I leaned into the love of my wife and children, my spiritual practices, and running to help me stay centered.


Interestingly, while I’ve been writing this post, Suzanne Roske created a post where she cited Nick Petrie and his team referring to three degrees of burnout:

🔥1st Degree Burn - where you experience heavy periods of stress and feelings of overwhelm but continue to work effectively.

🔥🔥 2nd Degree Burn - where you experience chronic stress and feelings of fatigue along with decreasing motivations and effectiveness. You have moved into survival mode.

🔥🔥🔥 3rd Degree Burn - where your mind and body start to shut down, simple tasks become unmanageable, and emotions become unpredictable and hard to control.

Over the years, my soul care measures have helped me avoid moving past first-degree burnout.

What if you are in burnout or have struggled with repeated burnout patterns? Nick and his team offered these suggestions on recovering from, and more importantly, preventing burnout:

🧯1st Degree Burns require SELF CARE

  • Create habitual breaks to unplug from work
  • Establish device-free time to rest your mind
  • Create boundaries for non-work time.

🧯🧯2nd Degree Burns require MINDSET and BEHAVIOR CHANGES

  • Not putting yourself last all the time
  • Establishing firmer boundaries between work & home
  • Learning how and when to say no—WITHOUT GUILT

🧯🧯🧯 3rd Degree Burns require DEEP LIFE CHANGES

  • Stop work. Completely
  • Finding a coach, counselor, or group to help you navigate
  • Deep reflection on what led to your burnout
  • Creating a NEW VISION for how you want to live and work

Falling Off The Cliff

Bethany Dearborn Hiser and Carey Nieuwhof have helped me think deeply about burnout through their writing. Both have written books that narrate the debilitating effects of full-on burnout. Both taught me that an intentional practice of soul care would have helped them avoid falling off the cliff.

Carey Nieuwhof recounts how, after being invited to speak in a large, highly respected venue, he and his family returned to Canada, where they lived. He writes that after returning from delivering his grand slam homerun talk, he “fell off the cliff.” He had been running hard for more than a decade.

Okay, maybe for three decades. Ambition tends to do that to you. I was the teenager who worked three jobs not because I had to but because I wanted to. I was the A student who completed three university degrees while holding down multiple jobs, getting married, and starting a family. I was the young pastor who didn’t understand the word no, all the while thinking sleep and exercise were for people who had time for those things.

Nieuwhof identifies accumulated fatigue, numbness to the things of God, and fear of people as three parts of his burnout. He then recounts how the emotional part of himself was profoundly impacted, to the point of considering death to be a better alternative than what he was experiencing.

Work Intensity

Hiser is a young leader who is a trained social worker. She presently works as the director of soul care for a network of therapists trained to work with survivors of domestic violence and sexual trauma. Her focus has been advocacy and social justice, coming alongside people who have experienced abuse, violence, assault, drug addiction, and incarceration.

She recounts working with the immigrant population and those facing housing concerns. Her book exemplifies someone who has experienced the impact of secondary trauma, a common syndrome among social workers, chaplains, therapists, first responders, medical personnel, and pastors. We fight to hold back our emotions as we take on the pain of those we work with.

Hiser narrates a time she was working with a female immigrant, telling of her experience of an abusive relationship with a man. The woman’s mother was there with them and asked a question on both of their minds, “Why do men do this?” When the mother asks this question, Hiser writes,

This moment broke something open in me. I lost my ability to listen empathetically and keep my emotions in control. My professional social-work armor of showing care but not being vulnerable had disintegrated.

Accumulated Pain

She had accumulated stories of pain and never processed them. She sobbed for the mother and daughter and for all the stories she carried with her.

Hiser spends the balance of her book explaining how she came to terms with her burnout and the unsustainable pace of her work. There was always someone else needing her help.

She writes about her addiction to busyness and the adrenaline boost that helping people in crisis brought. She had trouble giving herself time to rest and reset. She tells of finally stopping, finally doing the deep inner work of what drove her over the cliff and into burnout recovery.

Hiser openly shares her struggle with creating sustainable rhythms. In her case, she understood that the remedy for burnout is to go down and rest. Although somebody may require physical changes, the descent is essentially into our depths, where we explore our barriers and connect with the deep well of God’s presence within us.

More Burnout Warning Signs

I desire this post to be a preventative resource. Let’s return to Nieuwhof’s book and offer his list of burnout warning signs in this light. Use these signs to point you toward the action you may need to take to prevent or respond to burnout.

  1. Your passion fades.
  2. You no longer feel the highs and lows.
  3. Little things make you disproportionately emotional.
  4. Everybody drains you.
  5. You’re becoming cynical.
  6. Nothing satisfies you.
  7. You can’t think straight.
  8. Your productivity is dropping.
  9. You’re self-medicating.
  10. You don’t laugh anymore.
  11. Sleep and time off no longer refuel you.

Nieuwhof suggests,

If you show six to eight, you may be in low-grade burnout or heading for the cliff. If you resonate with most or all of them, you’re likely in full-fledged burnout.

In my email last week, I shared a helpful tool for assessing your present level of burnout. The anonymous form is here.

Burnout is an important topic that often needs more attention. In recent years, younger leaders seem to understand that the work-until-you-drop mentality, or in Christian terminology, “Burnout for Jesus,” prevalent in previous generations, does not work. Hurry, lack of margin, and edging toward burnout are long-standing societal problems. We must do our best to overcome this struggle.

Proactive Approach

The narratives of these two leaders underscore the critical importance of a proactive approach to addressing burnout. This phenomenon jeopardizes dedicated individuals' emotional and mental health across various professions. There are dire consequences if leaders neglect personal welfare amidst professional obligations.

The stories of both Hiser and Nieuwhof mirror a journey from profound exhaustion to a pathway of recovery, highlighting that burnout is preventable through intentional soul care. The key is to begin today by understanding your limits and building a rhythm of life that will assist you in being purposeful in your leadership and life.

Your Turn

Take a moment to assess your own life and work balance. Are there warning signs of burnout you have been overlooking? Engage actively in crafting a lifestyle that permits restoration and peace, and as necessary, seek professional help. Remember, it's crucial to care for your well-being to care for others effectively.

Reflection Questions

  1. What personal or professional changes can I implement to safeguard against burnout?
  2. How effectively do I manage stress, and what can I do to improve this?
  3. In what ways can my organization help support its employees in avoiding burnout?


I have a free tool to assist you in being more purposeful in building a sustainable pace of life. Developing such a life requires a journey toward building a rhythm of life. I’d love to have you join me on this journey.
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