Healthy Leaders


Putting Your Oxygen Mask on First – Video

Samuel VoorhiesSamuel Voorhies

This is a presentation from LDC 2014. To learn more about the LDC, please visit

Most of us are so busy ministering to, or leading and managing others, that we do a poor job of managing ourselves. We have all heard the emergency drill on an airplane, when the flight attendant instructs passengers to put on their own oxygen mask first, then help others. This provides the critical oxygen needed to stay alive, and be able to assist those in need. Similarly, as leaders, we are often so busy “putting the mask on others,” ensuring they receive help, that we fail to recognize our own need for air. This leaves us depleted, without the ability to breathe, and certainly not able to lead others.

Burn-out among Christian leaders is at an all-time high, with some 1,500 pastors leaving the ministry each month due to spiritual burn out, moral and financial failure or contention in their churches. For many, the idea of rest is boarding another plane, or getting in the car, “resting” while we head to another meeting. Jesus’ invitation, in fact His promise, to those who are weary and with heavy burdens to come to Him and find rest seems as likely to many as going to the moon. When mountain climbing, or in most rigorous athletic activity, if we wait until we are thirsty to drink, it is too late. Our bodies are already dehydrated. The same is true of our spiritual lives and ministry. Waiting until we are in trouble is often too late.

I want to share powerful principles, from Jesus’ example, for avoiding burn-out ourselves, and to identify the root cause of what often drives us to such destructive lifestyles or behaviors.


Malcolm Webber: This morning we have the great privilege of having Sam Voorhies with us.  Sam and I have become friends in just less than a year and I had the privilege of meeting Sam through our work with Compassion International; Sam has been a consultant to Compassion for a while.  And so through that relationship we’re able to meet and I really love and respect Sam – a wonderful man, highly experienced man. In the years before he was doing his current work as a consultant to people like Compassion, very large organizations and others, Sam was with World Vision over a period of many years. World Vision as you know is probably – I think it’s the largest Christian organization thereabouts, certainly one of the very largest in the world, and Sam was Director of Leadership Development for them. I say this as introduction so that as Sam is sharing what he’s sharing, this comes from a deep, extensive experience with many ministries, many international ministries including some very large ministries.  So he’s not just sharing some ideas that he cooked up in the back of his study somewhere.  But this comes from many years of working on the front lines with diverse and very large international groups.  So please, let’s give Sam a big welcome as he comes.

Sam J. Voorhies: Thank you, Malcolm.  That was very kind of you, and good morning.  What a wonderful God we serve.  How wonderful it is to be here and to have the privilege of worshiping and sharing together.  Thank you so much for the privilege. Allow me to tell you what kind of doctor I am.  When I was working on my Ph.D. at Florida State University, I was in my house studying and I could overhear my eight-year-old son outside talking with the little neighbor boy.  The little neighbor boy asked, “Is it true?  Is your dad a doctor?”  And my son said, “Yeah, he’s a doctor all right, but he’s the kind of doctor that doesn’t help anybody.”  So if you want to be humbled, have children! Listen with me for a few moments, if you would.  Some time ago I had a run of too much travel, too many meetings and too many talks and I was fatigued.  I had a standing commitment to a friend who was also involved in church work and weekly we would meet and talk about ministry and spiritual life.  I was complaining to him about my schedule, looking for sympathy when he surprised me by asking why I choose to live like this.  The only honest answer was that – more than anything else – I was living on grandiosity, pride and ego.

I was afraid that if I declined opportunities they would stop coming and if opportunities stopped coming, I would be less important and if I were less important, that would be terrible.  Obviously I could cover over my schedule with a veneer of spirituality.  I could try to convince myself it was all about service.  But what it was – grandiosity, pride and ego all the same.  I didn’t want to have to admit I had severe limitations.  I didn’t want to have to acknowledge my need for things like rest, eight hours of sleep.  I didn’t want to have to admit I wasn’t super-human.  Anybody relate?  I see a few distant smiles there and hands.  That was John Ortberg of Menlo Park who said that, author of Get Out of the Boat and most recently, Soul Keeping.

I am excited to be here and to have the privilege with you of sharing both our concerns and our experience of being effective leaders and developing effective leaders in achieving this LDC vision of God’s highest for developing leaders of the nations.  But too often our leadership journey is like that of John Ortberg’s, except we don’t recognize it, we don’t know it. Now, like most of you, I have been on hundreds of planes traveling around the world in my ministry and I’ve heard this message on the plane hundreds of times and very seldom listen.  Could I have the audio please?

Did you hear what it said?  Have you heard that message before?  What did it say?  Please secure your own mask before you attempt to assist others.  Why do you think it tells us to put on the mask first?  And what does putting on the mask first have to do with us, with being effective leaders and avoiding burnout? Well, I have some good news and I have some bad news.  Which do you want first?  Okay, I’m going to give you the bad news first.  Colleagues, we’re in trouble.  Most of you, in fact research tells us that as many as 70 percent, either already have or will soon be having some stress-related disease – heart attack, stroke, cancer, depression, and regularly consider leaving the ministry.  Please don’t start that 70 percent today.  More bad news.  According to research, 20 percent, one out of every five of you won’t be here next year, literally.  And as many as 40 to 50 percent won’t be here in five years.  In fact most research shows that 60 to 80 percent of those who enter the ministry will not be in it in 10 years and only a fraction make it to a lifetime.

George Barna’s latest research shows that 1,700 people are leaving the ministry every month: 1,700.  The really bad news?  Some of you think it’s okay to be on the edge of burnout, to live this way.  You’re on the cliff-edge of burnout and you don’t know it.  You don’t want to recognize it.  In fact, some of you even think being burned out is spiritual. Friends, listen to me.  God has designed our bodies to give us warning signals of stress and overload.  And that may include things like trouble sleeping, digestive problems, headaches, low energy, chronic tiredness, teeth grinding, high blood pressure.  I would venture to say that many of you, if not most of you, have had or have at least one of these. As noted by Dr. Archibald Hart, we often see these symptoms – we being me and you – we often see these symptoms of stress and overload simply as obstacles, things that we want to overcome because they’re preventing us from performing or succeeding, or sometimes maybe even a lack of faith.  So we ignore them; we want to get rid of them instead of looking at the root cause.  Seldom, says Dr. Hart, though predictably, the disease of overstress slows the victim down, not until the final blow is struck – the ulcer, the stroke, the heart attack, the depression, the moral failure occurs.

Some 15 years ago, after I had been working with World Vision for about 15 years – we had been living in Africa for 12 years (Kenya and Zimbabwe) – we relocated to America and settled in Colorado.  While in Africa, I had been a part of piloting an approach to Leadership Development, Malcolm mentioned.  World Vision came back to me and said, “We would like to make that a global program.  We’d like to have you help finish designing it, have you help lead it and oh, by the way, raise the money for it.” I was foolish enough to take the challenge on one condition.  I could continue to live in Colorado, having made significant family commitments there.  The good news was I was working from my home office and I had a short commute.  The bad news was I never left the office.  I was naïve enough to think that raising the money would be easy.  I can hear some of you snickering at me out there.  And of course it wasn’t, right, and I found myself working longer and longer hours, early in the morning to late at night – one more call, one more opportunity, one more contact, get that big donor who’s going to solve all my problems.  From early morning to late at night, I was going to prove that I could do this job.

And then one morning I woke up…  I had a severe pain in my jaw, like a knife cutting through.  I could hardly open my mouth.  Very painful.  I decided I’d better call the doctor, get an emergency appointment.  I’ve obviously got an infection in my jaw or my ear, I need some antibiotics.  So I called up Dr. Jaeger, “Can you squeeze me in, get me in?”  I rushed over there, got in, sat down.  Dr. Jaeger comes in.  I said, “Look, I’m in a hurry, I have a lot going on today.  I have a lot of important calls to make.  Just give me a prescription for antibiotics and I’ll be fine.  I’ll be out of here.”  “Well, Sam, that’s okay.  I’ve got some space.  Give me a few minutes.  I want to look at you and see what’s going on and then I’ll see about the prescription.” He looked at me, they gave me an x-ray, came back, came to me.  He said, “Sam, you don’t have any infection in your ear or your jaw.”  He said, “That’s stress settling in your jaw causing that pain.”  I said, “I’m not stressful.  Give me that prescription.”  Literally; literally.  I marched out of that office, I jumped into my jeep, I slammed the door, I screeched the tires and I drove over to my good friend, Dr. David Jones, the dentist.  I marched in and I said, “Look, I need to see Dr. Jones right away.  I’m in a hurry.  I don’t have much time.  I’ve obviously got an infection in my teeth or my jaw.  Just – he can write me a prescription.  I’ll be out of here.” David Jones comes through and he says, “Hey, Sam.  Look, I’ve had an appointment cancel, I have time.  Come on in and sit down and let me look at you.”  I go in, I sit down, he takes a look and they take an x-ray.  He comes back and he says, “Sam, you don’t have any infection in your teeth or your jaw. That’s stress settling in your jaw causing that pain.”  If he had not been a friend of mine, I think I would have come out of that chair and grabbed him by the neck.

That’s how self-deceived I was!  Stress causing that kind of pain?  For me, no way, I’m in control.  You know, I’m on top of things.  I have a lot going on here.  I don’t have time for this.  Just write me the prescription.  David said, “Look, I can give you something to stop the pain but that’s only going to be treating the symptom.  You need to figure out what the cause of this is because this is the tip of the iceberg.  If you don’t deal with this, if you don’t deal with the cause of this, you’re in serious trouble.”

Then, David Jones, Dr. Jones who was a friend of mine, began asking some very personal hard questions.  “What’s your day like?  What’s your work schedule like?  How’s your sleep?  When is the last time you took a real vacation and turned the computer off?  And oh, by the way, how is your spiritual life?”  I did not have the courage to tell him the truth.  I did not have the courage to tell him the truth.  But I knew the truth. I knew the truth. Friends, is your body giving you some warning signals, some red lights flashing?  But Satan is whispering, “It’s okay.  It will soon end.  Just try a little harder.  Show them you can do it.  After all, you’re the leader.  If you don’t do it, who will?”  Do not believe it!  I’m here to tell you that that is Satan’s lie.  That’s Satan’s lie. Said one person, “Well, I’d rather burn out for Jesus than rust out.”  Give me a break.  Either way, you’re out.  And that is not God’s desire for us, is it?  Colleagues, this pattern has to change.  If God’s mission of reaching the nations is going to be achieved, this pattern has to change and it has to begin with you and me.  It has to begin with us.  If we’re the people out there developing leaders, it has to begin with us. Now, there is some good news.  You’re here.  You can choose to do something about it.  You can choose to do something different and help those around you who you are leading and developing choose to do something different.  But I want to suggest we still have a problem.  Most of us belong to the CWA.  Anybody know what the CWA is?  I’ll tell you.  It is the Christian Workaholics Anonymous.  We, you and me, we are literally often addicted to ministry activities, the work of doing.  We enjoy getting things done.

Dr. Archibald Hart calls it an adrenaline addiction and here is how it often happens.  You’re the leader now.  You finally made it, wow.  You’ve got that position of Senior Pastor, Director, CEO, President.  The ministry is growing.  You’re pulled in every direction to meet critical ministry opportunities, but it’s okay.  You’re working hard, you’re feeling like you’re of value, you’re making a difference.  And because you grew last year, now the board expects you to grow more this year, maybe even a little bit more with more income, more budget, more staff.  You have early morning breakfast meetings, late dinner evening meetings.  You leave before the kids are out of bed going to school and you get back after they’re in bed.  You’re often traveling on the weekends to get to some important ministry function so you can motivate and inspire others. Soon, you’re losing your own quality time with the Lord.  And in fact, the devotional time you do have becomes preparing a message to deliver to others.  Your relationships at home are strained, you’re tired, you’re losing sleep; but you push on.  You’re the leader.  Your computer, your SmartPhone, your email, your text alerts are constantly calling.  And you answer.  Some of you – I won’t name who – some of you are even going to bed with your computers, trying to keep up with email.  And I can tell you, your spouses don’t like that.

Then what happens?  You wake up in the morning worshiping at the altar of email.  People try to speak into your life.  They see what’s going on but you defend your schedule.  No, I’m busy for the Lord.  Look at all the impact I’m having.  After all, I’m the leader.  Then when you’re traveling, you’re tired.  You’re spiritually weak.  There’s no accountability.  The temptation comes.  It might be power.  By God, I’m the leader, I’ll show them.  If they won’t listen to me, wait till I get there.  It might be money.  Look at all the hours I’m putting in.  I mean don’t they realize how hard I’m working and that’s all they want to do for me this year? It might be sex or pornography.  You give in and you fall.  And I can tell you, it’s not will it happen but when will it happen.  Just like he did with Jesus, Satan leaves us for a little while, right?  He gives us a little false sense of security.  Look how well we’re doing.  He knows when we’re depleted and we’re weak.  And as he did with Jesus, he waits for that more opportune time.  And he uses that weapon of deception.  In fact, I would suggest to you that the higher you go in leadership, the more likely you are to be self-deceived and become vulnerable to attack.  If you think it cannot or will not happen to you, that is your first mistake, my brother and my sister.

Then you slip, you fall, you make a mistake and what does Satan whisper?  You can’t admit that.  What will people think?  You know, after all, you’re the leader.  So we deceive ourselves further, pretending to be okay when we are not.  We try harder and the deception only grows.  We don’t only not put the mask on first, many of us don’t put it on at all until that final blow, until we’re in the hospital or disgraced by moral failure. What’s the answer?  What do we do?  I want to tell you that I believe we are simply not following Jesus’ example.  We’re simply not following Jesus’ example.  I believe we’ve often been deceived into a false theology, a false view of success, a false view of leadership.  What do we do about it?  Well, after my own crisis, I went back to the life of Jesus and I discovered in studying His life that as a human being, He was faced with all the temptations you and I are faced with as leaders.  Think about that – every aggravation, every challenge, every temptation, every struggle – He faced as a human being, as a leader, just like you and I.  He got aggravated, He got exhausted, He was hungry.  He was frustrated with the crowds and with the disciples whom were supposed to be following Him, but most of the time they didn’t get it.

What practices, what approaches, what patterns do we see in His life that helped Him deal with those temptations, those challenges in a way that at the end of His life He could declare, “I have brought You glory in earth because I have achieved that which You called me to do.”  What do we see, where despite those challenges He could declare that at the end of His life? I want to suggest three for us this morning.  This first one is that simply as a human being, Jesus needed and established concentrated times of solitude with God, His Abba Father.  I want you to look at these passages very briefly.  There are eight examples from Luke that show us a clear pattern over Jesus’ life.  From the very beginning, in Luke 4 where we find Him in the desert fasting and praying – what’s the context?  Where is He?  What is He doing?  Desert fasting and praying.  Later in Luke 4, they’ve had this successful entry of ministry to Capernaum.  The crowds are seeking Him, right?  They are after Him to come back and minister more.  Where do we find Him?  He’s out in a solitary place.

Later, we find the crowds trying to get to Him and He’s becoming more popular.  Where is He?  Lonely places to pray.  Then later, we find Him going up to the hill to pray and you remember He took Peter, James and John.  Or that verse in Luke 6, when He came down after all night and chose the 12 disciples.  Later, we find Him praying in private.  Next, He goes up on the mountain.  That’s when He takes Peter, James and John.  Then, we see Him praying in a certain place and then at the end of His life in Luke 22, right before the crucifixion, we see this reference that, as usual, He went out to the Mount of Olives to pray. Now this is significant and we could spend the whole day reflecting on these passages but here’s what I want you to get out of this.  The pattern – the pattern, the practice is very clear.  Wherever He was, whatever the schedule, whatever the demands, He found a way to get some alone time with God, to have a place of solitude, to isolate Himself, to focus on being with God, to focus on being with God.  We, you and I, need quality concentrated time with God.

The practice of spiritual disciplines of solitude, fasting, reflection, to be with God, to hear from God, is not an option.  It’s not an option.  It’s not a nice add-on thing to do for a retreat sometime.  It’s not about a 15-minute or 20-minute devotion where most of our time is spent asking for things to others or studying the Word to prepare for a message; no.  He needed quality time as a human being, leading.  He needed quality time with His Abba Father.

We need quality time to sit on His lap, to feel His embrace, to hear His voice.  When is the last time you had that kind of quality time of solitude with your Abba Father, who wants you to sit on His lap, to feel His embrace and to hear His voice.  Let’s be careful.  Let’s be careful that we do not bypass the relationship, the intimacy God wants to have with us so that we can get on with activity and start worshiping at the altar of what we do for Him versus being with Him.  If Jesus needed regular concentrated time of solitude – no matter how busy, how many demands – who in the world do I think I am that I don’t need that quality time?  Who in the world do we think we are if we don’t need that quality concentrated time of solitude? Now, does it mean that we shouldn’t try to plan and have a strategy and all those things?  Of course not!  But it does mean that we must be as rigorous in the exercise and use of spiritual disciplines and discernment as a practice, as part of our strategy, as part of our planning as we are in the work of planning itself.  And it must be integrated.  It’s not just having a quick devotion and then getting on with the real work.  Spiritual disciplines of discernment, of listening to God, must be as rigorous and integrated with our planning process.

Question for you.  Do you have time and space – no matter where you are, what the schedule, what the demands – do you have a place where you can separate and get that solitude, that quiet so that you can sit on God’s lap, so that you, most importantly, can hear His voice.  Think about that for a moment. So that’s the first thing.  We need that regular concentrated time with our Abba Father.  The second thing we see from Jesus is that during that time, that concentrated time, He determined what His priorities should be, what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to.  Jesus could not do everything.  You cannot do everything.  He walked away from need.  He literally said “no” and walked away.  How do we focus and prioritize?  What do we say “no” to?  What else do we see in that set of verses again?  The more popular He became, the more demands made on Him. What do we see?  The harder He worked, the more He expanded and grew His organization to respond to every need, every effort, every request to increase His market share, broaden His brand recognition, right?  No, no, absolutely not!  Luke 5; it’s very clear.  The more they sought Him, the more popular He became, the busier they wanted Him to be.  It literally says, the more often He withdrew to lowly places to pray and out of that time of solitude, He determined what to say “yes” to and what importantly to say “no” to.  He was successful, He was effective because He knew what to say “no” to.  He did not try to do everything. It’s important that we figure out what to say “no” to.  Don’t allow too many good things and the good becomes the enemy of the best.  Or fall into Satan’s trap, what Parker Palmer calls the “shadow of leadership.”  Well, it’s all dependent on me.  If I don’t do it, who will?

And that’s a question for you.  What’s really driving you to try to do everything, to not say “no” to good things, which is what we have to do.  Is it really ego and pride?  Reflect on that for a moment.  What’s driving you?  What’s keeping you from saying “no”?  What have you said “no” to lately or are you running on grandiosity, pride and ego, like John Ortberg? So first we need that concentrated time.  It’s not an option.  Second, out of that time we need to be listening to God, coming out with those priorities and that focus area, what has He called us to do?  What will we say “no” to?  There will always be more to do than we can. And third, I want to suggest to you we see Jesus defining success and effectiveness.  How do we define success and effectiveness?  How do we measure success?  What do we reward and encourage in ourselves and in our organization?  “I brought You glory on earth,” declared Jesus at the end of His life.  Why?  How?  By accomplishing everything?  By accomplishing that which You called Me to do.  His identity, His value, His view of success and effectiveness was not tied to an organization.  It was tied to His obedience to the Father.

I want to challenge your thinking for a moment and suggest to you that there is no such thing as a Christian organization.  There is no such thing as a Christian organization.  Think about it.  Regardless of all the great work that LeaderSource or this church even or World Vision or Compassion or any organization does, they are not going to be in the kingdom.  The organization is not going to be in the kingdom.  But who will be?  You and I.  You and I.  Once something – a group, a movement – becomes an organization, an institution, it becomes a sociological phenomenon.  And as an institution which organizations are, they will share similar characteristics. Whether they put Christian in front of it or not, they will invariably share the same characteristics.  An institution must grow in order to sustain itself.  It needs fuel to exist, to grow.  And the organization will always demand more of you than you can give.  That is the nature of the animal.  The organization will always demand more of you than you can give.  It will literally chew you up, spit you out and look for somebody else to engage.  It needs fuel to survive and grow.  And I tell you, any of us who think we’re indispensible, even to an organization we have founded, I’m afraid we’re deceived.

The false thinking often happens.  It starts with putting too much faith, too much confidence in the institution, in the organization, as though that is what matters.  And then we begin to measure our effectiveness, our success on whether we are growing.  Often, growth as defined in income, in money, as though size and money were God’s measure of success.  And we know biblically they are not.  Suddenly it creeps in.  Well, look at how God is blessing us.  Why?  Because how big we are, how we’ve grown, how much income we’re getting.  All of a sudden, it creeps in.  God is blessing us if we’re growing as defined, as measured by income.  Or concurrently if we’re not growing and the income hasn’t come, well then He must not be with us. My friends, that is outright false theology.  The term success is only used a few times in scripture and it’s always used as something God gave.  God was always the source of success.  Success was never dependent on people’s efforts or resources.  No, success was achieved when it was granted by God based on one’s faithfulness and obedience to God’s words, His commands, drawing on His resources to accomplish His focused purposes, not simply our plan. Listen, in God’s economy, less can be more.  Output, cost benefit is not simply a ratio of input.  But as we all know, it has an element of faith, accessing spiritual resources which we cannot see.  In God’s economy, He can enable our resources to be multiplied with impact and influence beyond our input, beyond our resources in ways we can’t imagine.  And I know that many of you have experienced that.

Don’t confuse size with impact and influence or activities with results.  It’s not just about how much.  It’s about how faithful.  What has God given you to be faithful to?  What has He given you to focus on, to be obedient to?  If you’re faithful, if you’re obedient, it doesn’t matter what size you are or what size you become.  He will multiply your impact and influence in ways we can’t imagine. What is your view of success?  How are you measuring it for yourself?  How is your organization defining, measuring, rewarding, encouraging what success, what effectiveness means?  Have we put too much emphasis on growth, particularly defined in terms of income and have this false association of God’s blessing with just growth or with just size? During my jaw crisis, I was busy working in my study about 9:00 p.m. trying to finish this important email to this big donor and I was working away and my 11-year-old daughter came in.  She was trying to get my attention.  I was trying to concentrate and not give her my attention.  Finally, she came over and she squeezed in and she sat on my lap.  And I’m trying to finish this email.  “Can’t you see that I’m – you know, I’m trying to – how important this is?”  And finally she grabbed me by the shoulders and she said, “Daddy, Daddy, look at me.”  She said, “Daddy, look at me.  I’m more important than these emails.  Boy, that was a stab in the heart.  And then only as my daughter could do, she said, “And after all, look at you.  You spend so much time on emails you have a computer face.”  I still don’t know what a computer face is, but I’m sure I have it.

Friends, when I was honest with myself, I had to conclude that I was often driven, not simply because the organization demanded more of me than I could give, but because of my own ego, because of my own pride.  By God, I was going to show that I could do it.  And my sense of identity, my sense of value was in the job and it was in what I was doing for God, not in my relationship with Him.  I like to work because I was successful at it, I was driven.  But it was that drivenness that threatened to destroy me.  I could say “no,” but I was not.  Where have I been self-deceived?  Where have you been self-deceived?  What do you need to do to put that mask on first to prevent ineffectiveness and to prevent burnout?  Please, please don’t let it happen to you!  This is a sacred responsibility God has given you.  Don’t wait until you fall before you pay attention to the signs of stress and burnout.  How can you help others if you don’t have the breath to breathe and sustain yourself?  Put on the mask.  Follow Jesus’ example.  Thank you.

Malcolm Webber: That’s great, Sam.  Thank you.  Beginning in our own lives, but also let’s ask the question, what is the place of this in our leader development processes?  Are we building leaders who have identity in the Lord Jesus?  Are we building leaders who are living in deep dependency on Christ?  Are we building leaders who are ministering from life?  The quality, the fruitfulness of our external ministries will never exceed the reality of our inward life in God.  Amen.  That’s the reality.  It’s a chronic problem as everyone in this room knows.  This is a chronic problem all over the world that we must address.

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