Healthy Leaders


Putting the Mask On First

Samuel VoorhiesSamuel Voorhies

This is Part 1 of the Series “Putting the Mask on First”

Following Jesus’ Example for Leadership Effectiveness and Avoiding Burnout

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 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 chose to live like this …. The only honest answer was that, more than anything else, I was running on grandiosity. 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, then I could cover my schedule over with a veneer of spirituality; I could try to convince myself that it was all about service – but it was grandiosity all the same. I didn’t want to have to admit I have severe limitations. I didn’t want to acknowledge my need for things like rest. I didn’t want to admit I wasn’t superhuman.[1]

Can anyone relate?

Too often our leadership journey reflects that of John Ortberg’s and we don’t recognize it.

I have been on hundreds of planes over the years in my ministry, and I have heard hundreds of times the flight attendant’s announcement about safety and how to apply the oxygen mask to myself first before helping any other passenger. It goes like this:

Please put on your own oxygen mask first; then assist others.

Why do you think they tell us to put on our mask first? What does “putting on the mask first” have to do with us, with effective leadership and avoiding burnout?

Well, let me give you a quick quiz. Please raise your hands high. How many of you:

Right, sure you will.

Boy, are you deceived!

Welcome to leadership! I have good news and bad news for you.

The bad news: We are in trouble! Most of you (as many as 70%) either already have, or will soon be having, some stress-related disease: heart attack, stroke, cancer, depression; and you regularly consider leaving the ministry.

In fact, a 2002 study showed that men working 60-65 hours a week are twice as likely to have a heart attack than those working the normal 40 hours. If they also happen to be getting six hours of sleep or less only twice in a week, they are three times more likely to have a heart attack.

More bad news: According to research, 20% or one fifth of Christian leaders, won’t be in ministry next year, and as many as 40% to 50% will quit in five years. In fact, most statistics say that 60% to 80% of those who enter the ministry will not remain in it after 10 years, and only a fraction will stay in it as a lifetime career. George Barna’s latest research shows that 1,700 Christian leaders leave each month.

The really bad news: Some of you think it is okay, or even a good thing, to live this way. You are on the cliff edge of burnout and you don’t even know it. You don’t want to recognize it. You are self-deceived and may even think that it is the way it is supposed to be; that it is spiritual.

Listen, God designed our bodies to give warning signals of stress overload, which may include trouble sleeping, digestive problems, headaches, low energy, chronic tiredness, teeth grinding, high blood pressure, and the like. I would venture to bet most, if not all, of you reading this article have at least one of these warning signs.

As noted by Dr. Archibald Hart of Fuller Seminary’s School of Psychology, we often see these symptoms of stress and overload simply as obstacles to performance and success (or sometimes even a lack of faith). Then we ignore them, or merely want to get rid of the obstacle. We push on trying to overcome it, without recognizing or accepting the cause. Dr. Hart says, seldom (though predictably) does the disease of over-stress slow the victim (you and me) down – not until the major blow strikes: the ulcer, stroke, heart attack, depression, burnout or moral failure.

Working to design and create World Vision’s Global Leadership Development Strategy a few years ago, I was traveling extensively, with little time between trips and meetings. I began to have severe jaw pain. Thinking I had an infection, I saw my doctor and asked for a prescription to clear it up. He told me there was no infection, but stress was causing this debilitating pain. I didn’t believe him, so I left his office and headed to see my dentist. After careful examination, he also diagnosed stress-related pain. He advised, “I think you need to deal with the stress that is causing this pain, not the symptom.” I was self-deceived, not realizing what I was doing to my body.

Is your body giving you some warning signals?  Perhaps Satan is whispering, “It is okay; it will soon end; just try a little harder! Show them that you can do it. After all you are the leader! If you don’t do it, who will?”

Don’t believe it! I am here to tell you that it is Satan’s lie!

Someone said, “Well, I would rather burnout for Jesus than rust out.” Well, either way, my friend, you are out, and that is never God’s desire for us.

We are literally addicted to our ministry activities, too many activities – the work of doing! We enjoy getting things done. Dr. Hart calls it an adrenaline addiction. Here’s how it often happens.

You are the leader now. The ministry is growing. You are pulled in every direction to meet critical ministry opportunities. It’s okay. You are working hard but feeling like you are of value, making a difference. Because you grew the organization last year, the board’s expectation is that you will grow it more – with more income and a bigger budget, therefore reaching more people.

You have early morning breakfasts, late evening dinner meetings, and you have no time for family, with the kids in bed before you head off to work as well as when you get back home. You are often traveling on the weekends to get to some important ministry function so you can motivate and inspire others. Soon you are losing your own quality time with the Lord. Your devotional time becomes more about preparing for sermons or messages to others than your own spiritual nurture. Your relationships at home are strained. You’re tired, losing sleep, but you push on. You are the leader. Your computer, smartphone, email and text alerts are constantly calling – and you answer.

Some of you are going to bed with your computer, trying to keep up with email.You wake up, worshiping at the altar of email. Most of us belong to the CWA – Christian Workaholics Anonymous.

When people try to speak into your life, you defend your schedule. You are needed so much, having so much impact! After all, you are the leader!

Then, when you are traveling, tired and spiritually weak, without accountability, temptation comes. It might be power, money, sex or pornography. You give in and you fall!

My friends: The question is not will it happen, but when?

Just like he did with Jesus, Satan leaves us for a while to give us a false sense of security. He knows when we are depleted and weak. His primary weapon is deception.

In fact, I would suggest that the higher you go in leadership, the more likely you are to be self-deceived and to become vulnerable to attack.  If you think it can’t happen to you, that is your first mistake!

Then when we do slip, fall, and make a mistake, Satan whispers, “Oh, you can’t admit that. What would people think of you? You are the leader!” When we listen to him, we deceive ourselves, further pretending to be okay when we are not. Then we try harder, and the deception only grows.

We not only don’t put on the mask first, but some of us never put it on until we are in the hospital, or are disgraced by moral failure!

This pattern has to change if God’s mission is going to be achieved. It has to start with the decision to change the pattern.

The good news: You are here. It’s not too late! You can choose to do something! You can help those around you choose to change the pattern.

Come to Me all of you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest, for I am gentle, and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11: 28-30)

Was this just an empty promise; a platitude that Jesus dangles before us, but we could never really experience? Many of us have often felt we just could not give up our heavy loads.

What is the answer?

We are simply not following Jesus’ example because we have been deceived and have fallen into a false theology, a false view of “success.” I believe many of us have a false theology of leadership!

What do we to do about it? After my own crisis, I went back to the life of Jesus. I discovered that, as a human being, He was faced with all the same temptations and challenges as we in leadership face every day (Heb. 2:18; 4:15; Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:13). Let us come with confidence to the throne of God because we have a high priest Who can sympathize with us, because He was tempted in every way as we are (Heb. 4:14-16).

Not just some ways, but in every way. Consider the implications of that.

Think about it – every aggravation, challenge, temptation, and struggle you have faced, so did He. He got exhausted and frustrated with both the crowds and his disciples, those whom He was seeking to lead. Most of the time, they did not get what He was doing.

What practices and approaches do we see in His life that enabled Him to be effective despite challenges, struggles, and temptations, even to the end of His life for Him to declare,

I have brought You glory on earth by accomplishing that which You called Me to do. (John 17:4)

As a human being, He needed and established concentrated times of solitude with God, His Abba Father, to determine where to focus – what to say yes to and what to say no to.

Below are eight examples from Luke that show Jesus’ patterns of behavior and where in Luke these behaviors are found:

The pattern is clear: Wherever He was, whatever the schedule and demands, Jesus found a way to get alone with God to have a place of solitude, to isolate Himself – to focus on being with God.

As Henry Blackaby noted, Jesus’ secret to effectiveness was not His ability to cast vision or articulate a plan or strategy, nor was it His ability to manage and develop people, though He did all that perfectly. He was effective because of His relationship with the Father. Staying close to the Father is the key, and the example we must follow.

We must have quality, concentrated time with God. The rigor and practice of the spiritual disciplines of solitude, fasting and reflection to hear from God is not an option. It’s not a nice “to do” add-on, nor a 15-minute devotion that ends up being a litany of requests, or reading the Word to help us prepare to minister to others.

It should have the quality of an intense relationship, that of sitting on His lap, feeling His embrace. My friend, when is the last time you sat on His lap, felt His embrace, heard His voice speak?

[1] Taken from The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People by John Ortberg, Copyright © 2002. Used by permission of Zondervan.

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