Leading On Empty | Wayne Cordeiro

Author: Wayne Cordeiro
Author: Wayne Cordeiro

Main Theme: Leadership, Passion & Burnout
For People Who: Are struggling with a loss of passion and are experiencing burn-out or hope to guard against it.

I must say, Leading on Emptyis a must read for all leaders, particularly pastors, given it is a pastor telling his story. Personally I wasn’t experiencing burn-out when I read it, so for me this book was more prevention than prescription. But as I read it I couldn’t help but think of all those who are experiencing depression, physical health issues, or are unaware of the warning signs shouting, “You’re heading for disaster!” The first line of the introduction sums it up nicely:

We don’t forget that we are Christians. We forget that we are human, and that one oversight alone can debilitate the potential of our future. –Leading On Empty, pg. 13


  • When we lead on empty rather than out of our excess, our physical bodies will begin to suffer before our job performance begins to suffer.
  • Serotonin is a ‘feel-good’ chemical in the body that makes us feel passion and drive. But when we use it up, our bodies begin burning adrenaline, which is used for emergencies. Our bodies were not designed to perpetually burn that fuel.
  • When a person reaches “burn-out” level they rarely, if ever, are able to return to the same level of ministry they had before the burn-out. But there is hope!
  • Set boundaries for yourself to help guard against burn-out.
  • Serotonin levels are restored via a slow trickle-charge. When they are depleted, they take significant amounts of time to restore. Taking a nap isn’t enough to restore them.
  • Work will never, ever, ever, ever, ever be done. If you wait to rest until the work is done, you will never rest.
  • If you’re a person who loves quotes, there is a great quote cited on nearly every page.

Brief Summary

Chapter 1: When the Needle Points to Empty

There is an incredible weight placed upon pastors, both outward and inward, to lead even when there are serious issues challenging them. Often pastors feel there is something wrong with them when they feel a loss of passion, burn-out, or depression. But the company is good. Consider Moses who prayed, “So if You are going to deal thus with me, please kill me at once.” (Numbers 11:14-15) The author begins sharing his story in this opening chapter. How he got to the point of depression and what his Christian psychologist began counseling him to do:

I could [give you a pill to make you feel better], but it would only mask the real problem. You need to recharge, then reflect on what the trigger points were and finally restructure the way you’re living…but the first step is to recharge. And that takes time. –Leading On Empty, pg. 26

Chapter 2: Forced to Failure

There are things built into the psyches of those of us bent on making our lives count for eternity that can later cause diminishing returns. Zeal and good intentions can fuel us in the beginning, but they won’t last in the long haul. –Leading On Empty, pg 31

The statistics of pastors and their wives who suffer from burn-out, depression, and are leading on empty is heart breaking. And they are easy to shrug off until you’re in danger of becoming one of those statistics yourself. When marathon runners hit “the wall” their glycogen reserves are empty and their body must switch to burning their fat reserves for fuel. The experience stops most runners in their tracks. But experienced runners come to expect it and train to work through it. When we hit “the wall” in our leadership, sometimes that wall hits us back and we are forced to take steps to recover.

Chapter 3: Power Perfected in Weakness

Burnout is often accompanied by depression. All too often when Christians struggle with burnout and depression they will hear all the catch phrases Christians like to throw out: ‘pray more’ or ‘read your Bible more’ or ‘confess sin.’ But all throughout the scripture we see people struggling with depression: Jeremiah, Moses, Job, Jonah, etc. This chapter provides many causes of depression we ought to be on guard against:

  • Long-term Stress
  • Great Loss
  • Unresolved Problem
  • Financial Stress
  • Pressure to Excel

Chapter 4: Early Warning Signs

It is important to recognize early symptoms of depression which can signal to us that we need help:

  • Sense of Hopelessness
  • Frequent Tears
  • Difficulty Concentrating or Irritability
  • Decision Making Comes hard
  • Lack of Marital Attraction or Feeling Alone

It might be a season where you find that your days are held in suspended animation and your soul is polarized. It was for me, but as I look back now, it was a season that compelled me into a winter wilderness that gave birth to a springtime of new growth that would refill my tank and renew my passion. –Leading On Empty, pg. 66

Chapter 5: Solitary Refinement

In the quietness of the desert, we hear God speak. Taking time in solitude provides the opportunity to discover the trigger points that set burnout in motion. What areas of your life are rubbing raw patches in your soul?

I had to determine – to really settle in my soul – what I would actually be held accountable for in my life. –Leading On Empty, pg. 73

It may be a legitimate concern, but it is not our responsibility…Learning the difference between a concern and a responsibility may save your ministry, your family, and your sanity. –Leading On Empty, pg. 74

The author provides a wonderful excersise to give us focus: 85% of what we do can be done by anyone (email, meetings, reading the newspaper) and this is where we spend most of our time. 10% can be done by someone who receives moderate training (solve problems). But 5% can only be done by you – and that is the most important 5% that you should focus your life. Write down 5-6 things that you and only you can do, and remind yourself those are your responsibilities.

Chapter 6: Finding the Still Waters

What is it that recharges you? What activities drain you? Knowing what fills you and what drains you can help save you many sleepless night.

We all realize that there will be tensions in any occupation…there are some stressors you may have to live with for a long time before you figure out how to resolve them. –Leading On Empty, pg 93

There will always be tension between what I [a pastor] do and who I am because they run so closely together…What I do is who I am, and who I am is inextricably connected to what I do. I am a shepherd. It wasn’t something I chose as a business profession. It was something I could not escape! –Leading On Empty, pg 96

Chapter 7: The New Perspective

We can allow our depression to draw us from God, or draw us to God. When Jesus says in Matthew 6:22-23 that “the eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” When we have an inaccurate view of God, life and others, our perceptions can fill us with darkness. Often times our problem isn’t our problem, it’s the way we look at our problem that is the real problem.

Chapter 8: Seven Lessons Hard-Learned

Here are provided seven practical lessons that the author suggests from his experience:

  1. Do Not Overproduce: Don’t kill yourself
  2. Steward Your Energy
  3. Rest Well, My Friend
  4. Exercise Your Way to Recovery
  5. Eating Your Way to A Good Life
  6. Recharge Daily
  7. Fight for Your Family: Your greatest ministry is to your family.

Chapter 9: Finding the Way Back Home

The very nature of the healing process will require that you disclose your feelings and inward pain…Every mistake, every pitfall, and every poor decision you could ever make has already been made and recorded somewhere in the Bible. –Leading On Empty, pg. 156-157

Wading your way out of depression requires you to not journey alone. Finding a coach, mentor, friend and others to lean on is crucial during this time. The author points out that you have a choice to make on which of four courses you can take:

  1. A Life of Reaction: Living until we are forced to change our direction
  2. A Life of Conformity: Living according to the whims of the crowd
  3. A Life of Independence: Living to cherish independence which gives the illusion of autonomy.
  4. A Life of Intentionality: Living your life in manual rather than automatic.

Chapter 10: The Intentional Life

We will all experience fatigue in the midst of a demanding ministry unless time is set aside to rest and realign ourselves back to God and His original design. –Leading On Empty, pg. 166.

Think of the dashboard in the cockpit of an airplane. A pilot can look at the dials and instruments and know immediately the condition of the aircraft. If the pilot chose to ignore his instruments it would be disastrous for both him and those he is responsible for. What 10-12 dials do you need to keep an eye on and grade so you know the condition of your soul? The author provides examples of dials he has chosen to gauge the health of his personal life: Faith Life (B+), Marriage Life (A-), Family Life (A-), Office Life (C-), etc. Have you done the same?

Genuine growth is only found in honest growth. –Leading On Empty, pg. 179.

Chapter 11: Finding Solitude in Sabbaticals 

A leader’s role is not to maintain. It is to gain altitude! That requires something I call leadership energy…A leader needs to give the ministry or company the vertical lift it requires to improve and advance. –Leading On Empty, pg. 188

The author answers the question: Why do pastors need a sabbatical? Pastors rarely, if ever, get a Sabbath day off. Most will put in around 8-10 hours of work on any given Sunday. “In the marketplace, most workers get at least a two-day weekend. Added to that, most employees in the secular world get about six long weekends a year due to national and state holidays. This means they are off work from late Friday afternoon until Tuesday morning – six times a year…If you multiply these three days off times six weekends, then multiply that number by seven years; it equals 126 days or the equivalent of a three- to four-month sabbatical [every seven years].” –Leading On Empty, pg. 190-191. What would the condition of some churches look like if their burned-out pastor was allowed a few months away to recharge and reorient his life and vision God has given for the church?

The author finally concludes the book with a series of questions to ask during a season of self-assessment.

When depression hits, look at your divine commission and say, ‘That is where I need to start again.’ –Leading On Empty, pg. 200

Information and Personal Rating

General Information:

Personal Ratings (1-10)

  • Applicability: 9 or 5 (Depending if you’re in depression or reading to guard against it)
  • Readability: 7
  • Originality: 8
  • Recommendation: Yes

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