The Symptoms of Leadership Burnout

A Barna poll published in March 2022 showed that 42 percent of pastors have thought about quitting because of pastoral burnout. Carey Nieuwhof was so shocked by that growing trend that he wrote a book about it. In his new book, At Your Best, he drew from his own pastoral burnout that almost took him out of ministry years ago and presents a way for pastors to thrive. In this episode of the Church InTension podcast, Dr. Jon Chasteen talks with Carey about his story and how pastors and leaders can prevent burnout.

Dr. Jon Chasteen: Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster. He’s a former attorney, church planter. He was the founding pastor of Connexus Church. He holds a degree, I didn’t know this, Carey. He holds a degree in law, theology, and history. Carey speaks to leaders around the world about leadership change and personal growth. His podcast, please catch this. If you are not listening to the Carey Nieuwhof Leadership podcast, you are missing out. It has over 23 million downloads and features interviews with many of today’s top leaders. His online content is accessed by leaders over 1.4 million times a month. You need to go to if you haven’t already. I love his mission. It’s to help people thrive in life and leadership.

Carey, I am so honored that you would be on this podcast. Welcome to the Church In Tension podcast.

Carey Nieuwhof: Jon, it’s good to be with you again. Thank you very much for having me.

Jon: Absolutely.

Carey:  I remember that dinner we had a few years ago in, was it Tulsa?

Jon: Yeah, it was somewhere.

Carey: It was really good.

Jon: It was some conference we met and had a steak, if I remember, right?

Carey: Somewhere. Yeah, yeah. The steak was great.

Jon: How does it feel to be on the other side of the microphone? Usually you’re the one on this side.

Carey: Yeah, I don’t do it very often. I guess I went through a period where… I think I prefer the other side. I don’t know why.

Jon: Really?

Carey: I really enjoy being the interviewer.

Jon: Wow.

Carey: Yeah.

Jon: Well.

Carey: It’s less work. You just shut up and ask questions.

Jon: And then you just every now and then go, “Wow, so good.”

Carey: Yeah, and then you critique yourself about all your verbal ticks when you listen back.

Jon: I’m so excited to talk about your latest book.

Carey: Thank you.

Jon: Your first book was a bestseller. I know that this is well on its way to become that, but the title of this book is At Your Best: How to Get Time, Energy, and Priorities in Your Favor. This is such a topic that I’ve been dealing with as I lead two organizations, and I know that my time and my energy and my priorities are key in accomplishing this.

But before we jump into that, the thing that stuck out to me and part of your mission and your bio is that you want to help people thrive. My question to you is what percentage of people, what percentage of leaders, and this is just a total random, there doesn’t have to be research. What percentage of leaders are thriving in your opinion?

Carey: Yeah, I appreciate the question and I don’t have data, but I would say we’re probably in the very low percentage of leaders, perhaps in single digits.

Jon: Wow.

Carey: Almost every leader I’ve talked to, and this is long before pandemic and the craziness that we live in right now, was overwhelmed, overworked, overcommitted, didn’t know how they were going to keep it all together. I had a conversation with a couple of friends recently, and they’re both at their prime. They’re not in ministry. They’re in the marketplace, but they’re in pinnacle positions in their career. Well, three are coming to mind, and all of them, they’re my stage of life. They’re in their mid fifties and they’re like, I wonder when I can get out, like I just wonder when I can leave. And it’s so weird because this is something that they’ve worked toward their entire life and the burn-out data as well as I do, 42% of pastors are seriously considering leaving ministry this year, in 2022.

So that stat has grown from 29 to 38 to 42%, and a bunch of that original 29% are already gone. So what does that say about ministry? And there’s that old movie, which I saw years ago, I haven’t seen it since, but it’s just ask the question, is this as good as it gets? And I think a lot of leaders are doing what they felt called to do, Jon, and they’re like, so this is it. This is marriage, this is parenting, this is leadership, this is ministry, this is church. Are you kidding me?

And some of them it’s exhaustion and some of them it’s just a numbness to their soul. And for other people it’s just the constant barrage of criticism. And we’re all kind of wondering, well, what do I do? Really, this is life? And so yeah, that’s what I care about. That’s what I’m passionate about. And some of that coincides with my own journey as well.

Jon: Yeah. And I want to unpack that a little bit in just a little bit, ’cause it’s such an important part of your story. But if we’re going to talk about thriving, it’s probably important for us, even the title of your book At Your Best. If we’re thriving, if you had to lay a definition to that look. So if you spent a day with me, Carey, or a week with a pastor, what shows that someone might or may or may not be thriving?

Carey: Well, let’s start here. Is your heart growing or shrinking? Is it alive or dead? A lot of people, as they get into leadership, you start out in your teens and twenties, you’re super enthusiastic. You’re idealistic, you’re excited, you’re passionate, you’re going to set the world on fire for Jesus, et cetera. And then you hit 40 and you’re growing cynical, and your heart is flat.

So to me, thriving involves a heart that’s growing. It’s a heart that’s opening toward God. One of my regular prayers every week, I pray this every Sunday, I’ve just got a list of things I pray through every day, is that I would become more open, and I want my heart to be softer as I get older, not harder. And so I’d say that’s one definition.

Another is, are you building a life you want to escape from? There are a lot of us, like my friends who I just mentioned, who are like, yeah, this is the pinnacle of my career, but when do I get out? And a lot of us, we got the dream church, we got the dream job, we got the dream girl, we got the dream whatever, kids. We got the dream. Even our bank account might be okay, but it’s like, I hate myself. I want out. I don’t know how much longer I can do this.

And that’s not saying you should never leave. I’ve done a bunch of stuff. I’ve done law, I’ve done ministry, and now I’m doing what I do now in equipping leaders. So I’m not saying you can never leave. Your calling can shift. But there’s that nagging feeling that you built this life that other people on the outside looking in are like, “Hey, this is pretty good. You got a good deal.” And you’re like, “Nah.”

Jon: You’ve arrived, yeah.

Carey: And so another way to know whether you’re thriving or not is do you have escape fantasies? When I burned out, my dream job was working in a warehouse stacking boxes. It’s just when you stack a box, it stays stacked. And nothing in ministry was staying stacked.

Jon: I will admit there have been seasons in my life where I’ve drove by a guy on a bulldozer just pushing dirt around and thought, man, that looks awesome.

Carey: What a great job, right? Mowing lawns. It’s like it was long, now it’s cut.

Jon: And look at those lines.

Carey: There is something about that. Or even retirement or just something else. And of course you bring you to everything you do. So in the same way, a lot of the listeners of this podcast would know, Hey, wait a minute, escaping from my marriage to take off with someone else, I realize is probably a mistake because I’m bringing all my unresolved issues into that relationship. But we don’t think about that beyond marriage, and we don’t think about that with our job and we’re like, oh, it’s the job. Oh, it’s the church.

So thriving to me is your heart is growing. You’re in a place where you’ve got drive, but also contentment. You’ve got margin in your life. Margin. Do you remember when you were a kid, I don’t know whether it was the same for you, Jon, but that space between kindergarten and first grade just felt like a decade does today. Remember that?

Jon: Yeah.

Carey: It was like, when is summer going to be over?

Jon: Summer, come on.

Carey: It’s taking forever. It’s six weeks, eight weeks, whatever it was.

Jon: But it felt like an eternity.

Carey: It did feel like an eternity. And a lot of people struggle with time scarcity and time famine. And I think when you get margin back in your life. You have margin in your bank account. You have margin in your sleep. You have margin in your schedule. That’s why it’s so hard to get on my calendar. I don’t schedule more than 15 appointments in a week.

Jon: Wow.

Carey: Why? ‘Cause I know what Carey becomes when I get over 15. I get overwhelmed, I get irritable, I get angry. I’m not nice to live with and I don’t do a good job. And if I get less than that, less than 10, I get bored. And then I think, oh, what am I doing with my life? So everybody’s got a number. But margin in your schedule, get enough sleep, have some time.

Okay, here’s a good example. I got a curve ball thrown at me. I’ve got a little renovation project going on at my house, and I’m texting the contractors this morning. I’ve got a guy working on my garage who’s going to do my work a month from now. And he goes, “Actually, I’m glad you texted. Can I come tomorrow?” Well, I’ve got enough margin in my schedule today that I texted my nephew, my kids live far away. So I texted my nephew who’s nearby. It’s like, “Can you help me empty my garage tonight?” Now it’s pretty clean, but I’m going to spend two hours emptying my garage. I’ll be ready to go. If you have no margin, you can’t do that.

Jon: Couldn’t have done it.

Carey: Right. You can’t. If you got no money in your bank account, no margin in your bank account, when the furnace breaks or the air conditioner breaks, you’re like, it’s an emergency. So I think it’s margin, it’s an open heart, and it’s having a life that you’re mostly enjoying and really at your prime.

Jon: Yeah, I’ve heard Craig Groeschel say, “I don’t want a five-year plan. I want margin. If I have margin without a five-year plan, I can pivot and I can jump on any opportunity that arises.” So margin’s so huge, and I really want to get into that because it’s such an important element of your book. Going back to your subtitle, How to Get Time, Energy, and Priorities in Your Favor. And I really do think that part of thriving, if there are leaders listening to this that kind of related to what we’ve been talking about, I don’t know that I’m thriving. I don’t know that I’m doing the best. I don’t know that I’m living at my best. I really think these three areas in your book that you unpack so well are so key. And so I really want to dive into those.

The first one, we talked about it, but the first one being time. This one’s so big, and I don’t think we realize, obviously the more responsibilities we get in life and the older we get, the more hashtag adulting we have to do, the more marginalized our time becomes. And I’m really in this season, we talked about that a little bit before we pushed record today, that I’m in this season leading two organizations where I’m realizing that I’ve plateaued, and the only option I have is to create margin in time.

So unpack that a little bit for us. How important is time, and why is it so important, and what does that look like? I know you go into describing some of the zones that we can be in and things like that.

Carey: Yeah. Well, let me start with a common problem that I think we all struggle with, and I had this all through my thirties. I’m in my fifties now, but I had this all through my thirties. And the problem in my thirties was I felt like I never had enough time. The church was growing like crazy. It was my first rodeo. I was hiring staff. And I got to the point, Jon, where people were saying, man, you need to write a book. And I’m like, I don’t have time for that. Or Toni’s like, “Hey, can you take the kids to soccer practice?” It’s like, “I don’t have time tonight.”

And the reality is, after my burnout, I burned out around age 40, I did a really deep rethink of my life and suddenly it hit me. I know this is kindergarten, but it hit me that every single leader in the world has the same amount of time every day. I have 24 hours in a day. Seth Godin has 24 hours in a day. Craig Groeschel in beast mode on his workout has 24 hours in a day. And I had the time to write a book.

So I encourage leaders to try this: stop saying, you don’t have the time, because you do. What did you not get done yesterday? You had the time to do it. And I started to do this little hack in my own head. I stopped saying I didn’t have the time, and I started admitting I didn’t make the time to work out. I didn’t make the time to get eight hours sleep. I didn’t make the time to take my kids to soccer, didn’t make the time to outline a book, didn’t make the time to prep for Sunday properly. I didn’t make the time to get that project done.

And when you start to have that paradigm, you realize, oh, I’ve got all the time in the world to fulfill. You ever walk in a graveyard, and you see some people only get 30 years, 40 years. And there’s some very, very famous people throughout history that died when they were 38. Dietrich Bonhoeffer died in his thirties, and you think about the influence that he had. And I had to get rid of my excuses.

The second problem with time, and there’s a million time management books out there that are great. So I don’t camp out in At Your Best On Time Management for hundreds of pages because David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and so many other books like that are just so great at helping you shape your time. But I would say, although we get 24 equal hours in a day, not all hours feel equal. And so we end up for a lot of us where we use our time indiscriminately. And so the problem, the reason time slips away on us is we don’t focus it.

And what I realized is that those hours, they are equal, but they don’t feel equal and they don’t produce equally. So most people would be able to tell you… I’m curious about you. I have a premonition about what you are. But would you say you’re a morning person or night owl or something in between, Jon?

Jon: I’m very much a morning person. Very much a morning person.

Carey: Most leaders are. Most people who do what we do are morning people.

Jon: Very early at content. Very early in the mornings. Yeah.

Carey: Yeah. Okay. So what would be your prime time to write a message. If you’re writing for Sunday, when do you like to be focused and zoned in an ideal world?

Jon: So you’re going to think I’m insane and it’s not sustainable every day, but two to three days a week, I write from 3 AM to 7 AM.

Carey: Yeah, that’s pretty crazy. What time do you go to bed at night?

Jon: On those nights I’ll go to bed about nine.

Carey: Okay. So you got six, six and a half hours.

Jon: Yeah. I started doing that during my dissertation for my doctorate degree, because it was the only time I could. And then I just developed a habit. Anything you do repeatedly becomes a habit. And then whenever I became the president of TKU, I had to run a university. So I had to write my sermons at a different time. Well, I had already created the habit of writing early in the mornings. And so I’m working on a new book now, and just yesterday I tried to do some writing around 10 AM and I just couldn’t. I couldn’t create content. My brain wasn’t wired.

Carey: Well, that was my next question.

Jon: Yes.

Carey: All right. I want you to flip the clock and imagine that it’s Wednesday afternoon, Sunday’s coming. I’m sure you work way ahead on your messages, but let’s just say for argument’s sake, Sunday’s coming and now you have to start your message at 3 PM and write until 7 PM. What is that window of time like as far as your productivity goes?

Jon: 10%.

Carey: Exactly. So what is that? And every human being has that, right?

Jon: Yeah.

Carey: So the whole idea behind focusing your time, and I encourage people to divide their time into three zones every day: green, yellow, red.

Jon: I love this.

Carey: Green would be your 3 to 7 AM. Right? That’s when your green light go. You’re firing on all cylinders. Your ideas are as fresh as they get. You’ve got energy for this. You’re happy to have the job, and you’re productive, the stuff that you produce. I’m a morning person too, so mine would tend to be 7 to 11 AM, not 3 to 7 AM. But I’m much better at writing. I crushed my green zone this morning, which is great. Which is why I can do my garage tonight. Now what happens to a lot of people’s green zones… Oh, let me finish this thought. Green, yellow, red. So green zone is your best time. Red zone is that time where you need a Red Bull, or more caffeine, or a nap.

Jon: Or Netflix or something.

Carey: Yeah, Netflix. Something. What would those hours be for you?

Jon: So they would be probably from 3:00 PM on into the evening.

Carey: Yeah, yeah.

Jon: I’m done.


Yeah, for me it’s about 4 to 6. It’s like I’m either jumping on my bike or going to mow the lawn or I’m going to the couch, just take a nap.

Jon: I’m on my Peloton or at the gym or something.

Carey: Yeah, totally. So most of us have that time. Now for night owls, that might be first thing in the morning. I get it. But for a lot of people, I hear a lot of people as I interview leaders, that they slump right after lunch from about one till three. But the point is, your brain fogs, right? And most of us are creatives. We sit at a computer and we think for a living, and our brain just isn’t working. And I have that. By four o’clock in the afternoon. I have three brain cells left.

And then everything in between is yellow. It’s you’re not at your best, you’re not at your worst. And yellow can be incredibly productive. So I do this podcast you mentioned. I wrote questions this morning in my green zone, but I’ll do the interviews later this week in my yellow zone. Because if I’ve prepped well the execution is just fine.

Jon: That’s really good.

Carey: People say, “Well, your podcasting is what you’re known for. You must do that all in your green zone.” Nope. I do some of that in my yellow zone. So your yellow zone can be really effective.

Jon: Well, we’re getting yellow Carey now, and yellow Carey is doing great. So.

Carey: He had a good green zone and eight hour’s sleep last night. He’s in a happy place. So it’s green, yellow, red, and then the problem. And it sounds like you don’t have this problem in your life, Jon, or at least not anymore, but I did for years. I was the king of breakfast meetings. So my green zone is in the morning from 7 to 11, but I meet someone at a restaurant at 7:00 AM It’s supposed to go an hour. We go an hour and a half, two hours. You know how those things go. And then it’s like, okay, better grab a coffee at the drive-through before I head to the office. You get into the office at 9, 9:30, everybody wants to talk to you. You’re saying hi. You sit down at your desk, you got 17 texts and 62 emails and you look up and it’s noon and you haven’t done a thing, not one thing.

And your to-do list got longer. Your sermon isn’t written, your important work isn’t written. We’re revamping all of our websites right now. I spent a lot of time looking at websites. And that needs my top horsepower, doing that at four o’clock in the afternoon. That got done because I had nothing on the calendar in the morning. In fact, my staff are instructed, no one is allowed to book an appointment before noon without my specific permission.

Jon: Wow. This is so good. Carey, what are some things that you say, you’ve given a couple of examples. One of the things that I do, and I think this will fit in. Part of this is a counseling session for Jon, so I’m not paying you for this.

Carey: And for Carey. So we’re in good company.

Jon: So I’ve been working with a counselor/coach and he’s kind of walked me through some of this. That’s why your book blessed me so much is because it really confirmed a lot in me. So the way that I described the first part of my day, I usually say till about 10 AM is kind of my green zone. And I like to say that’s my content creation zone. I can create. The way my counselor described my second zone, which you would identify as a yellow zone is my managing zone. Manage life, manage your job, manage your teams. Would you say that that’s a fair description?

Carey: That’s very, very similar to the way I would approach it. There’s a lot you can get done in your yellow zone. So I do most of my meetings in my yellow zone. I do my podcast interviews, the managing of my calendar, which as you know in a life like yours and mine takes a lot of time every week, sorting through what engagements I’m going to accept, what I’m not going to accept. I can do that in my yellow zone. And then my red zone is basically for the lowest demand administrative tasks I have. Scanning in some receipts for the accounting people, or getting the last bit out of my inbox, or something like that. Or better yet, go for a workout. That when it’s a good time to go for a walk or something, kind of rejuvenate yourself.

It’s this paradoxical thing that I’m sure you’ve discovered as well, Jon. The less you do, the more you accomplish. It sounds really weird, like the more guarded I become over my calendar.

Jon: I would agree with that.

Carey: The more protective I become of my green zone, the more I accomplish. And so I look at me a couple of decades ago. I was working more hours, and God bless that season of ministry, I don’t look back on it with resentment. People got saved, people are still saved who were saved 20 years ago. It was a good thing. But I was running around a chicken with my head cut off. And if you had said to me, “Carey, you’re going to have the opportunity to impact millions of leaders around the world, and have a podcast, and speak around the world, and fly over a hundred thousand miles a year, and write books, and write a website and write messages,” I’d be like, “Okay, now I’m dead.” Like I don’t know, there’s not more hours in the day.

But ironically, by following those principles and doing what I’m best at, which is content creation, when I’m at my best, in my case in the morning, that’s what moves the needle in my life, I have been able to really do something I thought was impossible before, which is to do less and accomplish more. In fact, what I’m flirting with right now is putting my team this summer on a four-day work week. I’ve done enough research to think that perhaps we can become as productive in four days as we were in five, because a lot of time gets wasted.

Jon: Stolen, yep.

It’s that whole thing. Athletes discover it, right? You have your training time, but then you also have recovery time, and it’s really important. If you go to the gym every single day and you’re lifting way above your category every single day, your body just gets fatigued and it can’t do it anymore. You need recovery, you need sleep, you need diet, you need exercise, all of those things.

Carey: That’s so good.

Jon: So I’m really trying to nerd out. And what I’m discovering is the more margin I create, the more impact we seem to be able to generate.

And to create margin, you have to delegate. There’s things that you did yesterday that you can’t do tomorrow. You’ll be well aware of this, you just had him on your podcast, but I love a teaching, Andy Stanley did years ago Choosing To Cheat. When you’re doing something, you’re cheating something else. And I know it’s out of order, so forgive me because your book goes time, energy, priorities. I’m going to come back to energies.

I want to talk about priorities because I really feel like the priorities is key to all this. It’s such an important conversation. I loved in your book, one of the things that you said was “If you spend most of your time with draining people, you’ll live much of your life feeling drained.” And so this was a big one for me, Carey, and that’s why I want to talk about it because you put a whole chapter to this. I think it was chapter nine maybe.

Carey: Yeah, it is.

Jon: The title of it is, “What to Do When the Wrong People Want Your Attention And the Right People Don’t.” ‘Cause if you’re a pastor, this is your life. The people that you should be spending time with are walking out the back door. The greatest leaders in your church aren’t coming up to you after church. They’re leaving. And the neediest people are coming to rob you of your time and fill up your calendar. So how do you unpack that? How do you eliminate this?

Hey guys, I want to pause the conversation for just a moment to let you know about a really great resource at The King’s University that we are rolling out to you for free. Yes, I said free. It’s called The King’s Collective. It’s simply that. It’s a collection of resources for you, designed for you, for ministry leaders, for people doing the work of the ministry. On it, you’re going to find tons of great resources to encourage you, to equip you, to train you. You’re going to find podcasts like this one, but you’re also going to find other podcasts like the Women in Ministry Leadership Podcast.

You’re going to find articles written by some of our faculty here at The King’s University in our seminary. You’re going to find articles written by friends of the university, church leaders, some of the biggest churches, some of the greatest leaders in America. It is designed for you. We have new things coming out very, very soon to help train your kids’ pastors, to train your youth pastors, to train worship leaders. All free. Yes, it’s 100% free. All you need to do is go to On it, you’ll need to sign up, give us your email address, and then all of these resources will be sent straight to your inbox. It’s a no-brainer, guys. We’re excited. We’re passionate about training you for ministry. Let us be a resource to you. So go to today.

How do you eliminate this?

Carey: I’m so glad you love that chapter. That’s probably my favorite chapter. Nobody ever mentions it, so thank you for giving me permission.

Jon: I love that chapter.

Carey: This is great. Yeah.

Jon: That’s what we need, Carey. We need permission as leaders. So talk about it.

Carey: It’s hard. Let me back this up. So naturally, left to gravitational forces in human nature, you are going to spend most of your time with your bottom performers. So what does that mean? Well, irregardless of the size, regardless I should say the size of your organization, you’re going to deal with the worship leader who’s chronically late, the staff member who’s underperforming the angry person in your church who thinks the music is too loud, you took the wrong stance on issue X, or whatever it happens to be.

And you know how that goes. That’s all inbound. Right? That’s all inbound, and some of it is self-directed too, because with the worship leader who’s always late or the staff member who’s underperforming, you’re like, “Okay, I got to talk to Kevin again.” You talk to your assistant. “Can we get Kevin in here? I need an appointment with him.” “Kevin, you’re just not performing. You’re not hitting your goals. Groups aren’t growing, student ministry isn’t growing,” whatever it is. “We need to pull up your socks.” Somebody said to me, a performance improvement plan. Have you ever seen one work? And it’s like, no, they never work, right? Because you’ve just gotten this guy and then you’re like, “Well, Kevin didn’t pull up his socks last month, so I got to meet with him again this month.” And, “Kevin, all right Kevin, we’re still not hitting our goals here.” And this can go on for months if not years.

And there’s always some new crisis. And this is real stuff. There are people whose marriages are breaking up, whose finances are falling apart, they want to see you. All of that is inbound. And then the stuff that you say, well, if I’m going to be a leader, I got to deal with this.

So I had to really rethink this. And it’s like, you know what? Cut your losses, first of all. That underperforming staff member, team member that you keep meeting with, are your meetings actually making a difference with that person?

Jon: That’s right.

Carey: The chances are 90% of the time the answer is no.

Jon: Yeah.

Carey: Because if they really respond to your coaching, then one meeting made it better, right? It’s like, “Oh, Kevin pulled up his socks and he’s crushing it right now in student ministry or group ministry,” which is great. But the reason we keep meeting with serial underperformers is because they’re not getting any better.

So two things. Number one, it could be they’re not the right person for your organization for that position. Great people, wrong position. Or secondly, you’re not going to be the person who coaches them out of that slump. So if you’re not prepared to terminate, or to move them into new position, perhaps somebody else would be a lot better at coaching them. So there’s that.

And then what about all those inbound people, I call them the frequent flyers, who keep wanting your attention? Someone who’s always in crisis, or there’s always a difficulty. Well, are you a counselor or are you a pastor? Because there’s a difference.

Jon: That’s really good.

Carey: And I just realized, because I did a lot of marriage counseling and personal counseling. First of all, yeah, I’ve spent a bunch of time in university. I’m not a good counselor. I can counsel 4,000 people better than I can counsel four people. So why don’t I just stand on a stage, put on a microphone and counsel that way, and we’ll let the actual trained professionals handle the idiosyncrasies of working with people. You have a counselor. I have a counselor. He is great at what he does, but he’s not going to be able to do my job. So cut that all out. Do you know how much margin that frees up and then how much mental energy that releases?

Because some of your listeners, they look at their calendar, they look at next Tuesday and they see who’s on the calendar and they want to call in sick or dead. It’s like, “I don’t want to meet with this person and this person and this person.” And that’s like week after week. So just cut that stuff out. You’re either not helping them, you need to cut your losses, or you need to refer them to professionals. So that frees up time.

Jon: Yeah.

Carey: Now who should you be meeting with? You should be meeting with your top staff, with your top donors, with your top volunteers. How do you feel when you leave meetings with people like that? You feel fantastic.

Jon: Energized.

Carey: And they feel fantastic. They’re like, “Jon, I can’t thank you enough for this lunch. Man, this meant the world to me.” And then what do you see those guys do? They lean in even harder because they’re so excited to be with you. Your top donors will give more. Your top volunteers will have a bounce in their step. They’ll recruit some other people. You create a much healthier culture.

And then realize that you’ve got probably a maximum number of slots per week that you can fill, but fill them with the right people, not the wrong people. And the one caveat I would say, because I’ve floated this theory before and gotten some pushback, is people would say, “Well, doesn’t that seem elitist or exclusive?” Sure. It does. I don’t feel bad about it, but if you feel bad about it, okay, I get it. Here’s what you do. You put one or two slots in your calendar every month that you just say they’re available to anybody.

Jon: I’m available in three weeks. Yeah.

Carey: Yeah. Every couple of weeks you have a Thursday afternoon slot and you get the person who’s complaining about the volume of the music, or the underperforming person. If you’re like, “I got to make space for everybody,” you limit it.

Jon: That’s really good.

Carey: Because the problem is, right, if you give way to one frequent flyer, chronic complainer, he tells all of his friends and then you’ve got 10 who want to see you. And then you eventually say, “You know what? I’d love to meet with you. My next slot is the third week of June. How does that work for you?”

Jon: Exactly. That’s exactly right.

Carey: How does that work for you?

Jon: Yep. That’s really good advice. And I think for me it is always this wrestling match. I pastor what would be deemed technically a megachurch. And so the temptation for pastors sometimes is, I don’t want to be a green room pastor. I don’t want to be that guy. But at the same time, every time I walk out in the lobby, every time I’m anywhere in the church, I’m bombarded. I’m bombarded by the 80/20. I know your book goes into the 80/20. You’re spending 80% of your time with the people that you would rather not spend time with, and 20% with the ones that could really add value.

Carey: So can we walk through that a little bit?

Jon: Yes.

Carey: Let’s get some coaching/counseling here. So number one, are you in the lobby alone?

Jon: No.

Carey: Your assistant is with you?

Jon: I have, I guess you’d call it a security/assistant/whatever you want to call it. I’m not alone.

Carey: Does he or she have a speaking role?

Jon: No.

Carey: Okay. What you can do, get someone with a speaking role. It’s okay to have your security detail, I get it. I get that culture. But have an assistant, or an associate, or somebody with you who can kind of call time. Because I hate being the person and also the bad guy. So it happens to me mostly these days at conferences where everybody wants to meet with you and you’re in town once. Have somebody with you and then they’re like, “Oh man, Jon’s really enjoying this conversation, but he’s got to get ready for the next service. So thank you.” So if you get that one person who wants 20 minutes of your time right there.

Second hack you have is if somebody wants to meet with you just say, “I’ll tell you what to do, shoot me an email,” and then give them, if you have a public-private email, give them your public email. Number one, 70% of people will never email you.

Jon: I was just about to say that. I use that tactic, and 70% of people never, ever send it.

Carey: And then if they do a meeting with you may not be the best way to resolve their problem. Maybe the best way to resolve their problem is to refer to somebody else or to say, “Hey, it sounds like you need counseling.” And if you have a staff in a larger church like yours, perhaps your assistant can handle that.

And then the third thing you can do, because I think you’re right, if you’re the green room pastor, it’s like, oh, nobody ever sees him or touches him or whatever. You want to get out there and I want to get out there. You smile and you sort of calibrate people for two minute interactions. You can do five people in 10 minutes then. And the socially adept people will pick up that there’s a line of people, they’re not the only person in the lobby. And that way you might be able to see half a dozen to a dozen people on a Sunday who want to see you or shake their hand. And the other thing that we have done… Go ahead.

Jon: Yeah, no, no, no. Go ahead. I interrupted you.

Carey: You could set up, and pastors have done this, and I’ve done it at different seasons as well, is say, “I’m going to be in the lobby to meet new people. So if you’re new or you brought a friend, maybe you’re a regular attender here, but you brought a friend and you want to introduce me to your friend, I’ll be in the lobby at this point.”

Jon: I love that.

Carey: And that way when people come up and they’re like, “Oh, I got all these problems in my life, pastor,” you’re like, “You know what? I am so sorry. Please shoot me an email. I’m here to meet new people just as we announced this morning.”

Jon: Yeah, that’s cool.

Carey: “So if you got a new person, bring them along.”

Jon: I love that. I’ll tell you another thing that I’ve found that’s very useful and successful for pastors that may be listening. I’ve found that if I will stand right in the door frame of the exit and I stay right under the threshold, there’s so many people moving through that to stop me or pull me to the side causes them to be trampled by the crowd. So they won’t stop. They just shake and go, shake and go, shake and go. And then if somebody says, “I need to talk to you,” I can say, “I’m trying to greet all these people, could you just step off to the side and then I’ll come and speak to you in just a minute,” where a staff member may be able to talk to them.

So I’ll tell you though, Carey, real quick, and then I want to keep talking about some of this. But I think at the heart of me, if I can be very vulnerable, and I think there’s a lot of pastors that probably if they did enough analysis, this would be one of the root problems to this whole area of priority. I preached a sermon on it several months ago. I preached a sermon called “Help, I’m a People Pleaser.”

And really at the core of it, if we really analyze ourselves as pastors, the reason we find that we spend the wrong amount of time with the wrong people is because we are people pleasers. We think we have to please everyone. And it goes back to saying no. Well, how do I say no? Because if I say no, then they’re going to think this and they’re going to say this about me. So we’re driven by what people may or may not think about us. So that ends up driving our priorities, which ends up robbing us of our time, which ends up robbing us of our energy, which ends up us living an unfulfilled non-thriving life.

It’s like a sequence. It’s almost like a pattern. It just feeds off of each other. Do you think there’s something to that with pastors?

Carey: Oh yeah, yeah. And I’m a recovering people pleaser as well. I mean you’re either a people pleaser or a psychopath, I don’t know. So I think I’d rather be a people pleaser, but I’m in recovery of that.

And then the other challenge you have, and you’ve had this, I’ve had this, is when your brain starts to melt. I don’t know whether you’ve found that in leading your church, but I was good up to about 600 people. Knew everybody’s name, knew their spouse’s name, and then my brain started to melt a little bit. And then once we get past a thousand, it was like…

Jon: It’s impossible.

Carey: Yeah, it’s impossible. And you actually are not designed to care for that many people. If you look at it historically and sociologically, the average person has a span of care about 150 to 200 people.

Jon: Yes. This is such an important part of the book. Talk about that real quick.

Carey: Yeah. Dunbar’s number. So Robin Dunbar is a British evolutionary psychologist who’s studied really anthropology over the centuries. And if you really look at how everything, and he actually quotes, even though he is not a person of faith, he quotes the way Jesus modeled his disciples. We know from the gospels that Jesus had hundreds of disciples, but we know that they were numbered into groups of 70, which we know almost nothing about the 70 other than he sent them out. Right?

But then we know a lot about his group of 12. And within that group of 12 he had a group of three. And then within that three he had one, Peter, that he really poured everything into. And whether that was the size of Jesus disciples, very small relational, you can have impact. And those 12, or 11 after Judas, people changed the world. Literally, we are here because of the impact of those three years that Jesus spent with those 12 people. It changed the world.

And if you look at the way Rome and ancient armies designed their military, you might have tens of thousands of soldiers, but they’re in different squadrons and troops and everything. And it breaks down to under 200, and then a smaller group of 20. If you look at how most people lived, the vast majority of humanity have lived in villages of about 200 people now for thousands and thousands of years. There’s just something about, it’s enough people to have a crowd and small enough that everyone is knowable. And you might not be best friends with the blacksmith, but you at least know, oh yeah, that’s John the blacksmith up the road. Or Rosa makes the best pies or whatever she does in particular in a traditional society.

So you end up with a really knowable thing and then the 20th century hits and the 21st century hits and suddenly you have millions of followers or thousands of people who go to your church. And it does really rewire your brain. And so what I had to figure out was, okay, I don’t need to build a church where I know everybody. What I need to do is I need to create a church where everyone is known. Because people don’t want a relationship with you as much as they want a relationship with somebody.

Jon: That’s good.

Carey: And so the goal was to organize it then through small groups and serving teams in a way that everybody had a circle of care around them that was probably no more than a dozen people who would be there with them for pastoral care and for support in crisis.

And so I always felt good, and I would tell people, “Listen, here’s how we care for people. I can’t be your pastor. I just can’t do that. There’s too many people.” And emotionally intelligent people understand that.

Jon: They do, yeah.

Carey: Other people don’t always. Right?

Jon: Yeah.

Carey: So what I would say is the way to get cared for here is to be in a group or to serve. Ideally you would do both. And if you do that, you won’t have any problems with care. Now, if people opt out of that, it is not my job to rescue them. It’s not my job to rescue them. It’s like, here’s how we do it at our church. I would love for you to be involved in that. It’s open to everybody. And the healthy people did that.

So I think we can let ourselves off the hook. And if you think it’s in scripture, again, go into the New Testament, Acts, chapter six. What happens? Well, the disciples, now apostles, are overwhelmed with the day-to-day running of a growing church. And that’s where they decide, okay, we’re going to find some people. We’re going to appoint them to do the daily apportionment of food so that we can devote ourselves to what? To teaching and to prayer, to teaching and to prayer, to teaching and to prayer.

Jon: To their gift.

Carey: When they did that, the church grew again.

Jon: That’s really good. So I want to honor your time, but we skipped a step in this that I want to circle back around. So we talked about time. We talked about priorities. I want to circle back and talk about energy because I think this is an important piece of this puzzle. I tell you, Carey, before I cracked your book, I turned it around on the back and I’m reading the back cover and it says this statement that really caught my attention, and I want you to unpack. It says, “Discover why vacations and sabbaticals don’t really solve your problems.” And I totally know where you’re going with this and it’s so good and it’s so important and needed because I think some people would say vacations is the key. Right? And then some people would say, yeah, maybe vacation’s not the key, but if you’ll just do a sabbatical. I think that’s the real eye popper one in this statement is that even sabbaticals may not solve your problem. It’s an energy issue which comes from other issues. So unpack that a little bit.

Carey: How many pastors do you know who took a three to six month sabbatical and six months later left their position? I know so many stories like that, and I began to wonder. First I thought sabbaticals don’t work and then I’m like no sabbaticals are gift, actually. But you know what it is, Jon? Most people run dead tired into vacations. They run dead tired into sabbaticals. And then most of us know how to sabbatical and we know how to vacation. I just got back from a wonderful time in Europe with my family, with my wife, our kids, my parents. It was amazing. It was very restorative. But by 11 AM on the first Monday back, if you don’t have a sustainable pace, a lot of us feel like we got hit by the bus.

So the principal is simply this. Time off won’t heal you because the problem is how you spend your time on. And I think a lot of us really know how to vacation. We know how to lie on a hammock for two weeks and do nothing. Even if you can pry yourself away from email and social media and everything like that, we’re getting better at that. But then you get back to this fundamentally unsustainable pace where you’re exhausted every day and you’re like, “I can’t do this anymore.” And if you got a vacation every other week, maybe you could do that.

Jon: You take sabbatical every month.

Carey: Yeah. So the cure for an unsustainable pace is not a vacation or a sabbatical. The cure for an unsustainable pace is to create a sustainable pace. Hence everything else that we’ve been talking about in this interview. It’s like, are you getting enough sleep at night? Have you got a system for pastoral care? Have you cut the chronic non-performers and the chronic complainers out of your calendar? I teach that at the end of the book, do you know the maximum number of meetings that you can have in a week? And if not, that’s easy to find out. But once you know your number, it’s like, all right, you tell your team around you or tell yourself if you schedule your own calendar, I can do between 10 and 15 meetings or commitments a week and that’s all I can do, to do it optimally.

And you figure out your green zone and you start doing what you’re best at when you’re at your best. And that’s when you create a sustainable pace. And what’s been a joy for me is most times, not all the time, but most of the last decade, and increasingly as I work this system, I go into my holidays rested. It’s amazing, right?

Jon: That’s so good.

Carey: Because there’s that old adage, it’s like, “Oh yeah, it took me three days to unwind then unwind two days where I actually relaxed and then I got wound back up to go back to work. So, so much for my vacation.”


I’ve heard that a million times.

Carey: So there’s this idea baseline. So maybe we can close on this. I call your baseline. When I burned out, I was running in the red like 6,000, 7,000 RPMs for a decade and my body just quit. And then when I burned out, I was so tired. I spent August of 2006 asleep pretty much. I was just tired. And it’s like I had to pay off all the sleep debt. And at that point I’m like, okay, I can’t live at this pace forever.

But what I’ve been discovering and what I’ve been experimenting with now for over a decade is on those really restful breaks, I’ve taken July off a few times, what do I feel like when I’m really, really rested? And at first my goal was can I get back there once or twice a year? Now my goal is can I get there every week? Because Tuesday was a little crazy. Yeah, Wednesday was busy, but I got some sleep. And you know you’re burning out when sleep and rest don’t refuel you.

But if you have a sustainable pace, getting eight hours sleep, getting your workout in, relaxing, you should be able to find that baseline, that baseline of peace and rest and joy on a weekly basis. I think in the Old Testament, they used to call that Sabbath. That’s what you were supposed to do, and we’ve lost it. We’ve lost the plot. We’ve lost the rhythm of the storyline.

Jon: The Sabbath, yep.

Carey: And so I try to get back there every week now.

Jon: Wow. Carey, I can’t tell you how thankful I am that you wrote this book, for me, but also just for leaders everywhere. And I just wanted to pause and tell you thank you for doing what you do. You took a big leap. You went out on your own, started a podcast. Someday I want to hear that story. Someday I want to hear how the Lord led you to do what you did, because I know that wasn’t an easy leap. You took a lot of big faith steps.

And so I just want to say thank you for doing what you do. Your podcast ministers to me, your ministry ministers to me, and so many. So thank you for taking that step and being so impactful to the body of Christ and just leaders everywhere.

Carey: Well, that means the world to me. Thank you so much for saying that, Jon. And it’s a joy. You know what? And I would just say the nutshell answer to that is take a few risks. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I had no idea how any of this is going to turn out, but you know what? You take a step, you try something, and you’ll never know where you end up.

Jon: Guys, thank you so much for tuning in today. This is Carey’s book. You need to go get Carey’s book. It’s on Amazon. You can get the digital version, audio version. Check out this book. My Canadian friend, Carey Nieuwhof, appreciate you so much. Carey, thanks for being on the show and we love you.

Carey: Thanks Jon. So appreciate it.

Jon: Well, if you’re watching the show, again, please share this podcast. It’ll administer to a leader that you know. Share the podcast. Check out what we’re doing. Go to our website We’d love to have you see all of our resources, all of our articles and things like that, that we’re punching out here at The King’s University. Until next time, thanks for watching and have a great day.

Church InTension
Church InTension
The Church InTension podcast is a place to have healthy conversations about areas of tension and the intentions of the Church. Hosted by Dr. Jon Chasteen and powered by The King's University and Gateway Church.