The Germans call it an ‘Aha-Erlebnis’, the moment a certain truth or insight hits you. It’s that moment when all of a sudden something makes sense and you ‘get it’. I had such an Aha-Erlebnis at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit a couple of years ago listening to Hawaiian pastor Wayne Cordeiro speaking on ‘Leading on Empty’. He was talking about his burnout and the factors leading to it. And what he was saying about the absolute necessity of ‘filling up your tank’ before it’s empty, connected with me.
The concept of the tank
Your ‘tank’ is your energy and your passion for what you do in youth ministry. A full tank is what keeps you going at full force, with all your creative juices flowing and your heart on fire. But everything you do costs you energy, some things more than others and they empty your tank slowly. So like the gas tank of a car, your tank of energy needs filling up. If you keep going without taking the time to fill up your tank, you’ll end up leading on empty. Once that meter hits ‘E’ and the red light starts blinking, you’ll be too late.
Cordeiro used this analogy to explain his burnout, which happened complete unexpectedly, though in hindsight there were signals. He had been leading on empty for some time, before he crashed and experienced a severe burnout. Ever since, he’s made changes to his life to ensure it won’t happen again. One of those changes is that he consciously limits things that empty his tank and gives priority to things that fill up his tank.
What empties your tank?
What empties your tank? What are those things you do that really drain your energy? Maybe it’s the administrative tasks that come with the territory of being in youth ministry. Or maybe it’s pastoral conversations or visits to the high school or leading small group. How to know? It’s those things that make you tired, frustrated, or angry.
For me, it was meetings, especially those I had to attend but didn’t lead myself. I’d never been big on meetings, but when I started leading our youth ministry, I came to dread them. They were long, boring, often completely useless and they took up so much time that I could use far better otherwise. I always came home frustrated and exhausted from meetings like that. They were emptying my tank.
What empties your tank? Take some time to list those activities that frustrate you, wear you out or plain scare you. It’s okay to admit not loving everything about youth ministry and these insights will help you guard your health, spiritually, mentally and physically.
What fills your tank?
After that Leadership Summit, I took the time to list all those things that were emptying my tank. But I also made an effort to come up with things that fill my tank. These can be things you do in youth ministry (for me preaching is one of those things that fill my tank because I get so much joy and satisfaction out of it), but also non-youth ministry related stuff. Just ask yourself the simple question ‘what makes you feel better, more energized?’.
I know what fills my tank. Reading is the most important thing for me, followed by solitude, doing Bible study, watching TV series and taking a trip or vacation with my family. Before taking time to think about this, I knew reading was important to me, but I hadn’t quite realized how crucially important solitude was for me. I love hanging out with people, especially teens and our house is always open. We often have friends over fro dinner and now that we’ve moved abroad, friends will often come over for an entire weekend or even longer. I love that. But in order to stay sane, to keep my tank full, I need a few uninterrupted hours of solitude each week.
What fills your tank? What are those activities that make you happy, give you energy? It could be playing with your kids (I saw an interview Andy Stanley had with Rick Warren recently where Rick explained how playing with his kids reenergized him when they were younger), going out for a run, or watching a movie. It could be date night with your spouse, an evening with friends, or painting.
Keep your tank full
If you want to prevent leading on empty, you have to make sure your tank stays full. Take the time to do things that will fill up your tank, make them a priority and reserve time for these on your weekly schedule. Whenever possible, limit those things that empty it fast.
Grasping the truth of this concept was my Aha-Erlebnis that Leadership Summit and I’ve never forgotten it. I knew that with my type-A personality, I was at severe risk for burnout in the long run. It was a lesson I needed to hear and I’m grateful for Cordeiro sharing his wisdom with others. You can be sure I’m doing everything I can to keep my tank full.
Do you recognize the risk of ‘leading on empty’? What are you doing to prevent it? Does the concept of a full or empty tank make sense to you?