Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Leading on Empty (Review)

Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion by Wayne Cordeiro. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009. 202 pages. Reviewed by C. Walter Overman. 

After more than thirty years of successful ministry, Cordeiro’s vision for the church was barren. His heart for helping others had turned cold. He was unmotivated. He was hurting emotionally, and physically. Despite all the warning signs of burnout and depression, Cordeiro continued leading his church and a number of other ministries to the detriment of his well-being. Leading on Empty chronicles Cordeiro’s journey from burnout to restoration; from depression to joy; from leading on empty to leading with purpose and vitality. He writes to encourage leaders to build disciplines into their lives that will prevent burnout, and to those already ensnared by burnout, he offers practical steps to help regain a zeal for life and ministry.

The book retraces Cordeiro’s first encounters with signs of fatigue that eventually led to his weeklong stay at a California monastery. During his week of solitude, he rediscovered God’s calling and plan for his life. God called him to shepherd, and to teach and preach God’s Word. In the weeks, months and years that followed Cordeiro slowly reorganized his life around this purpose, resolving to live intentionally toward that which matters most—what he calls the most important five percent. “Five percent of what we do only we can do. No one else can do it. The crucial five percent is what God will one day hold us accountable for” (p. 79).

Intentional living allows Cordeiro to strike the right balance between that which drains his spiritual and physical tanks and that which fills them. The overarching key to this approach is regular intervals of rest (sabbaticals), which serve as times of assessment and provide opportunities to refill his spiritual and physical reservoirs. Cordeiro argues that those who seek intentional rest will forgo the all-too common troubles that he and many others have endured. “It seems more permissible [in the church] if the time off is due to a breakdown rather than to the wisdom of avoiding [a breakdown]. I experienced that. You won’t need to” (p.165). 

Critique and Application 
Leading on Empty is replete with tips for identifying signs of depression and burnout, learned from both personal experiences and professional resources specializing in depression. Importantly, it includes Christ-centered strategies for avoiding and overcoming such pitfalls. Readers also learn to identify their “most important five percent” and activities that fill and drain their spiritual and physical reservoirs. There is no shortage of practical advice in this book.

Most refreshing, however, is the way Cordeiro approaches depression theologically. He is right to debunk the notion that Christians struggling with depression are less spiritual than others (p.44). Equally important is how Cordeiro encourages the reader to confront the underlying issues contributing to depression rather than exclusively medicating the symptoms (p.55). Finally, Cordeiro gets it right—theologically and practically—when he encourages pastors to view their depression as a “positive challenge” to draw closer to God (p.109).

In sum, Cordeiro demonstrates the challenges church leaders face in replenishing their fuel for ministry while providing a feasible trajectory for how to accomplish this task. Thoroughly practical and theologically balanced, Leading on Empty is a valuable tool for both current and future church leaders. Those who read this book will better equip themselves to remain effective in their God-given assignments.

Having dealt with depression in the past, the primary application is learning to recognize signs of depression, and resolving to treat the symptoms head-on. Secondly, Cordeiro’s insistence upon regular periods of rest is sound practical and theological advice. Unfortunately, the church has largely neglected the Sabbath despite its theological underpinning and practical value. As Cordeiro says, “Sabbaths and sabbaticals are…designed to increase our fruitfulness and deepen our faith …” (p.184). All would do well to heed Cordeiro’s advice on this point. Those who do will go a long way toward avoiding burnout or something worse—depression.

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