Five Gears to Avoid Pastoral Burnout

Five Gears to Avoid Pastoral Burnout

How do we ensure that our work gets done and that we spend the time we need to with our loved ones? Here’s a tool that can help us to avoid pastoral burnout.

Burnout has been identified as a common threat in the modern workplace. It is especially dangerous to church workers.1 Our hours are long, the work is never done, and progress can seem very slow. The pressures are incessant – Sundays come around regularly and very fast, don't they?

Many church workers soldier faithfully on – a good thing. But it can wear the best down. We have to pace ourselves for the long haul, and one way of doing this is to develop good working practices.

One resource that has helped me is the book, Five Gears, coming from the same stable as the useful, Five Voices2. Whereas Five Voices deals with differing styles of working in a team, Five Gears looks at how individuals can make changes to develop self-understanding and good working patterns. Using the metaphor of a car’s gears, they suggest the different stages you may be in when you go through a working day or a working week.

Let’s take them one at a time.

1st Gear: Refresh

You need times when you are quiet, can rest, get re-energised and replenish. First gear doesn't appear to get you far or fast. But unless you slip into first gear now and then, you'll get over-fatigued.

Being in first gear will vary for different people. Some find ‘a closed door and time alone with our Father’ (Matt 6:6) the best way to refresh body and spirit. Other practices will help too – swimming, walking, running, reading a good book, developing a hobby.

What practices can help you to have downtime and recharge your batteries? Are you ever in first gear? You may not want to stay there overly long, but we all know that starting your car in 3rd or 4th isn't really that successful!

2nd Gear: Intimate

This is when you are ‘with’ others, but it’s not part of your pastoral ministry. For church workers, this is mostly experienced in a family setting.

It’s when you are present with your spouse, and they know it. It means mobile phones and the television aren't taking your attention, emails are banished, clock-watching isn't ruining conversations, and children know that daddy or mummy is there for them. It is when you go deep: sharing your hopes, dreams, fears, and joys.

For single people this may be experienced by having friendships where you can relax, share, natter, and ask for help. Developing these friendships outside of a work setting is important and necessary.

3rd Gear: Social

These are the friends you may eat and drink with. Those you play sport with, visit the cinema with, perhaps holiday with. It still might be family, but it’s wider than just the nuclear family and it's not as deep as second gear.

Churches may be a difficult place to develop these friendships. Although the Lord Jesus had an inner circle within the Twelve (Peter, James and John) it can be difficult for leaders to do this in churches. If a senior leader appears to have his favourites, a select few who have privileged access to power, some may question whether his judgement on issues may be swayed by his social friendships.

Indeed, Peter Scazzero in The Emotionally Healthy Leader suggests it can be very difficult to both be ‘boss’ and ‘best friend’ to close colleagues3. He learnt the hard way that carrying out both roles – getting workers to do a good job, correcting them when necessary, and being relaxed and fun to be with – were compromised.

I have discussed this with several senior leaders. They have reported problems when trying to address serious work difficulties with colleagues they were leading. Their colleagues, who thought that friendship was the basis of the relationship, found such conversations hurtful. The leader or supervisor felt uncomfortable in having to speak in this way, so everyone was left dissatisfied.

Because of this, some leaders, especially if they are introverts, retreat into leadership isolation. ‘Billy no mates’ may be an exaggerated description, but it may be closer to the truth than many leaders would like to admit.

Developing good friendships in a church needs discretion, wisdom, and perhaps caution. But it’s necessary. We are human beings, Christian believers in the family of God, and we were made for relationships. Think back to C.S. Lewis’ great work, The Four Loves4. There is sexual love - eros - a wonderful gift in marriage. There is affection - storge - family ties. There is charity - agape – an undeserved love shown to all, the love ‘which covers over a multitude of sins’ (1 Pet 4:8). But there is also friendship - phileo – brotherly, friendship love. The kind of love that is seen when friends cheer on a favourite team, discuss items on the news, laugh at a comedic moment, stand in awe together at a stirring view, or enjoy a hobby in which they are engrossed.

Boundaries have to be carefully observed. Phileo amongst friends has to be guarded against the power of eros in someone's heart. Social friendship must not be allowed to blend into an inappropriate intimacy; this is a big danger in church because the nature of the work draws people together.

4th Gear: Productive

This is the carrying out of the many tasks, and energetically tackling the many responsibilities on our ‘To Do’ list. It is productive mode, even the creative gear. Ideas result in action, achievement, and effectiveness.

What follows is the feeling of reward – a good job well done. You sense that you have done something worthwhile today, this week, or this year. The body and mind are tired, but happy.

The authors comment that some workers who should be in 4th gear love to get into 3rd gear around a coffee machine more often than they should. For them talking is relaxing rather than developing action points. They seem to have too much time and inclination to be in social mode, and therefore little gets done.

5th Gear: In the Zone

No longer multitasking, this is where you really focus, utilising your strongest skills to motor forward.

For some this may be writing, or reading a tough long book, or constructing a good talk, or grappling with a very complex Bible passage, or leading a productive leadership time.

In this gear, time goes fast, energy levels are strong, productivity is high. Cruise control.

Reverse Gear: Apology

The authors also highlight the importance of getting into reverse gear sometimes. This is the apology gear and there are two kinds.

The first kind is the ‘confession of sin and a request for forgiveness to those who have been affected’ type. It is important to understand the dynamic here: one confesses in the circle one sins in.

If I have sinned in my thought life – jealousy, pride, covetousness, or lust – then I confess to God and can be assured of his grace and justice (1 John 1:9). But if I am unkind to my wife, I will also ask for her forgiveness. And no excuses, for what I did was wrong and needs confession. If I am nasty to her in front of the children, I will also need to ask their forgiveness too.

How many dads, even when they have completely lost it, have confessed and asked for forgiveness from those that they have hurt? Saying ‘sorry’ falls far short of owning up to the sin.

In the world of messed-up sinners, there will be times when we leaders ask for forgiveness. See 1 Tim 5:20: elders who sin and, we trust, ask for forgiveness are shown forgiveness.

But there is another kind of apology, it's when leaders make a mistake, exercise poor judgement, or make a hasty and costly decision that could have been wiser. There is no sin implied here, nothing immoral to confess. But perhaps a lack of wisdom, poor communication, or a lack of consultation has left people feeling confused or frustrated.

Paul and Barnabas at one time had a serious disagreement about a wisdom decision (Acts 15:38, 39). Leadership decisions aren't always easy ones. We may look back in hindsight and see we have made poor calls.

At this point, too many leaders and their teams act as if they have no weaknesses and don't make poor decisions. It does their credibility and integrity no good if they don't admit it, and say, ‘We are sorry, we have been too hasty, or too slow, or too indecisive over this issue’.

Sometimes we try things, they don't work out, and we have to try again. Success is not a smooth upward line, but a series of times when we as individuals or churches have to pick ourselves up after setbacks5.

There is no shame at all in sharing your weaknesses, or confusion, or lack of clarity. Admitting what others already know usually helps build confidence, not diminish it. It just takes vulnerability and courage to put things in reverse gear, take a backwards path, in order to go forwards once again.

Don't neglect reverse gear!

The Dangerous Gear

The biggest challenge the authors identify for church workers is getting into 4th gear and staying in it for far too long. As a driver, being in 4th gear when you should be in 2nd doesn't contribute to a good driving experience.

Too many spouses worry that ‘his work is always on his mind’. Too many busy people are stuck in work mode. The buzz you get from achieving something can act like an addictive drug, keeping you in it when you should've changed down the gears. In the end, you are just drained.

Longer hours don't lead to greater productivity, just tiredness, and a missing out of the rich experiences that come from being in 2nd/intimate gear6. If you are a ministry or staff worker’s spouse remember to be wise in your conversations. Asking about what has happened at work may just make them feel as if you are keeping them in work mode/4th gear even as they are trying to get into 3rd/social, or 2nd/intimate with you.

Of course, they will appreciate you ‘debriefing them’, or sharing the highs and lows of a day, but it needs grace and wisdom. And if you are a church worker, beware of treating your spouse or children as ‘just another appointment in the busy day’. Make sure you get into 2nd gear and out of 4th.


Ultimately, Five Gears is a tool to help you gain better emotional intelligence, to help you to understand and manage yourself better. Many have found this type of thing really helpful, especially if those closest to them share the understanding, and even the vocabulary, so that you help one another make smooth gear changes and go better along life's journey.

1 Christopher Ash, Zeal without Burnout: Seven keys to a lifelong ministry of sustainable sacrifice (The Good Book Company, 2016)

2 Jeremie Kubicek and Steve Cockram, Five Gears: How to be Present and Productive when there is never enough time (John Wiley and Sons, 2015), Ibid, Five Voices: How to Communicate Effectively with Everyone You Lead (John Wiley and Sons, 2016)

3 Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader (Zondervan, 2015)

4 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (Geoffrey Bles, 1960)

5 Angela Duckworth, Grit: Why Passion and Resilience are the Secrets to Success (Vermilion, 2017). This is a superb encouragement to those who have ‘to plod’ (William Carey’s self-description) as many of us do!

6 Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last (Portfolio Penguin, 2014)

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