Book Review: Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion, by Wayne Cordeiro

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Lillian C. Smith, Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference

This book is an essential read for any pastor, especially those who often forgo taking a day off a week or going on an annual vacation. It is a must-read for those of us who teeter on the verge of a meltdown—spiritual, physical, or otherwise. Truth be told, many colleagues in ministry, myself included, often push themselves to the brink in order to be in ministry. We want to be faithful, successful, often at the expense of ourselves and family.

As you prepare to read this wonderful book, clergy sisters, be forewarned. This book is written for clergy. It reads, though, as if all clergy are male. Although women Christian leaders are quoted, this book is not written to address female clergy, nor does it highlight any of the particularities of ministry by women with families. Nonetheless, the nuggets of divine wisdom gleaned through experience are applicable for clergywomen of various life experiences—single, widowed, or married with children.

Cordeiro shared sage wisdom given to him: “If you wait until you’re thirsty to take a drink, it’s too late. Your body is already into dehydration.”

The book’s author, Wayne Cordeiro, founded and serves as the senior pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in Honolulu, Hawaii. The congregation he serves is one of the fastest-growing churches in the U.S. Additionally, he has helped plant more than 100 churches in the Pacific Rim. Working and living in overload was the norm for him. Like most “type A” personalities, he was driven to being successful and doing it all. The challenge in doing it all is when the relationship with God and family suffer because of the doing. In his experience, doing ministry, on God’s behalf, superseded and often replaced being in God’s presence. In this book he recounts his own experience with spiritual burnout, which he identifies as “leading on empty.”

The symptoms for “leading on empty” can be undisclosed for some time. Ministry still goes on, nonstop. The life of the pastor goes on, seemingly without problems. Yet under the surface, the ache of the soul grows, as Cordeiro describes it, and life becomes unbearable. The tsunami of the soul does hit the surface, and everything comes to a screeching halt. The book provides the warning symptoms of depression and provides insight to help people locate a spiritual therapist or mentor and ways to get back to a level of spiritual balance.

Cordeiro shared sage wisdom given to him: “If you wait until you’re thirsty to take a drink, it’s too late. Your body is already into dehydration.” Spiritual dehydration results when the busyness of ministry supersedes the hydrating of our spiritual, emotional, and physical lives, and even if we choose to defer replenishing our spiritual well for ministry, we will suffer consequences that will affect our families, congregations or ministries, and lives. Numerous pastors wrote about their pain in this book.

Throughout the book, Cordeiro stresses the importance of making time for his spouse, children, and grandchildren, as well as for doing things that feed his soul. It is those things for which God will hold him responsible. He contends that those things are what only he can do.

Female clergy, many who struggle with the contending issues of being a woman, mother, as well as spouse and pastor, know well the trappings of trying to do it all. I personally appreciated the reminder, no matter how hard you work, that work never gets done.  That nugget is a no-brainer, but the rigors of ministry drive many of us, myself, included, to try to accomplish everything before taking needed time off for self and family.

Cordeiro encourages all pastors to be intentional about self-care and spiritual renewal. Regular observance of the Sabbath, monthly personal retreat days, and regularly observed three-month renewal leaves are all part of his recommendations for every pastor. Not only does he suggest ways to refuel spiritually; he proposes ways to adequately prepare for them. Additionally, he provides insight on how to maintain the intentional lifestyle and deal with the “haters” who will have problems with your new pace of life.

The book is practical and utilitarian. The author provides space for the reader to identify things he/she enjoys doing, set goals, and learn how to steward his/her time. His heart for helping clergy who find themselves in similar situations is evident. He knows well that clergy struggle with nonstop pressure and ministry load and understands that the reality can be debilitating and result in depression. In the book he highlights his learning and insight into his journey out of the darkness, including time at a Catholic monastery, where he couldn’t talk, and working with spiritual mentors.

In the appendix the reader will find resources on how to find a retreat center, or Christian counselors, as well as additional books for the journey. I highly recommend reading this book. It spoke to my soul and provided insight so that I could prevent my spiritual fuel tank from going to empty.

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