I’ve discovered that I need to lead myself well before I attempt to lead others. In my coaching I share with clients that it’s important to stay healthy and strong in key areas of your life. You will not lead well if you are always on the verge of burnout and poor health.  Cary Nieuwhof shares 5 core essentials far too many Christian leaders stupidly sacrifice.

Originally posted by Carey Nieuwhof

So you’re wondering how you’re going to make it in the long run in leadership. Or maybe you’re wondering how you’re simply going to make it to Friday.

Leading yourself well in key areas

I get that. Leadership is hard. But sometimes it’s not nearly as hard as we make it out to be.

Almost every day, I get questions from leaders who are burning out. Some of the most read posts I’ve written have to do with burnout (you can access most of them directly through this post).

In addition, I hear daily from leaders who may not be burning out but who are just tired.

On the other side of my burnout (which happened 11 years ago), I’ve learned there are 5 leadership essentials that sound so basic yet have become non-negotiable for me.

When I pay attention to these 5, it levels the leadership playing field for me. When I cheat them, my life gets out of rhythm fast and my effectiveness in leadership, as a husband and as a human being drops.

What’s strange to me is that so many leaders I know cheat these five basics. It’s like they think the law of gravity doesn’t apply to them.

And I’m not just talking mega-church leaders. I’m talking leaders of churches of 50 or 100 or 200. They cheat these core essentials regularly, and often feel exhausted as a result.

Ironically, many large church pastors I know handle these five essentials better than small church pastors, which is perhaps why they can lead more effectively.

I’m not slamming small church pastors at all. I’m just saying if you cheat these, you pay.

And it’s not just you who pays. So does your family, your church and everyone influenced by you.

So what are these 5 core essentials? They’re so basic you’ll say “well, of course.” And yet, you’ll immediately recognize how easy each is to cheat.

They’re all related to self-care. Sadly, in the name of caring for others, many leaders neglect to care for themselves. And that’s a mistake.


It’s ironic that one of the first casualties of ministry is the leader’s spiritual life.

I get it. Prayer can be confusing once you’re in ministry. After all, what do you pray for?

You want to pray for your church, but sometimes it’s easy to make that all you pray for.

A few years ago I asked my staff team this question: if you were done in ministry tomorrow, what would be left of your faith?

That’s a sobering question. If you couldn’t pray about work or leadership, what would you pray about?

You got into ministry because you knew you loved Jesus and he loved you. That hasn’t changed.

Even ten minutes of prayer a day can make a huge difference in your life as a leader.

If you find yourself stuck in prayer, get help. I find it helpful to practice prayer in a tradition that is different from mine.

For the last six months on many mornings, I’ve used the prayers written for the Daily Office From the Mission of St. Clare to springboard my own prayers. It forces me to think differently about prayer and to pray about things I wouldn’t normally pray about.

How you pray is less important than the fact that you pray. So pray.

If you tried to build a marriage or friendship on zero communication, it would fail.

God has more love, power and strength in a single breath than you have in your entire being over a life time.

Ministry is a divine partnership. Prayer is fuel for life.

Even when you’re not ‘feeling it,’ pray. God misses you. And you miss him.


I told you this list was basic.

Too many Christian leaders also sacrifice the personal reading of scripture.

There’s a world of difference between reading Romans 8 because you’re preaching on it Sunday and reading Romans 8 to hear God speak to you as a person, spouse, parent or friend.

I realized early on in my ministry that I had the propensity to cheat scripture reading because I was in ministry. So a year after I started full time in ministry, I bought a One Year Bible. The One Year Bible moves you through the entire Bible in 365 days in easy, daily readings.

For 19 years now, that’s been my daily routine. These days I use You Version’s plans for reading scripture in one year.  Whenever I’ve tried something different, I come back to the One Year plan, not because I’m strong, but because I know I’m weak if I don’t.

I love it when I read the scripture, and it just owns me.

Yesterday my personal scripture reading took me (among other places) to Proverbs 11:17 which simply says “Your kindness will reward you, but your cruelty will destroy you.”

Those words reverberated like they were spoken in an echo chamber for me all day. I can be cruel at times. It was just haunting.

I felt like that was God speaking directly to me. And I needed to hear it.

Too many leaders read the Bible without letting the Bible read them.


For years I resisted the idea that how you cared for your body had anything to do with your spiritual, intellectual or leadership life.

Given the correlation between your diet, how you feel and honestly, how you perform is too great to ignore.  Poor diet is increasingly cited as a factor in mental health and depression.

I notice a direct connection in my mental alertness and the amount of sugar and carbs I consume. The cleaner I eat, the better I feel mentally and emotionally.

And of course, diet is directly linked to your weight. As a trainer once told me, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet.

Being overweight or even obese is almost normal in some Christian circles.

As someone who has to watch my weight very carefully (and who does not understand how anyone can be a natural bean pole), I empathize. And I also know I often eat when I’m not hungry, but when I’m upset or just bored.

And like many people, food is something I still have to stop running to as an escape.

Sadly, food is the drug of choice for many Christian leaders.


When I was in my thirties, I would listen to Bill Hybels talk about physical fitness at the Global Leadership Summit and think “doesn’t apply to me.”  I was 30-40 pounds heavier than I should have been and avoided exercise like the plague.

In the same way food directly impacts your mental and physical well-being, so does exercise. I hated hearing that, but it’s true.

I still love eating far more than I love exercising, but about a decade ago I bought a road bike. On the other side of burnout I realized bad diet, no exercise and other factors contributed to my crash and I needed to find some form of exercise I really enjoyed.

I still don’t love biking as much as I love BBQ, but it’s a form of exercise I enjoy the most.

It also has tremendous creative benefits. I often come up with some of my best ideas while cycling and I listen to podcasts that spark about 100 other ideas in my mind. It’s fuel in more ways than one.

Many of us in leadership try to convince ourselves that we can lead at our fullest potential without caring for our bodies.

That’s a lie.

Ignoring your physical health means you’ll never lead at your fullest potential. Think about that.


I used to wear my lack of sleep as a badge of leadership honour, as in I can get by on 4-5 hours a night. 

I thought people who could survive on 2 to 3 hours a night were heroes. More time to work, right?

Then I burned out.

What I didn’t really know is that sleep is like money. Get overdrawn long enough and you end up in debt.

Run a sleep deficit long enough and eventually you have a big debt. And guess what? Debts need to be paid off. 

This lesson became inescapable for me personally in August 2006. 3 months into my burnout, I was having a hard time functioning.

In fact, my fatigue was inescapable. So I decided to sleep every time my body told me I was tired.

I slept a lot that August.  8-11 hours a night. I added to that multiple naps a day whenever I could grab them.

By the end of the month, I felt much better.

And since that time, I’ve guarded sleep as one of the most important things I do every day. I take naps most days. I never book red-eye flights.

I’m so much sharper, kinder, and happier when I’m rested.

Even if you’re not dead, sick or burning out, lack of sleep can turn you into you a bit of a jerk.

Unrested, you’ll snap at the kids more, fight with your spouse more, and even at work, you won’t be fun to hang around.

Here’s what I find.

I am at my most kind when I’m the most rested. When I’m tired, I’m just not nearly as nice to be around.

Finally, this too is medical.

According to research, chronic lack of sleep can cause weight gain, age your skin, harm your sex drive, impair memory and can contribute to illnesses as serious as diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and even premature death.

It’s a little shocking, but it’s not actually an exaggeration to say that a chronic lack of sleep can kill you.


I know this is a bit of a wake up call, even though it’s so basic.

But honor these 5 things, and you’ll be in a position to realize your full potential as a leader.

Can you grow as a leader beyond these 5 things? Of course.