How might a board keep their president from burning out?



The "Burned-over district" refers to the religious scene in the western and central regions of New York in the early 19th century, where religious revivals and Pentecostal movements of the Second Great Awakening took place. The term was coined in 1876 by Charles Finney, who argued that the area had been so heavily evangelized as to have no "fuel" left over to "burn."1

Sound familiar? The presidents of seminaries and theological schools often report feeling isolated, embattled, burned over, and burned out. Their role is demanding: vision maker, strategic planner, fundraiser, budget wiz, theological teacher, ecclesiastical leader. Institutional pressures are enormous, and expectations for presidents are high. 

Seminary presidents tend have a strong sense of calling, with a desire to serve their schools faithfully and effectively. But the role can take a significant toll on a person’s physical and spiritual well being. Fortunately, there are books and workshops that instruct leaders in how to practice good self-care. Some of the most common bits of advice: 

  • Rest. Reserve leisure time, and be sure to take vacations. Respect the Sabbath in all its expressions. Engage in a hobby.
  • Physical health. Exercise regularly and eat well.
  • Spiritual health. Practice spiritual disciplines.
  • Family health. Pay attention to family life and marriage.
  • Personal reflection. Journal about your thoughts and feelings.
  • Friendship. Find mentors and friends. Build a network of support.
  • Boundaries. Maintain ethical and personal boundaries.
  • Plan for succession.

Presidents are encouraged to be transparent about their well-being before the whole community, but this expectation places added pressure on presidents. As role models, they often feel that they cannot show weakness and must demonstrate excellence in their professional life as well as in their personal and spiritual life. No wonder these leaders become isolated so quickly. 

The board has a vital role to play in preventing presidential burn-out. Boards must do more than ask well-intentioned questions, such as whether the president has taken a vacation. Questions about exercise, spiritual disciplines, and family life are helpful but insufficient. The board should ask itself the following question: What can we do -- financially, spiritually, personally, practically -- to assist our leaders in achieving our high expectations -- and theirs?

There may be trade-offs here. Can the president really achieve all the board's goals and still stay healthy? Does the president have the human and financial capital to achieve institutional results? Is the president empowered to be honest about his or her well-being? 

More practical suggestions and best practices are needed for boards as they support their CEO. But the best gifts that any board can give to a president are the right attitude and a staunch commitment to do whatever it takes to help the president thrive. 

Image credit: National Archives and Records Administration.

1This definition of the "burned-over district" comes from Boundless. “Charles Finney and the Burned-Over District.” Boundless U.S. History. Boundless, 14 Nov. 2014. Retrieved 28 Jan. 2015.