Ncls Research

Foundations matter for a leader’s sustainability

Results from 2011 National Church Life Survey have reaffirmed the value of six personal foundations of sustainable leadership. These foundations are stronger in leaders who are avoiding burnout and thriving in their ministry role.

Over 6,000 leaders in Australian churches, including 2,000 senior leaders, completed the Leader Survey as part of the 2011 National Church Life Survey. These national results form the basis of NCLS’ latest area of leadership research, focussing on the sustainability and wellbeing of leaders in Christian ministry. The survey results include the perspectives of ministers, pastors and priests, along with lay (non-ordained) leaders and ministry leaders.

For many people in ministry, it is not a question of being either stressed or satisfied in work. It has been found that many church leaders experience both at the same time. Thus the balance between ministry satisfaction and emotional exhaustion becomes a crucial one. It can make the difference between burning out, surviving or thriving in ministry.

Six personal foundations that contribute to a leader’s wellbeing and help sustain effective leadership are: 'spiritual foundations', 'clarity of purpose', 'sense of self', 'integration', 'supportive relationships' and 'balance and boundaries'.

The six Personal Foundations of Sustainable Leadership

Research has shown that where these foundations are strong, burnout is less likely. Some of the foundations focus on 'Who we are' - our personal identity, while others are focused on 'How we live' - the interface between a leader’s role and the rest of their life.

The Sustainable Leadership website - A new resource for those in ministry


After first outlining the concept of personal foundations in the 2009 book Lead With Your Strengths, the NCLS team have worked to examine these afresh using the 2011 NCLS Leader Survey results, and to build a new resource for leaders to personally apply to themselves and their ministry. This resource begins with a website where leaders can reflect on some of the key concepts of Sustainable Leadership. This resource is for anyone involved in Christian ministry or leadership, and helps them reflect on whether they are currently managing well or struggling. By considering what factors are personally related to their own functioning, NCLS hopes to make a fresh contribution that might edify and build up the Church.

National results (Senior church leaders in Australia in 2011)

In the NCLS Leader Survey, each personal foundation is measured by a small scale of 4-6 questions. Below is an example of one such question and a brief description for each personal foundation. The latest national results displayed for Senior Leaders in the 2011 NCLS show the variation that exists across the different personal foundations.

Spiritual Foundations: : Three quarters of senior leaders agree they spend time in devotional activities (prayer, Bible reading) every day.

An alive faith is vital for effective and sustainable leadership. Spiritual foundations provide a sense of meaning, direction and self worth. NCLS research points to the importance of faith development and spiritual anchors for what is often a challenging journey.

Clarity of Purpose: Almost 90% of senior leaders agree with the statement "I have a strong calling on my life".

A clear sense of purpose is linked to well-being, including higher self-esteem, optimism, life satisfaction and trusting others. NCLS research has found that most church leaders have a strong sense of call to what they are doing, as shown opposite, in the 2011 NCLS results for senior leaders. Having a strong sense of call is associated with lower emotional exhaustion and higher satisfaction in their role.

Sense of Self: About 60% of senior leaders disagree that they ‘find it really hard to keep going' without encouragement, which indicates a helpful level of independence

Affirmation from others is pleasant, but over-dependence on this or positional authority is a vulnerability in times of stress. Leadership that operates out of a strong internal sense of self tends to avoid the traps of emotional exhaustion and low satisfaction. A strong sense of self which is built on clear and honest self-knowledge is important. (Note, this question has negative wording, so is 'reverse-coded' as part of this personal foundation.)

Integration: Just over half of senior ministers disagree that there is a 'marked gap' between what they aspire to do and their actual role, while the rest agree or are neutral/unsure.

A sense of integration between a person’s gifts, passions and actual ministry role is important. When there is a good sense of person-ministry fit, a match between aspirations and actual activity, there is likely to be a higher sense of satisfaction and lower emotional exhaustion. It also means that modelling to others can be genuine and unforced. (Note, this question has negative wording, so is 'reverse-coded' as part of this personal foundation.)

Supportive Relationships: About half of senior ministers agree they have a 'strong and growing circle of friends' they find support from, while almost a quarter disagree and a similar number were neutral/unsure.

Personal well-being is enhanced through relationships with people who care, can provide support, can be honest truth-tellers and reference points for both work and wider issues. NCLS research finds that leaders who are more positive about their relationships are less prone to emotional exhaustion and higher on ministry satisfaction.

Balance and boundaries: Just under half of leaders agree they 'manage to keep good boundaries' between their work and the rest of life. Over a quarter disagree.

A balanced life with clear boundaries allows leaders to be realistic in knowing what they do and what they don't do. Being sometimes caught amidst competing demands and limited resources emphasises the need for a leader to establish clear and appropriate boundaries. NCLS research has found that those who say they have done this are less emotionally exhausted and more satisfied with ministry.

The results for the personal foundations show that most senior leaders are well-equipped with personal resources that help protect them from burnout in ministry, and enhance their ability to thrive as they serve and model for others. However there are results, such as those for 'Balance and Boundaries' above that point to potential vulnerabilities for some ministers.

Other results from the 2011 NCLS Leader Survey would affirm that most leaders are 'managing well', with results for an Emotional Exhaustion Scale and a Satisfaction in Ministry Scale both showing positive average results. However, there are ministers who are struggling, with results showing exhaustion and low satisfaction (the combination that leads to burnout) as well as those who would appear overstretched. Where a particular personal foundation might be weak, a minister has a potential vulnerability towards not surviving well in the sometimes demanding ministries they work within.

While it is encouraging that many ministers would fit the 'managing well' category, each should personally consider where they themselves would currently sit on the spectrum between 'thriving', 'managing well', 'surviving', 'struggling', and 'burning out'. They could also consider those they minister alongside and what action might help if some are struggling. Church councils and attenders in general can also think of their own role and about how they can encourage and edify those in any ministry positions. NCLS Research believes Personal foundations are areas where change can take place and make a real difference to a ministry and a leader's long term well-being.

Eg See also

Thriving, Surviving and Burnout in Church Leaders NCLS Fact Sheet 14001

Spiritual Foundations: Personal Foundation 1 of Sustainable Leadership 14002

Clarity of Purpose: Personal Foundation 2 of Sustainable Leadership 14003

Sense of Self: Personal Foundation 3 of Sustainable Leadership 14004

Integration: Personal Foundation 4 of Sustainable Leadership 14005

Supportive Relationships: Personal Foundation 5 of Sustainable Leadership 14006

Balance and Boundaries: Personal Foundation 6 of Sustainable Leadership 14007


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