Taken from the Church Mafia website

“Boy, Steve sure is touchy today,” the pastor commented to his youth minister. “I only asked him if he’d be at the revival meeting tonight, but he just stared at me and never said a word. Maybe Steve’s one of those guys who thinks revival is for everyone else!”

“Well, pastor,” the youth minister answered, “Steve has been rather busy lately, what with the new junior high Sunday School class, his work on the building committee, and choir rehearsals. Plus, his wife just had a baby, remember?”

“Well, I guess we’re all busy, aren’t we,” the pastor replied sarcastically. “You’d better remind Steve that all Sunday School teachers are required to attend the revival as a good witness to their class members. Be sure to tell him, huh?”

Church volunteer burnout is a major problem throughout the Christian community, and it seems to be growing. Are church volunteers just getting more lazy and irresponsible, as implied by the pastor in the scenario, or is there really something to burnout?

WHAT BURNOUT REALLY IS

Everyone gets tired once in awhile from hard work, daily stresses and strains, and plain getting older, but a little rest is all that’s generally needed to recharge our battery. Burnout is a different phenomenon altogether, however. It makes us feel tired and lethargic even after prolonged rest.

More psychological and emotional, rather than physical, burnout results from prolonged stress, overextension, and hurriedness. The nervous system gets stretched until it loses its resiliency and renewal capacity. The burnout victim finds it more and more difficult to snap back from hard work, to “get up” for challenges, and to adequately rest. Then the “blahs” set in (the so what? feeling) even in the absence of hard work and stress.

That’s when you know you’re suffering from burnout. You’re tired all the time even though you haven’t done much of anything. You feel like withdrawing, even from activities previously relished. Before long you start to feel worthless.

A PORTRAIT OF BURNOUT

Let’s see how Sunday School teacher, committee leader, choir member, new father Steve (from our opening scenario) burned himself out. For starters, he didn’t fully anticipate the challenge and difficulty of ministering to junior high kids. In fact, he had to push himself most Sunday mornings to go to class. He thought that singing in the choir would be fun but hadn’t reckoned on all the rehearsal time, special performances (such as every night of the revival), and his need to practice at home.

Steve joined the building committee thinking he could help supervise the grounds maintenance crew. Instead he wound up mowing the grass himself. And the building committee wasn’t always one big happy family, especially when it came time to discuss the annual facilities budget.

Steve felt guilty whenever he missed a church function, like the Sunday night his new daughter was born and the church had its annual anniversary pot luck supper. Eight people asked him where he’d been, and Steve couldn’t determine if they truly cared about him or were checking up on him. Feeling that way made him feel even more guilty.

While Steve’s wife, and junior high helper, recouped from the birth of their fourth child, Steve tried to find a temporary helper to fill in. Three people said working with junior high “wasn’t their thing.” Two wanted to “pray about it,” and the one guy who promised to help out “for a little while” never showed up.

Steve’s recent job promotion didn’t help matters either, because now he’s on the road more. But at least the modest pay increase would ease the financial expense of his new daughter.

When the youth minister finally corralled Steve about his “duty and responsibility” to attend every night of the revival, Steve didn’t get mad, he just went limp and started thinking about the “small, simple” church his family used to belong to and how nice it would be to return.

Steve’s trying experience is all too familiar to a growing number of conscientious Christians today who unknowingly fit the burnout syndrome to a “T”.

THE ROAD TO BURNOUT

  • Overcommitment (always in motion);
  • Inadequate breaks and rest (continuous ministry involvement);
  • Idealistic standards;
  • Constant low-grade stress (occasionally interrupted by crisis!)
  • Lack of help and assistance;
  • Chronic fatigue from pushing oneself (”hitting the wall”);
  • Strong sense of responsibility, even when others “dropped the ball”;
  • Guilty feelings about missing church events/activities;
  • Heavy job and family responsibilities/expectations;
  • Inability (or strong reluctance) to say no.

BURNOUT REALITY ORIENTATION

Burnout happens to nice guys—to the dedicated, loyal, idealist church member who wants to make a difference. That’s the problem: this all-out commitment drives some Christians to take on too much, too soon, too often. They overlook their heavy non-church responsibilities at home and on the job.

Constant challenge and activity carries stress in its wake—”getting up” for ministry activity, putting out brush fires, coping with diverse personalities, making do with scarce resources. And don’t forget the strings attached to becoming a ministry leader: visitation, showing up every time the church doors are open, maintaining an exemplary witness at all times, attending (seemingly endless) meetings.

Sometimes the pastor and staff get a bit out of touch with grass roots volunteer busyness. They’re so busy (and under-appreciated) themselves, chronic overcommitment is simply a way of life. The idling majority of the congregation conveniently assumes that “everything is running smoothly, so our help isn’t really needed.” Others, not so naïve, know the tremendous sacrifice required of ministry involvement and want no part of it.

A STRATEGY FOR AVOIDING BURNOUT

It’s easier to avoid burnout in the first place than it is to overcome it. Here are 10 do-able strategies for escaping its clutches:

  • Rest, relax, recreate, renew. It’s God’s way of sustaining us for the long haul.
  • Pray for your ministry responsibilities. Let God perform the work, using His infinite strength and perfect wisdom.
  • Give something up before taking on a new commitment or responsibility. Don’t keep “adding floors” onto your already towering skyscraper of activities.
  • Learn to say no and to set up reasonable boundaries around your involvement. Specify the help you’ll need and the constraints on your time.
  • Set priorities and consult with your family. Church work occupies an essential role in our lives but must never take priority over family. Look for ways to team up with your spouse in ministry activities. Be willing to occasionally say no to low priority church activities when they conflict with quality family time.
  • Get away from it all on a regular basis through hobbies, recreation, short-ministry “sabbaticals,” and sometimes just being a couch potato.
  • Listen to your body’s stress warning signals, such as headaches, backaches, dizziness, insomnia, and unexplainable fatigue.
  • Cut out the hurry and worry. Stress is the natural byproduct of trying to stuff 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5 pound bag. Do only what you reasonably can in the time available and with the resources available.
  • Keep those to whom you relate informed of your changing commitments and priorities. Stay away from guilt trips.
  • Emphasize grace over works. We don’t earn God’s blessings by the amount of church work we do. He wants us to lead healthy, balanced lives where ministry service is a joy and source of deep personal fulfillment. In the absence of such joy, ministry turns into burden and burnout.

Jesus knew of the burden of burnout. His words in Matthew 11:20, 30 are extremely comforting: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Our solution to burnout? “Take my joke upon you, and learn of me…Ye shall find rest unto your souls.”

Related Posts:

The Church Mafia – Spiritual abuse in our churches

The Church Mafia – Spiritual abuse in our churches – A Testimony

Spiritual Abuse – Don’t Suffer in Silence

A victim of the Church Mafia needs help

The signs of an abusive church

Thankyou from Tara and from me

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Comments
  1. Karen Kogler says:

    Good insights and practical advice, Alan. Thanks. From my viewpoint as a church staff member, church staff are just as vulnerable to burnout as church members. As you say, our own overcommitment can blind us to the overcommitment of our volunteers. But in addition, our own over-busyness makes us unwilling or unable to do the many things we could do to help our volunteers manage their commitments in a healthy, God-pleasing way. I’d like to reference your comments on my church volunteerism website/newsletter. You said this was ‘taken from the Church Mafia website’ but the link went just to their home page. Was the whole article from their site, or just the opening illustration? Can you give me a link to it on their site? I want to give credit where it is due. Thanks.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I am a victim of burnout. Perhaps, I am a little bitter but ever since I became a Christian 27 years ago, it has been work, work, work. I have five children and have been a stay at home mother. While they were all little, I worked in the nursery because I was told, “if you have children in the nursery, you must volunteer in the nursery”. I always thought the nursery department was to enable ladies with babies to attend church. My husband and I would teach morning children’s church and when we attended evening worship, I would end up in the nursery because no one would miss the service to baby sit my children for an hour. Oftentimes, I would sit in the nursery crying because I was so tired and worn out. Sunday has never been a day of rest but rather another work day in a different setting. The guilt and manipulation that has come from the pulpit over the years has been awful and I have finally come to the realization that this is churchianity not true christianity. I’m tired…I’m really tired. I want to know Christ, to have an initmate relationship with Him. I believe by doing so, the fruit will come naturally. Works are just that work…trees don’t work to produce fruit so why do we as Christians think we do. It should come natural.

  2. Emily says:

    Thanks for your honest blog post. I am ex-church staff, and after working in a church both paid and voluntary for over 8 years, I’m now in a place where church is the last place I find God. I will heal eventually, but it takes time. Your blog is honest, real, and admits that burnout is real! Thanks for that! Is nice when someone recognises burnout rather than saying you’re lazy!
    This is an encouragement.

    God bless.

  3. Alan Higgins says:

    The main thing is to make sure that you remain in Christ. And don’t forsake fellowship with other true believers whatever you do (in whatever form that may be). I pray that you will find healing eventually

  4. Dave (Alias) says:

    Excellent article. I work in ministry myself and have literally burned out twice in the past 2 years of my full time ministry.

    It’s very hard if you’re not educated in these facts. I didn’t think burnout was physiologically possible, I always thought it was just a mental thing.

    Don’t get me wrong, I hate burning out, but I don’t regret burning out either since it has forced me to learn of these lessons the hard way, and boy will I remember them.

    One big note for others reading this is the ‘guilt trip’ you may experience from some leadership. There may be an emphasis of working ‘above and beyond’ your call and it may be expected of you, but you need to get over the guilt trip and make responsible decisions about your health or you will burn out. It takes practice, but eventually you’ll get over that guilt trip problem simply but going through the guilt trips and firmly making decisions to say ‘no’ but in a reasonable way.

  5. Tom says:

    “Sunday has never been a day of rest but rather another work day in a different setting.”

    That’s how I feel. I wish I could just go and worship! But everyone will look at you strange if you don’t shave or wear a suit. When I was in grad school a good mentor bought me a new suit. I thought it was a great gift. The next week he told me that I should set a good example for my friends a wear the suit. Let’s just say that I didn’t go to church as much that year. I have to get up, shave, and get dressed every day of the week for work. Why does church have to be more work!

    I hate the politics and how I have to sit their and “learn” from a sermon. Even Bible studies are really just one older guy talking. I hate the current church format. I only go because of my mom, but soon I think I will have to find another way.

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