And speaking of burnout, what about lay volunteers?

Lynn Baab, writing for the Alban Institute says:

We expect our congregations to be places of health and healing, an oasis in the midst of the demands and stresses of daily life. Yet some people experience great pain in their congregations, pain that robs them of the comfort their faith could give them. Burnout is one kind of pain that goes against the very promise of congregational life.

All systems that rely on the labor of individuals, if left to themselves, will encourage burnout. The workplace, nonprofit organizations, and congregations all have a tendency to push workers towards burnout because these systems have goals and leaders dedicated to meeting those goals. The people working within the system very easily become the means to an end, and that end is the accomplishment of goals. In a congregation, the goals are often lofty and energizing: rich and celebratory worship services, stimulating adult education, outreach to people who are poor and in need, care and concern for children and youth. The congregation has to keep a strong focus on its goals in order for the congregation as a whole to be healthy. Meeting those goals requires labor. The congregational system needs to get people working and keep them at it.

This is a tension, an irony that always exists in congregations. The need for hard work pushes congregation members towards diligent service, and that kind of service can take away the sense of refuge and rest that people need. The congregation that has the goal of bringing life and health to its members may also push people towards burnout because workers are needed.

The congregation as a system will tend to call people into service for the sake of duty, which unfortunately moves easily into workaholism. As individuals, we often begin serving with joy and appropriate love, and then something draws us into some form of compulsion. It takes effort on the part of leaders to keep priorities straight. Congregational leaders need to expend significant energy with deliberate intention in order to affirm the call to serve God with joy, from the heart, so that burnout will be less frequent.

Have you experienced volunteer burnout, either from simply taking on too many responsibilities, or not receiving the support you need?

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Category : The Lead

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  1. Bonnie Spivey

    I suspect that many of us lay folk could write volumes on this topic. I offer my definition of ministry.

    1. Ministry is SHARED.

    2. It’s as much about those whom you DO IT WITH as those whom you do it for.

    3. So plant some seeds and get others to share the load. Provide training and support.

    4. If you find yourself involved with someone who is not practicing the above, remember “no” is a complete sentence. Otherwise they will burn you out.

    5. Don’t take yourself seriously, no one else is. (Joke, or maybe not.)

  2. Paul Martin

    Every volunteer organization is at risk for volunteer burnout. The task is to recognize the risk, set limits and recruit replacements so that volunteers can cycle through jobs and take a break when they need to.

    I remember a lecture I got when I joined an organization dedicated to the Nuclear Freeze. (I suppose that dates me.) “You aren’t going to save the world by yourself. You have been given a job to do. That job is enough. When the job is done, you are done.” Or, something to that effect.

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