When a Church Volunteer or Staff Member Burns Out, Who is Responsible?

CandleChurch… it is beautiful and chaotic at the same time. It is amazing and disappointing. It is profound and confusing. It is Christ and Christ is the anchor for many who cling to the hope that good will eventually prevail.

I have had the good fortune of working in several churches over the years as a paid staff member and volunteer. There have been moments of elation as I’ve witnessed the broken feel comfort, and just as powerfully, I have been frustrated as the innocent feel pain. It is the potent disparity between expectations of heaven on earth juxtaposed against the frailty of human behaviour.

Recently I wrote about infatuation with youthful culture. After I posted many worship pastors wrote to me reflecting on the heartache they felt when they were told by their supervisors they were redundant and out of touch. Loyalty and a prudent work ethic had little to do with a long-term vocation. The problem was they were led to believe something different only to experience a sudden end to their career despite huge sacrifices both physically and mentally. If only they were communicated to honestly right from the beginning. The compelling urge for a leader to keep the ship moving forward often means the overuse of encouragement and the underuse of honest guidance. It is tough for everyone – I don’t envy the role of a leader.

What if contemporary was never going to be fully reached within the church? What if the budget to have the most cutting edge technology was now just too expensive? What if the talent to pull contemporary off wasn’t in reach? What if the volunteer force finally said, “no, we can’t do it anymore… you’re asking too much!” The question that has kept me up at night is: where does the pursuit of contemporary end and at what cost to the individual? Is the leader who sets the goals responsible to guesstimate the cost and then explain what it will take to those who will bear the actual workload?

Then another obvious question appears; is the pursuit of adventurous goals actually making us more or less like Christ as we reflect on the quality of relationships developed within the project, goal or service? If we are not building Christ like relationships in the course of the project, then the motivation to reach the finish line should be questioned. If historically there is a line of people who are wounded from being in close proximity to the church, then it is a reasonable and important question to ask.

The modern church is busy with ‘more’; more conferences, more music, more video, more productions, more meetings – more of everything. The only way to cost effectively do more is to have a mighty volunteer base and a heavily committed church staff. Now more than ever people are asking healthy questions like, “why and how and at what cost?” While the next strategy is forming in the boardroom, volunteers and staff are still catching their breath from the last project, and of course Sundays just keep rolling on week after week.

Is it worth it? Is it worth the family sacrifice and exhaustion? Is it worth a jaded and cynical generation of children who also carried the cost of their parents sacrifice? When children see parents lament over mistreatment, it leaves a deep wound.

It leads me to this complex question – who is responsible when a volunteer or staff member burns out? With the ‘done’ generation becoming more vocal and Gen Y’s more interested in social justice and authenticity, the usual willing volunteer workforce is beginning to see other priorities as more important than ‘bigger and better’.

Soon it may be more difficult for the church to continue at the same pace. Who is responsible when a volunteer burns out? It is both the individual and the leader of course. Obviously an individual needs to learn to say no and they are ultimately responsible for their own life. There has been plenty of focus on an individual’s contribution to burn out, so just for a moment, I’d like to explore what might be the responsibility of a church leader.

The church is a more competitive environment than ever before. Leaders can feel burdened by how their church can generate something special that would attract a new member to help that church grow in size and impact — even though growth is a crude measurement to assess success. Now two very powerful motivators present themselves – growth and being contemporary.

Church leaders understand the power of the central ideology of Christianity in the minds of staff or volunteers. Because there are eternal consequences to the work, a heavy workload in a given season is sometimes seen only as a temporary sacrifice rather than a threat to mental health. Burn out can easily be dismissed in the minds of church workers because eternal destinies are at stake. Leaders can either use that power to get the job done; or they can carefully regulate that powerful motivator and monitor the work output of their volunteers and staff. Some leaders choose to not ask any probing questions about work flow and instead allow an unhealthy work culture to develop. Either way, all those choices have a similar outcome and the responsibility is equal.

Rarely is mental health monitored within a church. After someone leaves a volunteer or staff position, the same pace is continued with little time for reflection. Sadly, it is more common than not that people who burn out fall off the radar because they are no longer contributing to the task. It affirms in the minds of people they were just an asset or a commodity to keep the inner workings of the church program moving forward.

For the leader who understands the power of spiritual motivation but values individuals above output, they will have a different approach. They will lead by setting defined parameters in terms of a healthy and reasonable expectation. They may even use the occasion to write broad job descriptions so that the volunteer understands what the role is and has an opportunity to agree/negotiate the workload before the project starts. It gives a leader the motivation to develop realistic strategies that bring life to the congregation rather than a burden. Without a leader explaining the ramifications, the only option a volunteer has to assess the viability of their contribution is in the middle of the project when it is often too late to change.

It brings me to my last thought. Large churches now embrace the idea of corporate management as responsible behavior. In fact, in many ways exponential growth means there is little choice but to act in a corporate manner. The ordinary corporate world can be fairly brutal but in most cases those who are entering into that world understand how it works. Therefore, if a church chooses to conduct the business of church life as a corporate, staff and volunteers need to be informed upfront that this will be the filter by which decisions will get made and process followed. Staff and volunteers can then regulate their response to overtime and sacrifices they may make for the cause.

When leadership teams are scanning the objectives for the year, a helpful tool would be to develop an impact statement or assessment for staff and volunteers. Then everyone knows what he or she is signing up for. Additionally an impact statement will allow a leader to understand the impact of the goals that are being set and what is a reasonable ask. Being ignorant of the impact is a high-risk play.

Dismissals or restructure changes heighten this tension if a leader freely toggles between corporate practice and an emotive cause. You can’t have it both ways but it is tempting when there is a pressing deadline. Staff and volunteers will rally for a cause to achieve results; they feel a sense of purpose and can experience closeness of friendship fuelled by the belief that what they are doing has eternal consequences. You can imagine how jarring and seemingly out of character it feels when church leaders communicate family and team and then make ruthless decisions through a corporate lens believing their decisions are for the betterment of the bigger goal despite the casualties.

Using the sense of belonging and family is an emotive tool and needs to be handled very carefully. The church isn’t making a product to sell like a corporation; it is communicating an idea full of hope. If the intent of a leader is to build a church of high output, big projects and audacious goals through corporate strategies, then it is upon those in leadership to be explicit in the calling.

When someone signs up to serve as a staff or volunteer there is often an assumption that it will be different, after all, the church is always striving towards Christ like behaviour. Unfortunately church can be the same as any other organisation, and at times, it can be worse. No organisation is perfect. Certainly no church is perfect either. But rarely is this type of conversation being had. There are countless people who have walked away from church life extremely disappointed and damaged; yet the problem of burn out, poor mental health and unmet expectations still exists.

A leader will often be celebrated by what is achieved rather than how it was achieved, and that may be the core problem. If a church continues to produce burnt out or disillusioned staff/volunteers, then it is likely that something is wrong no matter how noble the cause.

17 thoughts on “When a Church Volunteer or Staff Member Burns Out, Who is Responsible?

  1. Couldn’t agree more Jay ! You speak from experience and whilst they are very telling they are sadly all too true in far too many Christian churches today!

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  2. My last church resisted any semblance of modernity to its very last day. Its last pastor was a millenial and the youngest member. He served for very nearly one year. Idolizing tradition is the same extreme gone the other way. Finding balance means mixing the best of both worlds, but remaining flexible to the needs of others. One problem I did notice is that many have an idea that all visible ministries are men-only, but the majority of the congregation is made up of women. This puts an unreaonable amount of work on the guys and leads to burn-out. I would like to see all ministries led by two people … to halve the burden.

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    • Interesting comments Jamie. Yes, the other direction of conservatism can be a problem. Although, I am not really commenting on the validity of modern church, but rather, a leaders responsibility guiding a team. The psychology of motivation is where I think things can go awry. By the way, I have no doubt I have done poorly in this area myself.

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  3. I know for sure that I would not have the capacity I have today if not for church leaders in my life who told me it was greater than I thought…and by the grace of God I didn’t break along the way.

    As a leader I want to stretch people to be more than they think they can be but I have come to realise that if I am going to tell people that they don’t know what their capacity is then I need to take responsibility for their well being.

    It has never made sense to me that in the process of trying to reach one group of people that God loves we would be willing to ‘spend’ & break another group of people who God loves!

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    • Wise comment Dave. I agree that encouragement is paramount in leading a team. As I reflect on my own journey I know at times I have lead out of desperation to get the job done and I fear I may have use emotive language instead of developing better leadership skills. I am concerned that the modern church now accepts a percentage of casualties in the course of doing God’s work. It doesn’t sit well. Something is wrong.

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      • One of our catchphrases at Easterfest has become: “people are more important than what they do”!…we often talk about how there is NO goal important enough to be worth breaking someone to achieve it.

        Don’t get me wrong that balance is hard to maintain & I work with a passionate crew full of mostly volunteers who will push themselves too hard to make stuff happen if you let them!

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  4. HI Jay, this is so true and such a well written piece. This topic is so complex on so many levels and you’ve done a great job at pulling out the issues. Its very sad that institutionalised churches often treat people as dispensable and as you say want it both ways. We will take your heart and blood but treat you like a stranger when it suits us. hmmmm……. thanks Jay

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      • Totally agree – the disheartening part is that no one really talks about the truth of it. I had a conversation with a pastor of a church. Their response to the large turnover of staff was that they – the staff- weren’t passionate enough. When in truth they were plain exhausted, burnt out and demoralised.
        Hmmm Lisa

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  5. My goodness, it is SO refreshing to hear someone talk about this. I LOVE the quote “Rarely is mental health monitored within a church. After someone leaves a volunteer or staff position, the same pace is continued with little time for reflection. Sadly, it is more common than not that people who burn out fall off the radar because they are no longer contributing to the task. It affirms in the minds of people they were just an asset or a commodity to keep the inner workings of the church program moving forward.” This is such an important and relevant issue in contemporary church culture, and situations of exhaustion and poor mental health are seen way too often. I have ended up in hospital previously because of burn out due to over-commitment at a church. Although I had support and encouragement during my hospital stay, I hit a level of exhaustion that I am still conquering now, 4 years later.
    I think a major concern for volunteers in a church is maturity. My experience in youth ministry made me observe a lot of young adults committing their time, energy and finances into the ministry, which is admirable, but what lacked was the maturity of when to say no. Youth ministry in particular builds a lot of hype. Events, concerts, games, it’s all very exciting and encouraging to see young people get involved in those things, and to see young people give their lives over to Jesus, but it’s this hype that holds so many people in the youth ministry season for so long. I do acknowledge the few leaders that believe they are called to work in youth ministry, but I have witnessed people go through ministry as students, and then become leaders, that either exit the leadership role in their mid-late twenties or never at all. How are these leaders meant to gage maturity of communication with people over the age of 18? How are they meant to separate themselves from the hype and differentiate themselves from youth if they are never taught not to? At what point does a Pastor step in and say, take a break, you have earnt it? Never. These leaders don’t gain the capacity to mature out of youth and young adult mindsets until thgey actually move on from youth ministry, which by then, alot are too tired and burnt out to serve in another area that will help them grow and develop in their maturity.
    I have lived with girls who live, breathe and work in youth ministry, and I have observed the inability to make mature and reasonable choices due to their lack of maturity. Although lovely girls, most of them in their late 20’s, they were not able to respond to conflict, process trauma or communicate on a level that most others are at their age, much of their behaviour reflecting that of a high school teen which was accentuated with fatigue and burn out which they themselves could not identify as they were so used to such a state of tiredness.

    I apologise If I went off topic!! Something I’m passionate about.

    Lauren

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    • Great thoughts! If I am hearing you correctly you are suggesting that it is difficult for younger people to self monitor because of the hype or excitement and therefore guidence from leaders is vital. That makes sense. I think leadership requires this intuitive style of management. It also requires a high emotional intelligence to preempt burn out even though young volunteers will give more if asked.

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  6. Jay

    I couldn’t agree more.  My big question is “is Jesus in the midst?”, the very nucleus of running an outreach or mission; because if He is, all things will flow accordingly. If He isn’t, then a tsunami of frustration and pain will follow, and there will be no such thing as natural attrition, but an overflow of burnout and pain.

    Really enjoyed catching up with you last week.

    Blessings –

    Ann 

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