UNDERSTANDING CHURCH BURNOUT AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT

"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

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 over-commitment 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 naÔve, 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:

Jesus knew of the burden of burnout. His words in Matthew 11:20, 30 are extremely comforting: "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."