Beating Burnout by Building Teams

Published in "Congregations," Fall 2003, Pages 6-9.
By Lynne M. Baab

About two years ago, I performed Beth and Steve’s wedding ceremony. At that time, they were brand new to our congregation. Over the months that followed, I watched them get involved in a small group and then begin to serve as Sunday School teachers.

Towards the end of their first year teaching Sunday School, I had a few brief moments to talk to them. “How are you doing?” I asked. “How’s it going for you as Sunday School teachers?”

“We love it!” one of them answered. In fact, I’d have to use the word “radiant” to describe their demeanor as they talked about teaching Sunday School.

Some months later I went to visit Beth after the birth of their first baby. “Are you getting help?” I asked.

She told me that two couples had been bringing them lots of food. I asked where she had met those couples. One couple was in their small group, and they knew the other couple – Mike and Sandy – from their Sunday School team.

Later I asked Dianne Ross, our children’s ministries director, about the Sunday School team that Beth and Steve had served on. “I set up that team intentionally,” Dianne told me. “Mike and Sandy are well-connected here at church, have experience in teaching, and have a deep personal faith. I wanted them to be teamed up with a couple who were learning to teach Sunday School and who were newer to church and perhaps even newer to the Christian faith. Beth and Steve fit the role perfectly. I asked Mike and Sandy to take Beth and Steve under their wing, to invite them over for dinner and pray for them, that kind of thing. I added two single people to that team. And I watched them all connect and become friends.”

I had the impression that on Sunday School teams, the two couples and the singles took turns teaching, so I asked Dianne how the two couples would get to know each other if they were always teaching on different Sundays.

She replied, “I have the whole team teach together the first two weeks. That way the kids can get to know all the teachers and the teachers can begin to get to know each other. Then, after they start teaching on alternate Sundays, they usually need to talk most weeks to tell the other team members what happened. I try to match up people on teams who I think will enjoy getting to know each other and might become friends. We have quarterly events for our Sunday School teachers. Often our teachers are glad to come to the training and appreciation events because they will get to see their teammates.”

Dianne said Beth and Steve’s team members became close friends. She watched them talk intimately with each other at teachers’ functions and at the end-of-the-year party. She said she could see their tender care for each other.

Dianne also described one large Sunday School class for whom she recruited a group of couples and singles in their twenties. The eight of them rotate teaching and also grow in friendship. For the nursery team, she recruited mothers with very young children, so they would have something in common as they served together and found their “place” in the church.

For Beth and Steve, teaching Sunday School became a place where they could serve God together and grow in friendship with another couple and the singles who were on the team. I could begin to see why they seemed so radiant as they described their experience in serving. Burnout was the furthest thing from their experience.

The Example of Alpha
In my congregation, we are just finishing our third Alpha course in 18 months. Alpha is an 11-week introduction to the Christian faith, complete with dinner, a video, and a small group. It is one of the most labor-intensive programs we have ever put on. I expected that it would require a lot of work, and I expected that the benefits would be worth it. Indeed, participants have grown in faith and become connected to each other, and Alpha has proved to be a very good thing for us to do, just as I expected.

However, I didn’t expect that one of the sweetest blessings would be the deep relationships formed among the Alpha team members. The Alpha team for each course consists of 10 to 12 people: the leader, the administrator, three small group leaders, and one or two helpers for each small group. Before each Alpha course starts, the team meets on two Saturday mornings for training. Those Saturday training times begin with a solid hour of sharing of personal concerns and prayer. The leader asks, “How are you feeling about being involved in this ministry? Are there things going on in your life that you want us to pray for?” The group prays for each other and for the many needs and concerns related to the upcoming Alpha course.

On each of the 11 nights that Alpha meets, the team gathers 15 minutes before dinner to share concerns and pray for the evening. People have the opportunity to throw out brief statements about personal concerns. “I’m still job hunting.” “My boss is still pushing me to work too many hours.” “My mom’s chemotherapy is going better than expected.” The group prays together.

Alpha originated at a church in England and has spread around the world, with plenty of training opportunities and accepted wisdom of what makes an Alpha course work. The Alpha trainers emphasize that the most important team meeting happens at the end of each evening, when the team gathers for 15 to 30 minutes to debrief how the evening went.

I served as a small group leader for our first Alpha course, and I strongly resisted this idea of meeting together at the end of each evening. On Alpha evenings, I often arrived at church at 5:00 p.m. to help set tables. We would gather as a team to pray at 5:45. Dinner was at 6:00, followed by the video and small groups, which ended at 8:45. By that time, I was more than ready to go home. Yet Alpha protocol insisted that we gather one more time as a team.

I’m now convinced those late evening gatherings hold one of the keys to the success of Alpha. In that debriefing time, the team members share frustrations with each other. “In my group one person dominated the conversation.” “Someone asked a really hard question and I didn’t know how to answer.” They also share joys. “A woman in my group said she read the Bible every day this week and she’s starting to learn to pray.” They discuss logistics for the next week. “The room was too cold tonight and people couldn’t concentrate. Can we have the heat higher next time?”

Our Alpha leader told me that the debriefing process has an incredible bonding effect on the team. “I don’t have to pry people to stay late and meet together,” he said. “They are eager to hear what happened in the other groups.”

In order to gather to debrief, the team members have to detach themselves from their conversations with participants. Placing this priority on talking with team members acts out the reality that the team matters, that they are serving with a group of people who are engaged in this ministry and committed to each other.

In addition, the debriefing helps the team members gain perspective when their small group has not gone very well that evening. In such a labor-intensive ministry, a discouraging evening can make a team member feel like it is just not worth it to work so hard. But listening to someone else talk about the fruit that God is bringing through this ministry helps team members to regain perspective. There is a shared excitement that is infectious.

Why Teams?
I can make a practical, functional argument why team building works to prevent burnout and give satisfaction in serving. People who perceive they are working with others, enjoying their sense of camaraderie, are able to work longer, harder, and with greater joy. When I conducted interviews for my book on burnout among volunteers, Beating Burnout in Congregations, I heard over and over that people are happiest serving when they are relationally connected to the people around them. One rabbi called it, “Flipping pancakes while talking with people.”

One woman I interviewed talked about the high level of burnout in many areas of ministry in her congregation. She mentioned two ministries that never seem to lack for volunteers, where people seem to enjoy serving and don’t experience burnout. Those two ministries stood out among all the others for one specific difference: the volunteers gathered to share personal needs and pray together before launching into their evening’s work.

In our increasingly fast-paced society, people are experiencing more isolation. Demographic studies show that more people are living alone. Even for people who live in families or with friends, our frantic pace makes it challenging to nurture caring relationships. The desire to “flip pancakes while talking with people” reflects a deep need for connection: to serve others while being in relationship.

The significance of building teams is rooted in who we are as people. This is the theological reason why teams work. We were created by God both for relationships and for meeting the needs in our world. Truly we are God’s hands and feet in our world, called to show God’s love in a world that desperately needs it. However, we are called to make God’s love known as a community, not as isolated individuals. Sometimes the most significant way God’s love is shown is through the way we love one another. As we serve, we can’t grow in love with our fellow servers unless we take time to get to know each other, to listen to each other, and to pray for each other.

Committees into Communities
In my interviews, I heard over and over that boring committee meetings are a sure-fire road to burnout. I also heard time and again about the importance of transforming committees into communities, places where people can get to know each other, support each other personally, as well as tackle tasks together.

“We don’t have time for personal sharing,” committee members often object. “It takes us two hours just to get our business accomplished. How can we add in some sharing time?”

Often business takes a long time because people have a high need to be heard, so they talk at length about the issues at hand. Beginning committee meetings with a check-in time, where people can talk about personal needs and pray for each other, can help the business get accomplished much more quickly. This applies to church board meetings as well.

In our board meeting recently, we had a discussion among the elders about their satisfaction level in serving. Some elders expressed contentment and joy in serving and others said they sometimes feel isolated and bewildered in their role. Some of our elders chair committees and some elders serve on teams with other elders. I noticed that all the elders who felt a bit uneasy in their roles were among the elders who chair committees. Most of the ones who expressed contentment serve on teams with other elders.

I concluded from this small sample that serving on teams with other elders helps the elders experience peer support in their role as congregational leaders. I meet monthly with the administration team, composed of the elders for building and grounds, personnel, and stewardship. We spend about an hour and a half talking about administrative issues, then we share prayer requests and pray together. We pray for each other and for the administrative issues of the congregation.

Our personnel elder has a particularly heavy load. She chairs the personnel committee, which meets monthly, and she also meets monthly with the administration team and the whole board of elders. Her term as elder ends in about a year, and she says she will enjoy being free of all the responsibility, but she will sorely miss the three groups of people who have supported her personally. She knows she will have to find a new support structure.

Her comments tell me that we truly have been building teams and fostering community in our committees, on our board, and in our administration team meetings. I really liked hearing that she views her three monthly meetings as places where she gets support personally.

Forming Teams
Based on my interviews and my observations in my own congregation, I want to make a few suggestions for forming and nurturing teams.

  1. When you have the opportunity to influence who serves on a specific team, as much as possible choose people who have something in common and might grow close to each other.
  2. When you pick leaders of teams, make sure they are committed both to achieving the task at hand and to nurturing relationships among team members. Make sure they understand that the hard-driving CEO model simply is not appropriate in congregations. All team leaders need to provide opportunities for people to grow together and also provide the logistical help and support for team members to get their jobs done.
  3. In all gatherings related to achieving tasks, set up structures for sharing personal concerns, such as a sharing time at the beginning, middle, or end of a meeting. In large gatherings, break into groups of two, three, or four to share personal needs. Don’t neglect the significance of debriefing times after a task is finished, asking “How did it go for you? What can you share that might encourage the rest of us?”
  4. Pray together both for personal needs and for the ministry you are working on together. In large meetings, break into smaller groups for prayer. Praying out loud is great, but if there are people who aren’t comfortable praying out loud, use times of silent prayer as well. Give instructions for silent prayer, such as requesting each person to pray for the person on their left or asking ahead of time for volunteers to pray silently about specific issues in the task you are trying to achieve.
  5. Perhaps the most significant suggestion is to remember at all times the unique character of congregations. We are called to perform tasks and to nurture relationships in community. We are not a business with our highest priority on achieving tasks. Every gathering in a congregation that is focused on a task should also include an opportunity to build and nurture relationships.

For further reading
Roberta Hestenes, Turning Committees into Communities (Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 1991).

Charles M. Olsen, Transforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders (Bethesda, Md.: The Alban Institute, 1995).