Is Burnout Inevitable?

Published in "The Spirit," newsletter of Seattle Presbytery, November 2003.
By Lynne M. Baab

About two years ago I interviewed several dozen people on the topic of burnout among congregational volunteers. I was writing a book for the Alban Institute, which serves congregations of all kinds: Christian, Unitarian Universalist, and Jewish. Most of the people I talked to were Christians, both pastors and lay people, but I also talked with a handful of Unitarians, along with three rabbis and a volunteer coordinator for a synagogue.

Every single Christian I interviewed had at least one burnout story for me. Many of my Christian interviewees were deeply saddened by the toll burnout had taken on their friends and acquaintances. They impressed on me the irony that the church, the very place where we look for spiritual nurture and expect to find an oasis in this frantic life, can become a place of painful duty and dangerous overload.

The Unitarians I spoke with had also seen lots of burnout in their congregations. Many UU congregations were originally led by volunteers and only later got ministers, so they have a strong history of volunteer commitment that can go too far. In contrast, however, not one of the four Jewish leaders I interviewed had seen burnout among volunteers. They see burnout among financial donors, because in synagogues the same people are asked over and over to give money. But volunteers in synagogues don’t seem to have the tendency to give too much for too long.

One rabbi thought the reason for this significant difference between Christians and Jews might lie in the Jewish observance of the sabbath. Another rabbi said, “We don’t have a theology of sacrifice. We call our people to a balanced life. We tell them there are four priorities in life: family, work, rest, and making a difference in the world. One of those should never become predominant over all the others.”

I pondered long and hard why so many Christians embrace sacrifice until it damages them deeply, rather than the kind of balance the rabbi described. Obviously our tendency to give for too long comes from our understanding of our call to be like Jesus. But is it truly our calling to give until we have nothing left to give, and might not have anything to give for months or years?

I finally came to understand that Christians are called both to sacrifice and stewardship, both to sacrificial giving and self-nurture. Working out the balance between those pairs of callings takes a lot of prayer, self-examination, and support from others. I’m sure most of you who are reading this article have struggled to find the right way to live out this paradox.

I was quite surprised to hear about the absence of burnout among volunteers in synagogues, and that observation sent me down a long path of thought and analysis which I have summarized briefly for you. Another very thought-provoking aspect of my interviews came from the suggestions made by Christians of how to prevent burnout. Some of the answers fit my expectations, but the most commonly mentioned burnout prevention strategy – sabbath-keeping – surprised me quite a lot.

I was surprised because of my own experience. My husband and I have been enthusiastic sabbath-keepers for 23 years, since we returned home in 1980 after living in Israel for 18 months. When we came back to Seattle after our time away, we described to many friends the gift that a weekly day of rest had been to us. No one was interested.

We consistently kept a sabbath anyway, and we were delighted when books and articles began to come out describing the joys of having a day of rest. I hadn’t realized, though, that many Christians now observe a day of rest in some form. I realized that must be true when I heard so many people recommend a sabbath to prevent burnout.

People said things about the sabbath that I have observed in my own life. The sabbath, they said, provides a day to step outside our need to be constantly productive. The sabbath helps break our tendency to idolatry of our own competence and energy. On the sabbath we realize God is in control of the universe and we are not. This awareness then spills over into the other days, and we are less likely to make the mistake of taking ourselves and our endeavors so seriously that we get out of balance in the direction of burnout.

A day of rest makes it less likely that we will mistake needs for callings. One of the gifts of the sabbath is a regular time to stand apart from our daily life, giving us space to reflect and pray. A weekly sabbath makes it more easy to embrace the paradoxical calling both to sacrifice and stewardship, both to sacrificial giving and self-care.

Two other suggestions about burnout prevention in congregations came up frequently in interviews: turning committees into communities and building teams. Boring, poorly-led, and overly administrative committees can be deadly, driving volunteers away from congregations. Making sure committees include a sharing time and prayer together can make a significant difference.

Many people worry that they won’t get the business of the committee done on time if there is time for personal sharing and prayer. Dick Leon, who spoke with me at length about this issue, said that many times committee members feel the need to talk on and on about some trivial business item simply because they have a deep need to be heard. Spending time at the beginning of the meeting making sure everyone’s personal life is acknowledged actually makes the business of the meeting go faster. Dick also said it would be a violation of Christian community if someone had lost their job or their dog had died, and they sat through a committee meeting and no one knew what was going on inside them.

Knowing and being known is also the foundation for building teams to serve together. One woman I interviewed talked about the large amount of burnout in her congregation. She said there were a few ministries where the volunteers seemed to be energized rather than tired. These ministries had one thing in common: the volunteers gather together for sharing and prayer before they began to serve. “This is not rocket science,” she said. “Sharing and praying together are simple, just people gathering together.”

The children’s ministries director in my own congregation, Dianne Ross, is a genius at building teams. She puts people together who she believes might become friends as they serve. One children’s class is taught by a group of singles in their 20s. Another class is taught by a group of moms who stay home with kids. Dianne finds that people are enthusiastic about coming to quarterly Sunday school meetings because they get to be with their team.

Teams mean that no one has to serve every week and that there’s someone to ask if you need a replacement to have a weekend away. Teams mean that people are more likely to find a niche where they can use their spiritual gifts rather than having to do everything. In fact, building teams provides an opportunity for acknowledging the significance of diverse gifts.

Sabbath-keeping, turning committees into communities, and building teams help make our congregations volunteer friendly. Burnout in Christian congregations is a tragedy that can often be prevented. Let’s talk openly in our congregations about burnout and the damage it causes. Let’s support each other as we seek to serve in ways that honor God’s call both to sacrifice and stewardship.