Beating Burnout in Congregations

Beating Burnout in Congregations Buy this book now »

ISBN: 1-56699-274-5; paper; 131 pp. (2003)

This book draws on multiple conversations with volunteers and leaders in congregations

  • Jewish
  • Unitarian
  • Christian

and explores patterns of burnout among volunteers and what can be done to prevent it. The similarities and differences between

  • volunteer burnout and
  • workplace burnout

are described, and spiritual gifts and personality type are discussed.

Be sure to check out the "articles" page of this website, which has several articles Lynne has written about burnout: Type and Burnout,  Is Burnout Inevitable? Beating Burnout by Building Teams


Asking Some Tough Questions by Brad Smith »

Asking Some Tough Questions by Brad Smith


The body’s doing the work, but the spirit’s not present. Lynne Baab, associate pastor of a Presbyterian church in Washington State, quotes Robin Sheerer’s pithy description of burnout, and then helps the readers to understand it and deal with it.

Congregations face a shrinking pool of volunteers as fewer women are now at home, and even stay-at-home moms have a schedule of sports and after-school lessons unheard of a generation ago. Those who are available feel the pressure. One of Baab’s interviewees says,

"The fastest way to burn someone out is to know their name . . . The same people get asked over and over. New people, the ones we don’t know the names of, don’t get asked, so they drift off and eventually quit." (42)

Unclear expectations cause further stress, both for volunteers and for those on the church staff. A youth worker, for example, is hired on the basis of his or her relational skills, only to be criticized for not administering the youth program and budget. The message received is, "We said we wanted you to be relational but what we really need is someone gifted in administration" (45).

The chapter entitled "What Congregations Can Do: Identifying and Preventing Burnout" offers practical help. Leaders may overlook such self-evident solutions as clarifying expectations and limiting the number of requests for any one person’s help. Baab offers other, more penetrating suggestions that stretch leaders to rethink their congregational life. The author’s own experience living in Israel gave her first-hand lessons in Sabbath-keeping, which can be adapted to the American context. She also offers suggestions on turning church committees into communities, and investing in volunteers so that they grow rather than burn out.

In moving from the congregation to the individual, Baab explores three tools that might help members of the congregation to serve well:

  • the spiritual gifts list in Romans 12
  • the Myers-Briggs Type
  • the Enneagram Type

The gifts list (compassion, service, exhortation, teaching, administration, giving, and prophecy) is the clearest way of helping people find an appropriate way to serve. The Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram require more training to understand and use, but can be powerful tools against burnout. Baab offers a helpful bibliography for those who might want to study these tools more deeply.

Burnout may result from unhealthiness within church members. Baab deals sensitively with the possibility that congregational leaders, or the ones they oversee, might be driven to volunteer from compulsiveness, or as an escape from the results of trauma in their lives. Leaders with oversight of volunteers may need to encourage them to ask questions such as:

  • Am I willing to examine my Christian life and service for signs of being driven by neediness rather than being called and led by God?
  • Is my church life lived at a workaholic pace? If so, why?
  • Do I only sense God’s love when I’m helping others? (96. Taken from The Overcommitted Christian, by Pamela Evans, 40).

Baab offers probing questions for the leaders to ask themselves:

  • Do I watch for fatigue and disouragement in volunteers, or am I so concerned about getting the job done that I cannot see personal needs?
  • Do I suggest to people that they take some time off from serving if they seem overly tired?
  • Am I open to stopping projects and ministries if keeping them going is damaging to the people involved?
  • Do I really believe that people can find healthy places to serve, where they will grow spiritually and learn to rely on God’s grace as they serve? (96-97).

In the foreward, Roy Oswald notes that burned-out volunteers in the local congregation often manifest an inability to worship, and a lack of respect for fellow congregants (vi). How tragic when we think of the supreme, twin commands in the Bible, to love the Lord our God and our neighbor as ourselves!

Beating Burnout in Congregations will be invaluable for pastors, church staff, or volunteers leaders (such as Sunday School superintendents) who long to see their volunteers again serving out of love. It can be read cover to cover, or one can study a specific topic such as the congregation, individual differences, or warning signs for compulsive behavior. I particularly appreciated Baab’s balance between avoiding quick-fix answers on the one hand, and leaving us with no practical help on the other.

Preventing Burnout and Its Ugly Consequences by Rich Erickson »

Preventing Burnout and Its Ugly Consequences by Rich Erickson

Lynne M. Baab, a Presbyterian minister in Seattle, and one of my former students, has authored four books already. It’s a case of student leaving teacher in the dust! Each of these books is devoted to some aspect of practical Christian ministry, spirituality, and healthy congregational life. Her latest, Beating Burnout in Congregations (2003), is published by the Alban Institute (; xvii+131 pp.; $15).

In Beating Burnout, Lynne Baab deals with a disturbing irony: eager and active leaders in local congregations all too often find themselves exhausted and bitter in serving the church. The very place where they ought to “find rest for their souls” becomes instead a source of frustration, a temptation to overwork, and a place to escape when they need rest and peace, a place to abandon when even that doesn’t work.

A fundamental contributor to this tragic problem, whether among clergy or laity, is the clash of unrealistic expectations (often inspired by our culture with its emphasis on efficiency and management), a false sense of what the church should be, and the absurd notion that somehow we ourselves are responsible to make it happen. What results is a kind of perfect storm, where we reach our limits and succumb to discouragement, cynicism, and anger—in short, when we burn out.

A tragic irony, yes, and wholly unnecessary. Churches can (and must) find ways to recognize signs of burnout in their people, including in their pastors, if they want to have a healthy effect on their communities and safeguard their members. People are different from one another. Although recognizing personality types can certainly lend itself to simplistic overgeneralization, the fact remains that people react in different ways to external and internal stressors. Congregations that recognize those differences, that curb and redirect compulsive behavior among their leaders, that provide their people with theologically sound understandings of their value in the sight of God, will go a long way toward preventing burnout and its ugly consequences.

Besides being filled with practical advice for addressing the problem of congregational burnout, Lynne Baab’s book is heavily laced with stories of real-life situations, culled from the many personal interviews she conducted in the preparation of her study. This makes not only for a down-to-earth discussion but also for fascinating reading. In an era of American life when the pace at work and at home becomes increasingly frenetic, local Christian congregations can and should be attractive oases of peace and grace. But they cannot be so if they, too, are chained to the same grindstone that saps and discards so many millions of ordinary people, people for whom Christ also died.

This book is an excellent choice for leaders in congregations to study together, during the opening half-hour of monthly meetings, for example. The time invested in raising this issue could profoundly affect the health and the witness of churches across this country, ours included. I recommend it, urgently!