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Preventing church volunteer burnout


Editor’s note: The volunteers interviewed for this story asked that their churches not be identified.

May 10, 2010 | NASHVILLE (UMNS)

Kimberly Goods gave until it hurt to give any more.

As chairperson of her church’s communication and information committee, she was in charge of public relations, the website and the newsletter. Each was a time-consuming duty that required frequent presence at the church. She spent an additional 20 hours a week working on church business at home.

She committed to do the job for three years, but her duties kept mushrooming. Before she knew it, it was four years, then five. One position led to another. People asked her to serve on the staff parish relations committee and the congregational care committee, to greet on Sunday mornings, and to squeeze in attending Sunday school.

Rev. Jeffrey Harlow, Brosville United Methodist Church, Danville, Va., says pastors and church staffs must make sure volunteers are not taken for granted. Photo courtesy of Brosville UMC.
Rev. Jeffrey Harlow, Brosville United Methodist Church, Danville, Va., says pastors and church staffs must make sure volunteers are not taken for granted. Photo courtesy of Brosville UMC.

“I tried to back off a couple of times,” she said, “but I was 'guilted' into continuing for ‘just a little while longer’ or ‘just one more time.’ I fell for it for a while, but I could feel myself not putting my all into it anymore.”

Goods’ story is not unusual. Too often, church volunteers burn out while in the trenches of servanthood.

In churches where there is always a ministry to tend, a committee to lead, a class to teach or an event to chair, it is hard to find people willing to step up to the plate. When you find them, it is even harder on the church to lose them, especially if they are doing a good job.

“Brent,” who asked that he not be identified, has been a member of his church for more than 10 years. He has spent seven of those helping with the youth, ushering every Sunday, serving on the worship and finance committees, and pitching in with special programs and activities. Eventually, his church time took a toll on his work and family time.

“I looked up, and my work and family life had begun to suffer. I knew I had to let something go,” he said. Brent prayed long and hard about cutting back on his church obligations, especially working with youth.

“It was hard,” he said. “They had shared a lot with me on their mission trips and at other activities through the church.”

‘A two-person responsibility’

Jeff Harlow, a leadership development and volunteer management expert who pastors Brosville United Methodist Church in Danville, Va., understands both sides of the burnout issue. He is not only a pastor used to delegating; he is also a spiritual counselor who has done his fair share of listening to members of his congregation who are overwhelmed with church responsibilities.

“Managing burnout is a two-person responsibility,” Harlow said. “The volunteer needs to do some self-examination to determine if their burnout is based on their own problems, or because of someone (else’s) problem. According to Harlow, burnout frequently occurs when a person feels guilty for not doing enough. Volunteers need to ask themselves if they are really dropping the ball, or if they are just the type of person who tends to feel guilty even when they are doing a great job.

“Guilt is a big deal,” Harlow said. “Pastors should pay attention to a person’s sense of guilt and try to help the volunteer put their feelings in perspective.

“The pastor can reassure volunteers that no one is going to lose their salvation if they don’t measure up on the worship committee or if they the fail to show up for a weekend workday,” he said. “Even if the guilt is valid, the pastor can play a role in helping people understand how important a duty or task really is.”

Setting realistic expectations

In addition to guilt, Harlow said resentment also is linked to burnout. Resentment, Harlow warned, occurs when a pastor, church or program leaders are unrealistic about their expectations and unclear about assignment of tasks when recruiting a volunteer.

“Volunteers give us a ton of time. They deserve to be told what we expect of them, and for how long. When we are not clear about our expectations, a volunteer is ripe for resentment.”

Is there a solution?

If pastors do a better job of communicating the message of mission-mindedness, they’ll be more successful at managing leaders and volunteers in their congregation.

“Churches get themselves into a burnout mess when we forget that everything we do needs to contribute to the mission of the church,” Harlow explained. “What we have to convey to the volunteers is that they are helping us make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, whether they are painting or weed-eating.

“A pastor should be the head cheerleader, the loudest and most persistent voice reminding every volunteer, for every task, that “what you are doing matters,” he said.

“We can prevent burnout in our churches. We should because volunteers are our most important resource. We can help volunteers manage their guilt, and we can prevent resentment by being clearer about our expectations. Most of all, we must remind our hardworking, overworked volunteers that what they do matters. What they do helps us accomplish our mission.”

*Passi-Klaus is a writer with the Public Information Team, United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

Contact: Susan Passi-Klaus, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5138 or presscenter@umcom.org.

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