Friday, November 8, 2013

Part 1 - Volunteer burn-out - a dirty little secret

It is time to talk about a dirty little secret - volunteer burn-out.  

Webster's Dictionary defines burn-out as: the condition of someone who has become very physically and emotionally tired after doing a difficult job for a long time. 

Burn-out and the church's lack of response is a complicated and sensitive issue. Instead of blasting you with a really long post, I'm going to allow time for reflection by presenting my thoughts in three separate posts.

In Part 1 -  I will describe my thoughts on why burn-out happens in Children's Ministry as well as why it is a dirty little secret. 

In Part 2, I will explore ways to recognize, address and minister to volunteers in burn-out. 

In Part 3,  I will share tools and strategies to prevent and hopefully eliminate burn-out and maintain a healthy church with healthy volunteers. 


Part 1 - Why burn-out happens.

Burn-out can happen to the most dedicated and passionate ministry workers. Swept up in the joy of serving others in Jesus' name, many healthy, good hearted and hardworking saints over serve. Many times, encouraged or guilted to over serve by church leadership, our once engaged and motivated workers become cynical, unhealthy, overburdened, overcommitted and exhausted shadows of themselves.  Over serving sanctioned by church leadership and innocently disguised as calls to "sacrificial service" is insidious, manipulative and destructive. The results are devastating to the individual, their family and friends. The fall out from volunteer burnout is the dirty little secret few churches are willing to admit or address. 

Since I am a Children's Minister, I'm acutely aware volunteer burn-out within Children's Ministry leadership. Burn-out exists in other areas of the church, but the constant demands and needs of children's ministry require more people and more responsibility than any other church ministry.   Over the past few decades, Children's ministries have improved safety standards requiring even more people and background screening for all volunteers.  These changes are a good thing, but created a huge challenge because the pool of potential workers for Children's Ministry decreased while the required number of workers increased.  Many churches only allow adult workers further limiting the pool of potential volunteers.

Hands down, Children's ministry requires the largest number of workers each week.  It takes, on  average, a ratio of one adult to three children to provide administration, supervision and fully staffed classrooms/groups for a safe and effective children's program.  Add to that, multiple weekly programs/sessions and a church with 120 children requires 40 workers for Sunday and 40 for one  additional program. In this case, 80 workers per week for 120 children brings the weekly ratio to less than one adult for every two children. 

Unless the ministry limits the number of sessions to match the available pool of personnel, the need for workers consistently exceeds the number of volunteers available so qualified workers feel obligated to serve in multiple leadership roles.  The well-meaning saints bound for burn-out give up their worship hour, Bible study group, fellowship time and/or family time to serve extra sessions and provide added hours of leadership.  When they make a habit of skipping worship or Bible study to serve, they miss the important spiritual recharge and renewal essential for service. When they make a habit of short-cutting family time, their personal lives and relationships suffer.

Soon, they find themselves running on personal and spiritual empty. It is a slippery slope to decreased joyful spirit-filled service. Left unchecked, running on empty eventually leads to volunteer burn-out in which the once energized and enthusiastic individual presents as burdened, anxious, detached and joyless and bottom out as angry, resentful and cynical. 

The individual's reaction to burn-out varies from healthy and helpful to unhealthy and harmful.  People might….
  • Ask for a break from their service or reduction in responsibilities to renew and refresh, then  return to serve, but never over-serve again. 
  • Seek out a spiritual mentor to provide counsel, pray with and for them.  
  • Resign and find another area of ministry where they can limit their service OR worse, repeat the same mistakes in the new area only to burn out again.
  • Become physically rundown suffering viruses, colds and malaise. 
  • Project their negative feelings on others; blame or create conflict with others around them. 
  • Ignore or deny burn-out until depression or detachment creates marital and other relationship problems.
  • Act out with angry outbursts of frustration. 
  • Leave the church. Some leave quietly and find another church and some leave the church altogether. 
Unfortunately, many volunteers in Children's ministry sliding down the slippery slope toward burn-out live in total denial or suffer in silence fearful to admit their struggles until it is too late. It's a dirty little secret, they keep to themselves until it is too late.

Personal reasons for denial and silence are reinforced by church practices. The church shares in the dirty little secret from the beginning. Whether intentionally or not, these examples of common church practices set volunteers up for burn-out and punishes them when it happens.
  • Ask the same few "Yes" people to fill in or lead and do it over and over again. It is much easier to use them than rotate through the large list until you get a Yes!
  • Recruit an inspired new believer to take on multiple ministry leadership roles. New to the church, John's  great joy teaching kindergarten is noticed by church leadership and suddenly he's asked to lead the men's ministry, join the Preschool board AND continue to teach.  
  • Allow church staff to model unhealthy church/home boundaries.  Church staff is required or encouraged to always be at church or available setting up expectations of over serving.  
  • Add programs before there are enough people to run them. Add programs without assessing feasibility in effort to attract more young families or provide "childcare" during Adult offerings. 
  • Minimize the time commitment and responsibilities of a leadership role. The idea is people  don't want to know, already know or will not volunteer if they know all the details. 
  • Celebrate and single out volunteers who over serve with awards or excessive praise.  Base incentives to serve on external rewards or awards for high profile positions with long hours.  
  • Use Pastor's influence to get a volunteer to take on a huge ministry commitment.   Most people find it hard to say no to the Senior Pastor, so send him in to close the deal. 
  • Fail to minister to and/or punish volunteers who burn-out.  Failure is not acceptable and usually addressed by dismissing or asking the volunteer to resign.  Reasons for dismissal or resignation are reported as spiritual issues, illness, family problems, personality conflicts, etc. 
  • Let burned out volunteers leave the church "unnoticed". Let people leave quietly and without follow up to avoid embarrassment or minimize church conflict. 
I believe churches mean well and their motive is to spread the gospel, NOT to do harm.  Hopefully, by openly talking about burn-out and admitting it exists, we can bring the dirty little secret into the light…


  To be continued in Parts 2 & 3.  



Go Ahead - Google it!