How can we in the church prevent volunteer burnout?

Good question, because it's a big problem. Josh was one of the most zealous workers we'd seen at church, but I realized he was three steps beyond "weary in well doing" when I read his letter: "My walk with the Lord is nonexistent. I've allowed the pressure of church work to crowd out time with God. Now it seems impossible to get back in touch with him. We've also gotten seriously into debt, and I've been trying to do 'ministry' while working five part-time jobs. I'm short with my wife and kids, and we're having problems. I'd like to talk to you."

To keep volunteers from stagnation, frustration, and burnout, I'm learning from several examples in Scripture.

Nehemiah: Create Systems

Jim, who was in charge of our buildings and grounds, once planned a church workday. Several dozen people sacrificed extra sleep for thankless toil. But I was disappointed to find that Jim hadn't organized the activities. A hallway needed painting; there were no paint cans, brushes, or drop cloths. Floors needed mopping; one old mop and pail occupied the janitor's closet. Most of us stood around trying to look busy, thoroughly frustrated. And only two people showed up for the next workday—so I was told.

Nehemiah went about it differently. He created systems. The projected wall was divided into manageable sections with clearly defined tasks. Some were stationed as watchmen, others as soldiers. Others provided food. Workers hauled off debris as it accumulated. Everyone understood his or her part, and the wall went up.

Local churches are difficult places to create efficient systems, for they are volunteer organizations made up of people with varying levels of ability, maturity, and dedication. Several things have helped us create or maintain systems.

Periodic retreats with staff or lay leaders are worth every penny. We get away to the mountains semiannually to look at our church ministries. We ask, "What systems must be in place, working effectively, to accomplish together what God wants us to do?" We develop organizational charts (a simpler task than it sounds, thanks to computer software).

Our staff met in Cincinnati once to take in a Reds' game and to isolate ourselves for two days of evaluation and planning. While away, we learned that the wife of our oldest member had fallen ill. By long distance, we referred the need to the man's Sunday school class with its teacher, lay pastor, and tight circle of friendships. I was upset to learn later that no one called, visited, prepared food, or prayed with the family.

We treated it as a systems failure: "Houston, we have a problem." We met with class leaders to find out where the caring process broke down. We were careful not to be critical, just concerned. Everyone now understands the processes better, and I don't expect a recurring problem. It takes longer to solve problems on a systems level. It's demanding to both minister and administer. But somewhere near or at the top of a productive, motivated organization is a Nehemiah.

Syzygus: Reduce Friction

During an intense capital stewardship campaign, two of our workers argued over decorations for the celebration supper. Claude had acquired 300 pine seedlings, thinking they could be potted in cups and placed at each dinner setting. "People can plant their pines as symbols of our growth," he said. "They'll always be reminded, seeing their trees, of this period in our church's life." It was a good idea, but it didn't suit the decorations planned by Anne, who visualized fine china and tasteful elegance—not pine trees and potting soil. They had a terrible row, and I hurried over to Claude's house, where his wife met me at the car, wringing her hands. "Have you come to help us with our problem?" she asked. I nodded grimly and went inside. When Claude told me his side of the story, I sensed he'd lost his temper and spoken harshly to Anne. "Claude," I said, "you've got to visit her and apologize."

"I did!" he said. "I did apologize. It didn't do any good."

"What did you say?" I asked.

"I told her I was sorry."

"You did?"

"Yes," he said, voice rising. "I told her I was sorry she was acting so immaturely."

It took all my powers of diplomacy to patch things up (we finally stuck the trees in elegant little flowerpots and handed them out as people left the ballroom), but both families eventually left the church.

Interpersonal conflict is a primary cause of burnout, so we take on the role of the loyal yokefellow. Paul uses this principle with Syzygus in his letter to the Philippians: "I urge Euodia and Syntyche to iron out their differences and make up …. Syzygus, since you're right there to help them work things out, do your best with them" (Philippians 4:2-3, The Message).

So we strive to mediate or prevent conflict. We're arranging lunch with a member of our missions team who has been unusually silent during the last few meetings—or absent altogether. I think she's upset, and I'd like to talk with her. Syzygus would have.

Paul: Give Recognition

Ever heard of Urbanus, Apelles, Tryphena, and Tryphosa? They weren't the most famous New Testament servants, but they must have beamed when the apostle Paul mentioned their hard work in his letter to the Romans. Paul's example prompted us to create opportunities like these:

  • While showing slides during the prelude or offertory on selected Sundays, highlight workers in various areas of church life.
  • Host an annual "Lay Ministry Sunday" with videos, testimonies, sermons, and sometimes a staff-hosted dinner for recognizing faithful workers.
  • Create videos of special events, such as our annual Kids' Jamboree. Then show two videos on successive Sundays—one featuring the kids, the other highlighting our workers.
  • Publish profiles of volunteers in our church newsletter.
  • Notes, calls, words of love, and lots of hugs from staff and members.
  • Select annually a "Lay Minister of the Year." One year's recipient was director of our teen choir. When Missy came forward to receive her plaque, teens from all over the audience rose spontaneously, joined her, and sang their theme to her, "Heaven Is Counting on You."

We can't do that every week, but we monitor and nurture morale all the time. That means becoming like Nehemiah, Syzygus, and Paul. And that means work.

But nothing works without it.

Robert J. Morgan is pastor of The Donelson Fellowship in Nashville, Tennessee. This article first appeared in Leadership journal.

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