Experts: remedies for volunteer burnout

It’s an all-too-common problem.

Church members volunteer for a ministry with the best intentions, but the demands of the job overwhelm them. After just a few months they burn out and quit.

Nearly every church faces burnout, and recently a group of Baptist experts suggested how congregations can avoid it.

“One mistake that a pastor can make very easily with his laypeople is if he finds a guy that is a doer and will do things, the pastor will work him to death and then not understand what happens when he just kind of disappears,” James Bryant, senior professor of pastoral theology at Criswell College in Dallas, said.

Often burnout occurs because volunteer workers “never got burned in properly,” said David Francis, director of Sunday School at LifeWay Christian Resources.

“Enlistment should be done personally, with expectations clearly explained in two categories: what is expected of the worker and what the worker can expect of the leader,” Francis said.

Randy Fields, pastor at New Covenant Baptist Church in Grass Valley, Calif., helped youth ministry volunteers know what was expected of them by giving every new worker a printed handbook with a philosophy for ministry, a description of the ministry and job descriptions for every volunteer position.
After reading the handbook, each prospective volunteer met with Fields to decide which job best suited him or her.

“I enlist a volunteer only after she understands the philosophy and agrees with it,” Fields wrote in a LifeWay article titled “How to Train and Retain Youth Workers.” “She then serves for a six-week probationary time with a mentoring youth worker, during which she is empowered to do ministry.

“Following the six-week probation, the volunteer is asked to sign a one-year commitment to work in youth ministry. This provides a definite end to her term of service if she feels that God is leading her to another place of service in the church.”

Bryant agreed that proper placement of workers is vital to avoiding burnout. Churches must take care to place volunteers is positions that utilize their spiritual gifts, he said.

“People burn out when they are functioning in ministries outside of their basic spiritual gift,” Bryant said. “I think that a lot of laypeople never discover their spiritual gift because most pastors don’t ever talk about it. A lot of pastors don’t know their basic spiritual gift.”

Bryant recommended LifeWay materials on spiritual gifts as well as Bill Gothard’s “Advanced Seminar.” Such studies can help church members realize which gifts God has given them, Bryant said.

In addition to improper enlistment, inadequate resources and inadequate training can also be causes of worker burnout, Francis said. Regularly, Sunday School workers become frustrated because they lack even basic materials such as chalk, pencils, crayons and construction paper, he said.

“A frustrated children’s teacher called our office just last week,” Francis said. “We discovered the source of her frustration: her church has asked her to teach children but had purchased only a leader’s guide. No learner guides with essential activities. No leader pack. No teaching pictures.”

Burnout can also be caused by an insufficient team supporting a worker, Francis said. If churches fail to organize workers in teams, isolation leads to stress and eventual giving up, he said.

Francis said volunteers will not feel isolated if adult Sunday School classes stay connected with and celebrate the members they have released to serve in other ministries. Often people serving in other ministries during Sunday School time can be classified as associate members of their adult departments.

“They should assign them the best care-group leader,” he said of associate members. “Make a poster with the names of all their associate members. Perhaps even take and post digital photographs of the associate members in their class. Adult classes should treat the members they’ve released for service like celebrities and honor them as missionaries for the class.”

Another remedy for burnout is to provide training for volunteers, Francis said. Training for a wide variety of workers is available through state conventions and associations as well as conferences at LifeWay’s Glorieta and Ridgecrest Conference Centers, he said.

After workers have served in their jobs for a period of time, giving them a break often prevents burnout, Francis said.

“I was the speaker for a training session for all Sunday School workers on a Sunday morning during Sunday School,” he said. “Subs had been enlisted for every class. The workers were treated to a full-blown country breakfast. Each received a special gift.

Rick Yount, professor of foundations of education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said churches must take particular care to place senior adults in appropriate ministry positions. Many times seniors burn out in ministry because pastors give up on them and view them as impediments to change, he said.

“Quite frankly, it is a sin to give up on older members,” Yount said. “Repent! Church members do not exist to make the pastor a success. Pastors exist to ‘equip the saints for works of service,’ helping them to ‘speak the truth in love,’ pleasing God in every way (Ephesians 4). It is a life-long task, one that seniors gladly embrace.

“The evolution of ministry approaches will go more smoothly when we include seniors in the discussion of changes which may be made. It is a sad situation when leaders force changes which require rejecting the very people who have been working faithfully for years.”

If a church must cancel ministries in which seniors are serving, every effort should be made to help each senior find a new place of service, he added.

“When ailments hinder members from doing their work, they are aware of the problems,” he said. “We can work with them to find less demanding, yet important, areas of ministry. Can they no longer go visiting?
They can make phone calls. Can they no longer visit the hospitals? They can write notes. Can they no longer teach a class? They can help other teachers by doing various kinds of research (commentaries, word studies, map studies). Can they no longer teach children? They can advise younger workers.”

In his book “The Volunteer Revolution,” Bill Hybels writes that a great volunteer culture never happens by accident, but always requires a major investment by church staff. He reminds:

?A new volunteer is a fragile volunteer. Vulnerable to discouragement and disillusionment, Hybels said, “That first volunteer experience may well determine that person’s attitude toward ministry for the rest of his or her life.” He warns, “A serving experience that feels consistently defeating can push people to the point where they’ll accept the guilt of quitting, climb back up on the spectator’s stand, cross their arms, and dare another church leader to get them onto the serving field.”

Instead, he advises, check in with volunteers and ask a few basic assessment questions to see how the experience went, learning whether adjustments need to be made.

?The easiest way to defeat a volunteer is to waste his or her time. Hybels describes the volunteer who leaves work early, gets a babysitter, drives 45 minutes, and shows up ready to serve, only to discover he isn’t even needed, it’s all busy work, or the project isn’t ready on time. In other cases too much is piled on one volunteer. “Remember that you’re not just filling a serving slot to meet a need; you’re guiding a willing-hearted Christ-follower along a pathway toward a fulfilling, fruitful lifestyle of servanthood.”

?Servants need to be reminded?constantly?that what they’re doing is not in vain. Citing Matthew 6:4 and 1 Corin

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