We expect our congregations to be places of health and healing, an oasis in the midst of the demands and stresses of daily life. Yet some people experience great pain in their congregations, pain that robs them of the comfort their faith could give them. Burnout is one kind of pain that goes against the very promise of congregational life.

All systems that rely on the labor of individuals, if left to themselves, will encourage burnout. The workplace, nonprofit organizations, and congregations all have a tendency to push workers towards burnout because these systems have goals and leaders dedicated to meeting those goals. The people working within the system very easily become the means to an end, and that end is the accomplishment of goals. In a congregation, the goals are often lofty and energizing: rich and celebratory worship services, stimulating adult education, outreach to people who are poor and in need, care and concern for children and youth. The congregation has to keep a strong focus on its goals in order for the congregation as a whole to be healthy. Meeting those goals requires labor. The congregational system needs to get people working and keep them at it.

This is a tension, an irony that always exists in congregations. The need for hard work pushes congregation members towards diligent service, and that kind of service can take away the sense of refuge and rest that people need. The congregation that has the goal of bringing life and health to its members may also push people towards burnout because workers are needed.

The congregation as a system will tend to call people into service for the sake of duty, which unfortunately moves easily into workaholism. As individuals, we often begin serving with joy and appropriate love, and then something draws us into some form of compulsion. It takes effort on the part of leaders to keep priorities straight. Congregational leaders need to expend significant energy with deliberate intention in order to affirm the call to serve God with joy, from the heart, so that burnout will be less frequent.

We cannot create a faith community where all is joy and peace and rest. Some work needs to be accomplished in order for the community to exist. We cannot wait to enter into serving until our motives are completely healthy, and we cannot stop serving the moment we realize we have slid into compulsion. We are broken and flawed human beings. All we can do is try to do our best.

The congregation is a place where people expect to find life and health and healing. If a person or many people experience exhaustion, discouragement, and pain in the very place that promised to give life, then what does that say about our faith? Our values? God? I can only shake my head in the face of the irony that all too often the very place where we look for life and health, the very place where we expect to nurture and deepen a loving relationship with God, can cause so many to experience the exact opposite.

For some volunteers, their unpaid service is life-giving. For others, their serving is one more frantic commitment that keeps them rushing in the fast lane and robs them of the life and joy they might otherwise receive in their congregation. What makes the difference?

How can we recognize holy moments if we are moving so fast that life passes by us in a blur? How can we perceive God’s presence in time if our highest priority is accomplishing things?  The very place that provides refuge in the insane pace of our hurried daily life has to encourage its volunteers to keep moving and keep busy in order for the congregation to function. How can that be healthy?

Our congregations are full of people whose mornings and days and evenings are packed so full of activities that they often feel they do not have time to breathe. We need to help them learn to take the time to watch for holy moments. Some of our parishioners will experience those holy moments as they serve in the congregation. And some of them will be robbed of the ability to experience those holy moments because of the exhaustion caused by too much serving.

We have to hold in tension three truths:

  1. Many of the people in many of our congregations are infected with the “hurry sickness” that is epidemic in Western culture in the 21st century. They need their congregations to be places of refuge where they can find rest and refreshment. They need their congregations to encourage them to find a healthier rhythm as they live in time, and they need encouragement to notice holy moments.
  2. In order for congregations to be places of rest and refreshment, lots of things have to be done by lots of people. Congregations depend on volunteers in order to fulfill their holy purpose. So we simply cannot say that we want our congregations to be oases of peace where no one has to do anything productive, and everyone can experience rest and relaxation all the time. We need volunteers to enable the congregation to be what it is designed to be.
  3. Some people will find joy, satisfaction, and meaning in their service in their congregation. They will experience holy moments as they serve. Their service will actually have aspects that are refreshing to them. Others will be pushed by their serving to a place that is not healthy or life-giving, and their negative experience will probably spill over into their life of faith outside the congregation as well.


Some burnout seems to be inevitable. One mark of a healthy congregation is that people are encouraged to rejoice that God can work in their lives in all situations, including burnout. Indeed, burnout can enable us to reshape our priorities and have a fresh start. We can learn valuable lessons from burnout that we would not learn anywhere else.


Comment on this article on the Alban Roundtable blog   


Adapted from Beating Burnout in Congregations by Lynne M. Baab, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.



AL264_SMBeating Burnout in Congregations 
by Lynne M. Baab  

What is burnout? What causes congregational volunteers to burn out? How can congregations become oases of peace and nurture while still carrying out their mission and ministry? After reflecting on these important questions and dozens of interviews with congregational volunteers, Baab suggests, “We must not fear burnout; instead, we need to do a better job coming alongside people as they experience burnout and help them figure out what they are learning.”

AL344_SM Congregational Fitness: Healthy Practices for Layfolk 
by Denise W. Goodman

When serious conflict surfaces in a congregation, lay people are usually stunned. They feel frightened, angry, and helpless. Congregational Fitness explores why congregations are prone to conflict and describes healthy behaviors lay people can practice to manage conflict constructively. Goodman argues that since it is members of the congregation who carry on from one pastor to another, it is important for them to know and practice positive behaviors continually, rather than reacting out of emotion and anxiety to an unexpected situation.

AL304_SM Practicing Right Relationship: Skills for Deepening Purpose, Finding Fulfillment, and Increasing Effectiveness in Your Congregation 
by Mary K. Sellon and Daniel P. Smith

In a book that is both profound and practical, Mary Sellon and Daniel Smith make the case that the health of churches and synagogues depends on congregations learning how to live out love in “right relationships.” Practicing Right Relationship offers theories, stories, and tools that will help congregations and their leaders learn how to build and maintain the loving relationships that provide the medium for God’s transforming work.

AL289_SM The Honest to God Church: A Pathway to God’s Grace 
by Doug Bixby  

Bixby recommends we embrace the concept that we all are saints and sinners simultaneously. Churches that do this raise disciples who readily admit their sin and brokenness while anchoring their lives in God’s grace and working to spread the good news of that grace to the world. Rich in theological insights yet easy to read, The Honest to God Church challenges us to respond to Jesus’s call to come as we are, not as we think we ought to be.


Crunch Time in the Small Church
Webinar Series with Alice Mann, Alban Senior Consultant

Mann, Alice We Can’t Keep Going Like This!
Reframing a Crisis of Viability as a Chance for Change

Tuesday, September 14, 2010 2:00 PM EDT

What Choices Do We Have?
Evaluating the Options in a Time of Transition

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 2:00 PM EDT

Let’s Not Go It Alone
Merger and Cluster Approaches

Wednesday, September 29, 2010 2:00 PM EDT


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