Keeping Church Volunteers from Burning Out

Church Matters

If your church fits the stereotype that 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work, then you can bet your last dollar that 100 percent of those 20 percent either are in the process of burning out, burnt out long ago and are simply mailing in the work they once did so graciously, or are on their way to the furnace, being carried there by a congregation and staff who have probably taken them for granted since their first day changing diapers in the nursery.

Church volunteer burnout . . . It is real, and it is slowly killing the local church, one collapsed and exhausted disciple after another.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way. In fact, it absolutely cannot be that way. But what can you—the overworked, underpaid, crazy-busy pastor who absolutely cannot add anything else to you or your wife’s list of things to handle—do to keep your volunteers fresh, healthy, and serving the Lord with gladness in their hearts?

A “volunteer” can still be paid in gratefulness. Have your church’s volunteers ever received in the mail a handwritten thank-you note from their pastor? If not, get ready to treat a hand cramp, because you have a lot of writing to do tonight. I know you are grateful for all their hard work serving you and the church, but do they know that? Better yet, have they heard that from your mouth, from your handwriting? I’m not talking about one expression of appreciation at a quarterly training for all the volunteers. They need to hear from you personally, face-to-face, just how much their continued sacrifice on the worship team or serving donuts means to you. A little personal appreciation goes a loooooonnnnnnggggg ways to treating volunteer burnout.

But a sacrificial monetary gift can help a great deal too from time to time. I’m not talking about putting your nursery workers on the payroll, although depending on how bad your own kids are, that wouldn’t be the worst idea. No, you need to make sure the financial committee or the executive pastor or whoever is in charge of the budget is including a line item that allows you to give them Starbucks cards on their birthdays, a book or CD at Christmas, an appreciation dinner at a steakhouse. And no, that last one is not a joke. Your small group leaders and parking attendants are giving you their absolute best every week, or at least that’s what you’re expecting from them. Don’t they, too, deserve the best in appreciation? Miss Ethel’s cold lasagna doesn’t say thanks nearly as well as a sirloin, medium-well.

“Sign” volunteers to time constraints. Somewhere in your church is a mom who went to drop her baby off one day at the nursery, saw they were short-handed, graciously volunteered to help out that week . . . and two years later has gone gray at age thirty and told her husband that they’re never having another baby. All because the leeches coordinating the childcare took her for granted and sucked all the joy of serving out of her.

Or maybe someone volunteered to teach a young married Sunday school class, because they wanted to invest for a time in new marriages, but after three years, they’re ready to be a part of a class of their own peers, not needing to prepare a lesson each and every week.

Depending on your church size and where the needs are, you need to strongly consider having, say, something like a six-month-long commitment to your volunteer positions. Reevaluate every January and July, resting in-between knowing that in March you’re not going to lose your number one preschool teacher, because you know she is going to honor her six-month commitment and won’t get prematurely burnt out. “Indefinitely” is scary to a volunteer. But six months? Maybe even a year? (No longer than that, though.) They can handle that. The light at the end of the tunnel is always within eye sight.

Have a mandatory time off from serving. Again, this will look different depending on your church makeup and other factors, but at the end of six months, or twelve tops, do not allow your volunteers to resign again until the next six-month signing period. Or at the very least, help them find a new area to sign a contract for. For someone who has been holding babies for a year, it would be a gigantic blessing to them to be able to simply hold doors open for a time. But the important thing is to make sure they are given the church’s blessing to move positions or take time off guilt-free. Sure, you have many former teachers, choir members, or baby rockers sitting in the service each Sunday, but the servant in them is feeling guilty for not helping more. Relieve them of that guilt by not allowing them to sign another contract for a certain amount of time.

Church volunteer burnout . . . It is real and it’s deadly. In fact, four out of five volunteers suffer from it daily. And the fifth person is lying to your face. But you as the pastor can do something about it. Start right now, though, before the next servant flames out.


Kevin Harvey is the author of two books, which can both be found here at Amazon. You can also read about his family’s ongoing journey of adoption through foster care at Find him on Twitter at @PopCultureKevin.


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