Burnout Among Church Volunteers

Church membership should not be a source of weariness and burden

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One of my favorite Bible verses is from the Gospel of Matthew:

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (11:28-30)

I love, so much, the idea that God (in Jesus) knows that the world will be heavy, and exhausting; and he tells us to put our weariness and our fatigue in him. I will give you rest, he reassures us; your souls will find rest

But what if that heaviness and exhaustion comes not only from the grind of the world, but from church?

I have a vivid memory of the Sunday morning before Christmas Eve in 2017; in addition to my usual work at my cathedral’s audio board, I was also collecting the monthly donations for local food banks, helping a friend with her seminary application, doing one of the morning’s readings, and submitting my bio to join the cathedral’s lay-led governing board (the vestry, as its known in Episcopal churches). And, of course, it was the last Sunday before Christmas Eve, so add in the usual chaos in a church before one of the biggest days of the year. 

Ten minutes before that morning’s service began, I realized my nose was bleeding. I never get nosebleeds. It took a cadre of friends to get me to sit down, until my head stopped pounding and my blood stayed where it was supposed to. 

That story sounds bad, but the worst thing about it was that I loved it; I loved the adrenaline, I loved being so involved and so active; I loved that, not even two years after coming to that church, I was doing so much. 

Not all of that came from a bad place. Joining my Episcopal church turned a light on in my head and my soul that I didn’t know could shine as brightly as it did. Despite attendances in churches all my life—Catholic, Anglican, United Methodist, non-denominational—nothing awoke my spirituality more than my experiences in the Episcopal Church. 

So I threw myself in, signing up for every ministry and program I could sink my teeth into. But underneath the excitement at finding my new spiritual home was something more selfish; I wanted to be the superstar volunteer, the first one there and the last one to leave. Maybe I thought I’d get to heaven before anyone else, I don’t know; what I know is that it took my seminarian friend to gently point out that blood coming out of my nose was not a good thing. 

No one volunteers at church with the expectation of burnout. But burnout comes, and it’s insidious. It never seems like burnout, at first; you’re asked to join a ministry (or, in an Episcopal church, one of many, many committees), or you see a notice in the bulletin that a new group is starting. How could you say no? Church is your spiritual home; it might be your social home. Who wouldn’t want to spend time with their friends, doing good work for their church, their community, for the Kingdom of God itself?

Before you know it, you’re drawn deeper in, because the needs of the church, and the world it serves, never end. Volunteering becomes a draining chore, taking up not just more of your time, but your energy, your enthusiasm, your spirit. 

Maybe the thought comes to you that you can step back a little, but on its heels are the other thoughts: 

  • But how will this get done? 
  • Who else is going to do it? 
  • What will people say if I stop? 
  • Would my priest be disappointed in me? 
  • Would God?

So you plow on; tired, stressed, frustrated, resentful. Eventually you’ll miss a meeting, and you don’t think about rescheduling; maybe you oversleep on a Sunday morning, and you feel more of a relief than an oversight. Or you reach a breaking point—too many demands on your time, too many fraught meetings—and you’re done. Your heart isn’t in it anymore. You’re not going back to church. 

I think burnout among laypeople tends to get overlooked. If we’re not clergy or church staff, there’s a belief that the hard work of church doesn’t apply to us; we can stop anytime, so what’s there to complain about?

But in the conversations I’ve had, with ordained and lay people alike, burnout affects everyone. Some have told me about being frustrated that church becomes more about volunteer meetings than about worship; others mention that their volunteering was “hoped” to take some of the workload off their priests’ shoulders. One person told me about a lingering dread they had going to church on Sundays, because of all the people they had to talk with about ministries and groups and events. 

There is a responsibility among volunteers to answer the call of church stewardship; this can mean financial giving, but it can—and should—also mean giving of our time and our talents. But is responsibility, without joy, motivating anymore? A church operating in the voluntary association model, without volunteers, will scant get anything done. 

But swing the pendulum to the other end, and imagine a church where volunteers feel like they will never get another chance to sit in a pew and worship. 

Something I’ve thought about, as I’ve both managed my time better, and again found myself committed to multiple ministries, is the passage of seasons. “To everything,” the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “there is a season.” I wonder if, for some of us, there should be a season of volunteering, and a season for not volunteering. 

This might mean saying no to a lot of good things, and watching from the pews as others do the work you wanted to do. This might mean that some ministries in the church will slow down; some programs will be put on hold; some events will not happen. 

This can be disappointing for everyone; but if burnout among volunteers is a real problem, avoiding burnout starts by saying “no,” with the trust that the “yes” will come when the time is right. 

And maybe the toughest treatment for burnout is that trust; the trust that God will take care of us, and of our churches; that even as we opt out of an important ministry, God will show us when we can next put our name forward; that even as another ministry has to sunset because of a lack of volunteers, God will show us when something new might grow in its space.

Churches should never be an extension of hustle culture. Church membership is not something we should do passively, and it should not be the source of the weariness and burden that Jesus spoke of in the Gospel of Matthew. Both are true. 

So the next time I’m tempted to sign up for another ministry I don’t have the energy for, I hope I trust in God enough to say no (or “not now”); and I hope that the next volunteer who notices that they have a stress-induced nosebleed is gently reminded that they don’t have to bleed for church in order for God to love them.

Join Faith+Lead for a live online workshop Burned out and Overwhelmed led by Jorge Acevedo on February 29th.

  • Michael Perera

    Michael Perera is an Episcopalian and a freelance writer living in Seattle. He is passionate about the role of Christianity in social justice, with a particular focus on racial reconciliation, immigration advocacy, and indigenous justice. He has two guitars he doesn't play enough, and an inhumanly long reading list that he promises he'll get to one of these days.

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