Burnout and Civic (Communal) Involvement

Interesting article in the Times today that I think has implications for church involvement.

One of the messages as I understand it: burnout and disillusionment have lasting effects on people who engage in community, government, or charitable work. Also, that disillusionment goes far beyond any one organization. The article has a lot more to do with whether or not Teach for America is really configured at this point to produce citizens, or rather just teachers… but I do wonder about the broad pattern as applied to churches.

It’s an increasingly understood concept in congregational living that parishioner burnout is a Bad Thing™. What has not yet been made clear, however, is how churches can hope to reduce that burnout when they are struggling to do the same sorts of things with less and less resources – and less and less people. As Teach for America struggles with the implacable nature of education inequity as a source of burnout, so churches struggle with the implacable nature of shrinking and reconfiguring congregations.

Ironically, both systems are setup to require the influx of more volunteers who will become more disillusioned. (Though this isn’t a straight line, it’s not hard to roughly state… No educational equity = more need for an influx of volunteer teachers who then become disillusioned. Less people in pews = more need for multi-committee, do everything parishioners, who get burnt out from the lack of people in the pews. Rinse and repeat.)

My takeaway from the article is that we need to be more alert to the fact that burnt out parishioners don’t just stop volunteering for committee slots, they can stop going to church… and in some cases lose their faith entirely. Though our responsibilities to our congregations are many, our responsibilities to the larger body of Christ are much, much more.

This is a hard fact. It means that we have to do the work of making our churches DO LESS if we have less resources. It means focusing the congregation like a laser on the things that they can accomplish without exhausting themselves. We have to do this because its the only way to ensure that we don’t continue to weaken the larger church, and because we have to remember that grace abounds, and the ministry we can do today is enough for today, and tomorrow will have its own ministry. A model of church that advocated an ever expanding menu of church programs has given us shrinking congregations and burnout. Is there a way we can grow… by limiting ourselves?

One Comment

  1. I agree geoff with your perspective and it’s something I see in the arts sector as well; in particular, the American non-profit theater relies so heavily on volunteers that without a constant influx they would be unable to run. And those volunteers are also getting burnt out and tired of hard work without pay. And I agree that the problem as you state it comes from an organizations desire to be everything to everyone – a one stop shop. In fact, it may interest you to know that Theater blogger types have been discussing how theaters can learn from Church’s and Temples in that respect. They want the theater to function as the Church does to be the primary point for the individuals spiritual (though in this case through art) need. In my mind this is an issue. I agree that specificity is much more important than breadth. I would rather have an organization that does one or two things extremely well than many things with less quality and devotion.
    If you can develop something that is of superior quality people will respond. And if you lived in a community where many organizations exist that could each excel in one or two things then partnerships could be opened up, allowing your parishioners experiences beyond your walls.
    Keep up the good work! Glad to see you’re posting again.


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