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?