How can we help volunteers avoid burnout in a church plant?
At our church, we run primarily on volunteers. When I asked our volunteer base at Pillar Church how we can help them avoid burnout, I got some great feedback.
Lt. Col. Alex Chatman, our volunteer elder/youth leader for the past decade, was the first to answer. Spoken like a true Marine, his advice was “Encourage a rigorous exercise routine. That way, you increase capacity and won’t get worn out so easily.” Alex may be in a different category – he was, after all, a contestant on American Gladiators in the 90s!
I’d like to propose five additional things you can do to help volunteers avoid burnout in a church plant:
1. Point them to the true prize
If your volunteers feel like they’re doing what they’re doing simply to help you, their gas will run out very quickly. They won’t be getting enough affirmation, or they might not be recognized as much as they think they deserve. However, if we help our volunteers see their work as unto the Lord, they will find a deeper motivation to their service. Philippians 3:14 says, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” How can you point your volunteers to this prize?
2. Pray together
Prayer is not an afterthought, but the fuel to our ministry. Through prayer, we depend on God before we engage in ministry, during ministry and even after ministry. I love how our (volunteer) worship leader bathes each rehearsal in prayer. He reminds our volunteer worship team of what’s most important before we enter the haze of sound checks and chord charts. He casts vision even to our bass player so he can see how his part is contributing to the mission. At the end of service, we celebrate what God has done by circling up to pray again. When we pray with our volunteers, we lead them to the throne room where we can gaze into the face of Jesus. It’s there we find the love and grace that compels us to serve.
3. Help your volunteers find their sweet spot
Are you tempted to ask Jen to lead children’s ministry because you’re desperate, or did you take some time to discover where her gifts could best be utilized? What if she has the gift of evangelism and could better lead the charge in this way?
I get it. This takes effort and Sunday morning is rapidly approaching with its many logistics. But, despite the desperation we feel to fill every hole, we must remember that no one wants to feel forced into serving. 2 Corinthians 9:7 says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” We want cheerful servants in our churches, and that means slowing down the train to help our church members discover their sweet spot.
When our volunteers are operating in their giftedness, their service won’t feel draining (or as draining). It will be energizing, life-giving and fruitful. Does this sound overly simplistic and naïve? After all, there is a ton to do. This brings me to my next point.
4. Act your age
The truth is every church is at different stage of development. Some are in the vulnerable infancy stage, some are beginning to become independent and toddle around and some are fully independent (after passing through the oh-so-fun sophomoric stage of adolescence!). We put a strain on our volunteers when we fail to recognize what stage we’re in and accept the limitations that come with it.
In Pillar Church’s early days, much effort was put into setting up for service in a large room. The thing was, we only had roughly 25 people. Once we decided to act our age, we moved to a smaller room with a simpler setup. This allowed time for relationships and energy to be directed more strategically. As time went on and we grew, we moved to a larger room. But this time we had more volunteers to help with the added responsibilities.
Sure, in one sense, we should have faith and stretch ourselves beyond what we think is possible. But at the same time, we can only do so much if we are relying primarily on volunteers. This takes discernment and prayer. If you sense your volunteers are stretched in a particular ministry, you may need to recruit more and deepen the bench of that volunteer base. This might mean not launching the ministry you had hoped to start this fall. Act your age. Accept limitations. Trust the process. Take care of your volunteers and watch them flourish.
5. Value rest as a church
Our American culture doesn’t particularly value rest, and this mentality has crept into our churches. Of course, it’s complicated. We’re to “make the best use of the time because the days are evil,” (Eph. 5:16) and give Christ our best efforts. But we’re also limited. At the end of the day, we must entrust both our accomplishments and our lack of accomplishments to God. We are to lay down our lives to build His kingdom and then lay our heads on the pillow of His sovereignty. We can only do so much. Trust God to be God. He will grow His church in His time and in His way.
I just got home from talking with one of our key volunteer couples. Matt has faithfully been a ministry leader for many years and his wife, Kate, is involved in almost everything you can be involved in. They exude joy and their service overflows from hearts that have truly been transformed by the gospel. They prayerfully consider their capacity and have at times stepped down from serving in certain ways. They value rest as a family each week by intentionally setting aside “non-accomplishment” time. And as a result, they bless our church in so many ways with their generosity of time, energy and service.
Church planter, keep your eyes on the prize of Christ Jesus. Be faithful to follow Him. Pour out your life for His church and you will attract people who can’t help but overflow with the gospel you’re giving them.
Published October 17, 2022