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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Lay Leader Burn-out

With apologies for our late posting today, here is this week's question:
I am 2 months into my first call to a family size church (worships ~ 90 each Sunday and 20 children in SS) in suburban community. The church has been through 5 pastors in the past 5 years and has been on 'survival mode'. Many of the officers and active families are experiencing burnout. It would be so helpful to hear some thoughts from you all on different ways to approach these symptoms of the bigger systemic issue facing our church. The ever-changing church in today's society facing so much 'competition' -- i.e. sports, work, family - that there isn't as much energy for church.

What are some options to resolve the symptoms (short term) while focusing on the larger, long-term issues?

Matriarch Jennifer writes:

Your question has several facets. You ask about how to help active church folks with “burn-out” and you raise some cultural issues (priorities and cultural demands) as well something that’s particular to your setting (5 pastors in as many years).

Don’t know your denomination, but I’m wondering what kind of resources, support and background you have regarding so much turnover. It sounds like a draining situation for a congregation to have almost constant change. Perhaps consulting some folks who know your setting, but are one step removed would be helpful.

Spending time listening to those who have invested time and effort within your church family will be important. What brings them joy? What is energy draining? Are there programs and activities that have run their course? Is it time for your governing body to have a thoughtful conversation about what’s most needed, and what can pass by the wayside as you grow in strength and energy is restored? Are there people who are being overlooked for leadership? Could they make good leaders while some others take a rest? Can some programs take a rest while your congregation assesses what comes next?

Ultimately, I think it’s very important for your congregation’s members to voice what they need most for their souls to sing. When folks are invited to identify what they think are the highest priorities, often the energy to pursue them follows. If “musts” and “shoulds” are imposed upon folks, generally speaking, energy wanes.

Best to you!

Jennifer offers a lot of good thoughts here. This is a tough situation! What else would you have to say to this minister?

We only have one more question in the queue at this point, so as usual, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to discuss, please send it our way at


  1. A church that has been through 5 pastors in 5 years almost certainly has some serious, underlying, hidden-or-not-so-hidden systemic dysfunction... don't let them tell you that it was the pastors' "fault.

    If I were you, I'd focus my efforts on beginning to uncover/figure out that dynamic, b/c without addressing those issues (and having a healthy place to invite people into), working on the cultural piece is futile.

    And besides, without dealing with the systemic congregational stuff, you're likely to be the 6th pastor in 6 years! With only two months under your belt there, you have a unique opportunity to "see things as they are", b/c you are still an "outsider" to the system.

    I've been where you are... it's hard work... take care of yourself... recognize what you can or cannot change... be prepared for them to scapegoat you... and if you can, you might want to talk to (some of) the previous five pastors to learn what they saw/did that made their pastorates so threatening to the people of your congregation ('cause otherwise they'd have lasted longer than a year, eh?).

    Good luck!!

  2. As others have said and you have acknowledged there are some larger systemic things going on here. Without addressing those, but going straight to the question asked, or maybe even missing that a little...

    The fall Alban Institute issue of Congregations has an article right now that sort of works on this from the preventative end of things - a discussion of reframing volunteer work in the congregation from "filling slots" to service that has value to the life of the servant, too. In a nutshell it talks about matching interests, gifts, and individual calls to the work needed in the church, something most of us try to do already, but sometimes it just doesn't happen. There are also suggestions of ways to try to lead the congregation in changing their thinking about volunteer service. Here's the article.

  3. I wish I had some constructive advice, but we have something of the same problem in our church. We can't seem to get newer members interested in helping out. We even scheduled a special day where our regular volunteers would teach interested newbies how to do various tasks at our church -- sacristy duty, working the sound system, ushering, lectoring -- and almost no new people showed up. It's hard not to get frustrated by people who seem to think that our Sunday worship and other ministries magically "happen." There seems to be a generational element to this mindset as well (said the crabby middle-aged woman).

  4. I ditto others on systemic stuff.

    And for LC, and others frustrated by lack of volunteers, I also agree it might be time to re-assess what's actually needed. Remember, the structure is there is serve the people, the people are not there to serve the structure. So if people arent showing up for stuff, it's a good idea to see if it can rest, and to find out in a gentle way the gifts/interests of the new folks.

    I was an intern at a church with a pastor who was the KING of non-anxious presence. There was a period where no one was volunteering to host coffee hour. Instead of flying into frantic recruitment mode (as I probably would do) he let it go. Three weeks went by with no coffee hour, and then a list came out and people came forward to do it. But that's because it was important to them. If it hadnt been, it could have died out, but people would have been able to put their energy into what was really important.

    Of course, you run a risk if you lead that way, but it helps people really claim and put themselves behind what is actually important to them.

  5. What a great topic--and very relevant to my situation, too. Also in a new call (similar size church) for two months, but following a rector who was here for 18+ years (and was a bit of a control freak...but that's another story). As I hear people's stories and read old records what I'm discovering is that the leadership now comprises the same pool of people who were leaders 10-15 years ago! They just keep rotating jobs. So it is a challenge to raise up some new leaders. Thanks for the article link, SheRev, and I'll be interested in what others have to say.

  6. Your situation is similar to mine when I started. Some of the most helpful advice I got in those first years was from a friend who suggested that maybe I was worrying too much about finding the "right" motivation to get people active. "Many they're tired," he said. "Maybe they need you to carry stuff for a while, so they can catch their breath."

    They had also been through a lot of transition, which is exhausting for lay leaders. They felt repeatedly abandoned. Once I had been given "permission" not to focus on "empowering lay leadership" like I'd been taught was the best and right thing to do, we were able to be church the best we could while we all caught our breath. (This was my first call.)

    After a few years, once they started realizing I wasn't going to abandon them, and we created a new, more functional leadership structure, and some new people had shown up, people have gotten involved again.

    I think one of the worst traps we set for ourselves is trying to accomplish our goals far too quickly.

    I'd focus on stability right now, if I were you, and not over-doing it. Quality worship is a beautiful thing in itself. If you can do that, the rest will come eventually.

    (And, of course, beware of whatever systemic messiness is there. But a sense that you're committed to staying will likely wear down the dysfunction a little.)

  7. My thought is... Invite them to read a book together called "Simple Church" - it takes you through a journey together to decide "what it is we are called to do" -- and then build your mission statement, your purpose and your ministries around that. Are you trying to take on every idea and project? Do you have "big church envy"? Maybe what has happened is that you have programs and/or ideas from generations past that are not "big" any more... or maybe your denomination has been shoving programs down your throat and you just don't want to DO them all... I am betting that you have too many irons in the fire and need to simplify.

    If you do this as a church leadership, then you have the opportunity to talk about "what do we dream of doing as a church" and then head that way...

    Lots of prayer, lots of listening, of course. But my experience is that if you have something to organize your minds around together, you will have a good start!



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