Posted on : Monday February 2, 2009

Dear Counselor:

Two years ago I accepted a volunteer position in my church to lead the youth program. I took the position because our church had a real need to attract younger families with children and because my own children were getting to the age when they needed a good program.

It has been a rough two years in which I have poured by soul into the program with only marginal results and with consistent complaining on the part of parents and church leaders that I am not doing enough. I am feeling burned out with nothing left to give, but I don’t want the program to fail. What should I do?

Dear “Burned Out:”

Burnout in ministry positions (paid or unpaid) is not uncommon and is generally experienced as emotional exhaustion and a feeling of having nothing left to give. Often this is the result of “over-care” when we have given too much. Giving too much can come from “external” forces, such as a church system anxious about its survival that places unrealistic expectations on a program or a person to fix its problems. Giving too much can also come from “internal” forces, such as our own need to be needed, or need to please, or the need to fix something in our own family system. Sometimes there is a “perfect match” between the external forces and internal forces that can bring on symptoms of burnout rather quickly.

We can evaluate if the burnout is the result of our own internal forces by asking questions about our ability to delegate, or to periodically get away from the ministry (like Jesus going up into the hills). If we have to “do it all,” or if we can never physically or mentally leave the ministry behind, or if our mood is dictated by how well a program went, the resulting burnout is perhaps being generated by our own internal needs.

In his book, Let Your Lives Speak, Parker Palmer suggests that we not only look at our internal needs, but also look at whether or not we are truly called to this ministry. He says, “Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess . . . . Burnout is a state of emptiness . . ., but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place. . . . When the gift I give to the other is integral to my own nature (my true calling) . . . it will renew itself – and me – even as I give it away” (p. 49).

Conversations with a mentor, a spiritual director, or a counselor might help you to determine if the burnout you are experiencing is coming from your own internal needs, or if it has something to do with your call to this particular ministry. If you have a handle on your own needs and if you are clearly called to this ministry, then you would want to clearly and kindly invite the complaining parents and church leadership into a discussion about appropriate expectations for this ministry, working to shift the anxiety of the church away from the youth program and back to those responsible for identifying and keeping focus on the church’s vision.

Send your questions by e-mail to [email protected].


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