I want to begin by saying that I have been on both sides of church volunteerism. I have been the overextended minister, desperate to find volunteers to help keep the church afloat. I have made the endless phone calls, wearing the pages of the church directory thin as I scour them for some generous soul to help pick up the pieces for Sunday. I have been the minister wearing three hats at once—preacher, Sunday school teacher, worship leader—praying that maybe someday I will be able to wear just one of the hats. I have also been the expendable summer intern, whose primary job was to find volunteers to lead communion thoughts, read Scripture, say a prayer, help in the nursery, or really do anything to help church happen. Church does not happen without volunteers. In fact, church could keep being church if it ran exclusively on volunteers; but the church would cease to be the church without active participation from the congregants. So ministers, I feel your pain when you feel short-handed.
But now I find myself on the other side of this problem. I am not currently employed by a church. I teach full-time for ACU’s Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry, which is certainly a type of ministry, but it is not church ministry. I love the church, and I know the importance of participating in the life of the church. You don’t have to try to convince me to stay plugged in. You don’t have to bribe me or beg me to maintain my allegiance. I have 100% bought into the necessity of being in Christian community. For this reason, I help wherever I can. I have gifts in preaching, teaching, and worship leading. My congregation has the preaching and teaching department covered for the most part, so I find myself volunteering in worship ministry quite often. By quite often, I mean to say that for a couple of years, I only took a handful of Sundays off. And now I am completely burnt out.
Yep. I had a good run. I gave endless hours to worship practices and Sunday morning worship. I even began leading worship on Wednesdays. But now I have run out of steam. I am an exhausted volunteer. Thankfully, our worship minister has been very understanding. I told him I needed to pull back from some of my volunteering because I was exhausted, and he graciously affirmed my decision. However, now I find myself reflecting on the past few years, wondering how I reached this breaking point in my volunteering, and what could have gone differently.
Having been a minister before, I have a word for the ministers who might read this article. Your volunteers clearly care about your community. Many of them have sacrificed more time than they really could afford because they care so much about the mission of the church. You have Sunday school teachers who have taught every Sunday for decades. You have greeters who arrive early every Sunday to pour out love on all who arrive. You have worship team volunteers, communion helpers, prayer teams—people who love to serve and encourage the church. When was the last time you thanked them? When was the last time you blessed them? Many of these volunteers work, while rightfully never expecting anything in return. But many of them are truly exhausted, burnt out, and unsure of how to balance service with self-care. They need your encouragement. Ministers, here is my word to you: take care of your volunteers. Look after them. Help them sustain their work. Know them well enough to know when they need to take a break. Do not make them feel guilty for being tired, or for requesting time away. Remember that your volunteers are just that—they are volunteers who work out of the goodness of their hearts with no compensation. Do not demand of them more than they can give.
Now, from one volunteer to many others, I have a word for those of you who are exhausted. You have faithfully loved the church as Christ loves the church. You have given your life to others. You have allowed yourself to be poured out week after week expecting nothing in return. You have truly been the hands and feet of our Lord. And yet, you might need to hear this: it is okay to take a step back. If you are tired, if you are burnt out, if you need to recalibrate your walk with Christ, then reduce some of your volunteer work. I promise you, the world will keep spinning, and the church will keep thriving if you pause to take a breath. In fact, if you fear that the church will crumble without your work, than you need to carefully reconsider who it is that sustains the church. Here’s a hint—it’s not you, and it’s not me. God sustains the church; we merely partner in that work. So in case nobody has told you lately, it is okay to invest in some self-care. In fact, it is necessary to invest in self-care. Take some time to dwell in the peace of God so that you can continue to hear God’s call in your life.
I am an exhausted volunteer, but I am in repair. I have taken a step back to rest, and now I am capturing a view of the church that I rarely get to see. I am witnessing all of the incredibly gifted people in our fellowship who love to serve our church as much as I do. I am watching God raise up younger volunteers in our community who will help tend our flock for years to come. I am allowing others to care for me during this season, as I listen carefully for God’s voice. Ultimately, I am praising God for inviting all of us to partner together to fulfill God’s purposes; we were never called to shoulder the work on our own.