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Avoiding the Burnout Trap

Avoiding the Burnout Trap

Game-Changing Strategies for Student Ministry Leaders

Logan Bailey

Discipleship Pastor

Peace Church

Published On:

January 15, 2024

We all know how it goes: a new volunteer joins the youth ministry with joy, spunk, and high hopes… and then jumps ship sad and embittered only a short season later. This is the story of burnout. Burnout is the off-ramp for many volunteers in the world of student ministry, and as staff leaders we are all too familiar with it. We’ve all wondered if there is anything we can do to stop it. Can we help a student ministry volunteer avoid burnout? Well, the answer is YES. But the way to answer this question is by asking (and answering) two other questions: 1) What is burnout? 2) What is a student ministry volunteer?

What is Burnout?

Burnout is what we call the wearisome fizzling out of a once-motivated individual. It is often accompanied by anger or bitterness. A candle can burn nice and bright at first, but a pool of wax can drown the flame. It is heartbreaking to witness and numbing to experience. If someone is on a path towards burning out, the best way to guarantee an eventual fizzle is to not talk about it and not address it.

The usual cause of burnout is assumed to be overworking, but mere overworking does not give a full picture of the root rot. If overworking were the problem then the solution would be to just ask less from your volunteers. However, when all we do is ask less from our volunteers we inadvertently communicate to them that we want less of their voices, gifts, and talents.

The problem is actually more complicated than overworking (which means we need to change our approach to address it). Burnout does not stem from working on too many things; burnout stems from working on too many of the wrong things. It is a matter of priorities. When we order our priorities well, we are able to manage a larger list of responsibilities. One of the reasons for this is because our stressors correlate with our priorities. Therefore, staff leaders need to give a clear description of role and responsibilities.

What is a Student Ministry Volunteer?

Staff leaders need to clearly articulate the priorities of a student ministry volunteer and consistently lead them accordingly. This will help avoid burnout in our volunteers because it will keep our volunteers from assuming a faulty or unhealthy list of priorities and stress. The hard work starts with us. Our clear guidelines for a student ministry volunteer leader need to be biblical, thoughtful, and avoid the pitfalls of being too much or too little.

Having volunteers in a ministry is a biblical concept. Ephesians 4:12 explicitly refers to the average Christians primarily doing the work of ministry, not just an upper echelon of Christians. All Christians are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus (1 Corinthians 12:27), which means our volunteers are ordained for our ministries in a general sense. Encourage your volunteer leaders with this truth! And then clearly outline a thoughtful list of responsibilities.

At Peach Church we define the volunteer role this way: “Minister as a Volunteer Leader under the leadership of the Staff Leader and within the team of Volunteer Leaders.” It might seem technical, but we are aiming to be accurate. After defining the role, we list two basic responsibilities: attend and support ministry events (meaning, every Sunday night of student ministry and every leader meeting) and be fully integrated into the life of Peace Church (meaning, make relationships with other leaders and students, and pursue numerical growth and spiritual development). In simple terms: “be present” and “be active.” We give that general description to every volunteer.

Giving a general description is only the first step. The second step is to define the more unique roles of the ministry. For example, small group leaders need a role description and clear responsibilities. Whoever runs your games or activities needs a role description and clear responsibilities. The snack coordinator needs a role description and clear responsibilities. If someone does it, be clear about the responsibilities and goals.

Clarity is especially important in regard to a small group leader (or anyone in a mentorship-like role). We need to be clear with volunteers that they are only responsible for their actions towards students; volunteers are not responsible for the students' actions. Pray for the Lord to move while you stay within your limits! Don’t allow a volunteer to attempt to be the Christ for someone by taking on responsibilities they should not.

Burnout Versus Retention

We help student ministry volunteers avoid burnout through clarity and thoughtful guidance. Your role as a staff leader is to structure the ministry and show your volunteers how they fit in the vision! In essence, the conglomeration of roles and responsibilities should be like a functional body smoothly working together.

But to be clear, this is not “how to have perfect volunteer retention” or “how to convince a volunteer to not leave.” Volunteers come and go, and burnout is actually not the primary reason for departures. In all likelihood, a volunteer who is stepping out has rearranged his/her priorities and student ministry is not on the top of the list.

Burnout is not about volunteer retention (if it was, then the conversation would be about rhythms of appreciation and feedback and other retention-oriented things); Burnout is a more fundamental problem. Burnout abducts volunteers from the ministry who would otherwise choose to serve, but can’t. May we help our volunteers serve where they are called through clarity and thoughtful guidance, structuring a ministry that “bear[s] one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

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