Margaret Marcuson: Do You Have Leaders Who Are Burned Out?

Most clergy are overfunctioners, with a tendency to take responsibility in relationships and in leadership. Of course, they are not alone. Many church leaders are as well, and they can get to the edge of burnout. What do you do when you’ve got a volunteer who is exhausted or resentful?

Here’s the bind for pastors: We want the work to continue, and we worry about what will happen to an important ministry if an overfunctioning leader steps down. At the same time, a stressed and cranky lay leader doesn’t help move the ministry forward.

Here are a few things to think about:

  1. Serve as a coach to your leaders, to help them assess the best use of their gifts now and in the future.

  2. Give people permission to let go, or take a break, or try something new. Some lay leaders don’t want to disappoint us so they keep going--and of course they care about the church, probably more than we do.

  3. This requires you letting go of the outcome. You can’t control what decisions people make, you can only define yourself to them. You also can’t control what happens when people say yes or no to a particular opportunity, or to stepping down.

When overfunctioners get resentful, it doesn’t help the work. This is true of pastors and of volunteer leaders. Usually resentment is a sign that it’s time for someone to step back. It can be good for the long-term health of a congregation when overfunctioning leaders step back, especially when they are burned out or worn out.

The rule about the overfunctioning-underfunctioning balance is this: underfunctioners do not step up until overfunctioners step down. And there’s frequently a gap, which makes us (and others) uncomfortable. This does mean certain tasks may not get done. Or they may have to be done in a different way. In addition, the change in the way people relate to institutions today means that you might need two people to do the job one person used to do. In smaller churches, the pool of willing people can be limited.

I like to ask, what’s in everyone’s best interest here? It is not in a congregation’s best interest for one or two people to carry the entire load in an area of ministry. It makes the ministry and the congregation vulnerable. And it stunts the spiritual growth of others who don’t have the opportunity to learn, grow, and serve.

Don’t overfunction by solving the problem yourself. Start asking questions of the person and others: “Do you still want to fill this role?” “What is the best way to get this task done?” “Do we still need to do it this way?” “Do we still need to do it at all?” “How can we help people grow in leadership and service in our congregation?” This is a challenge for the leadership as a whole, not just for you and the exhausted leader.

What do you notice about the leaders in your congregation? How do you handle it when you notice someone is exhausted, frustrated, or flirting with burnout?


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