The Burn-Out Myth

Featured Articles / Leadership //


There’s an issue that I believe a lot of leaders, but especially children’s ministry leaders, face. It’s a very subtle lie that we buy into without realizing. It looks something like this.


The Lie

If serving is too hard, people will get upset and quit. So in order

to keep volunteers, I have to make serving as simple as possible.


Sounds right. And a lot of people would tout this outright. Many more believe this way and may not even realize it, but their actions show it. Here’s how it comes out and some of the problems it causes.


You run yourself ragged. Because you don’t want to put too much weight on anybody, you take everything on yourself and try to do it all.


You delegate poorly. The only tasks you give away are simple or meaningless tasks—tasks that nobody can really get excited about. You’re trying not to ask too much, but you end up appearing bossy to people because you keep asking them to do seemingly insignificant work.


You appear frantic and hurried. You give off the impression that you’re not interested in people or that you’re too busy for them. This is probably the furthest thing from the truth. You love people. You want to serve them. You want them to enjoy serving. But you’re so focused on getting things done that you can’t slow down long enough to acknowledge people and invest in them.


You feel like if you do slow down people will think poorly of you. You’re afraid they’re thinking that you’re leaving them to do all the work while you just stand around and watch.


You get all the credit. When everything gets done by you, all the credit goes to you (so does the blame).


People feel insignificant. This is the root problem caused when we buy into this lie. Because the only things you hand off are easy or simple, people don’t get the feeling that what they do matters.


Balls get dropped … a lot of them. You can’t possibly keep up with everything that needs to be done in children’s ministry. Children’s ministry is a detail intensive job with lots of moving parts. Even the smallest children’s ministry can’t be run by a lone ranger.


People are not cared for. Caring for people is tough. It takes time and energy. Because you’re trying to protect people from things that are difficult, you seldom release this responsibility. But because you are so busy trying to accomplish all the details, you can’t care for people well. So in the end volunteers receive very little care and support.


Volunteers leave your ministry. A volunteer who does not feel cared for and who does not feel like what they are doing is significant will leave and find somewhere else (or worse yet, nowhere else) to plug in.


End result … you don’t have enough volunteers for your children’s ministry to run effectively. You end up trying to do more and more with less and less to show for your effort.


This is a miserable cycle to get into. But it doesn’t have to be this way.


The Truth

A fire that’s fed doesn’t burn out. In fact, it burns stronger.


If you want great volunteers who stick around, grow, and love serving, you need to change your thinking. Don’t make serving easier … make it harder. I’m not encouraging you to frustrate volunteers by giving them un-winnable tasks. But they can and want to do more than we give them credit for.


A core need that people feel is the need to be significant. If they can’t be significant in serving God, they’ll try to find significance somewhere else. Kids’ sports teams, PTA, community organizations—none of these are bad, but we were all created and gifted to serve God, so let’s give our volunteers the opportunity to work and excel in what they were created for. Here’s what that could look like.


Give your small group leaders and teachers responsibility to prepare.

This requires you to give up a little control and trust others to come through. Give them the freedom to own an activity to reinforce the lesson. Give them an activity or reinforcement idea, but let them have the freedom to do something else.


Give your leaders a toolbox.

Give your leaders a set of 10 or 12 options they can go to any time. For example: If you have a weekly Bible story review, give them 10 different Bible review games and train them how to lead them. Keep all the materials needed for these games on hand so they are easily accessible. Then, when you write the lesson plan, just put in 10 minutes for a Bible review game and leave the rest up to them. When they get to choose, they can experiment and see what their group likes and dislikes. Their group may love a certain game and play it for six weeks. Then, when it starts to get old, they try a few new things until something else catches on. Having choices allows leaders to figure out their group and what feels good.


Encourage them to go above and beyond and then let them figure out how to accomplish their idea.

Maybe they want to give an occasional small prize for memorizing a verse. Or they want to help their group start a prayer journal. Maybe they want to send a card to all their kids. Great! Encourage them to go for it, but don’t try to jump in and do it for them. You can’t fund or facilitate every idea that comes up, but if you only do the things you can fund or facilitate, you’ll greatly limit your impact and the creativity of your volunteers. Most of the time, volunteers can pull off the ideas they have on their own. A small bag of prizes, some notebooks from the dollar store, or a box of cards aren’t too extravagant for a volunteer to take care of on their own. Kids will love these types of small gestures and all the volunteers feel like they’re making a difference … because they are.


Allow volunteers to care for other volunteers.

I’ve always wanted children’s ministry to look like a collection of small groups—groups of volunteers who serve together and care for and support one another. If you will choose capable volunteers who are great at caring for and loving on others, and then organize your teams around those individuals, everybody can be cared for at a higher level and you can be freed up to care for the more serious issues and for the leaders who are caring for others.


Let your doers do.

Some volunteers are great at caring for others. Some are amazing with kids. And some just like to get stuff done. These people can be a blessing. Much of what consumes you on Sunday are the hundreds of tasks that need to get done. But on Sunday you need to be with people. So let your doers run. Many times we take our doers and try to make them leaders. They might be high energy, active, very committed—exactly what we need—but we often put them in the wrong places. We use them as fill-ins for volunteers who don’t show up. We set them up in leadership roles that mainly focus on caring for people. We do everything but give them what they do best, because we think we’ll burn them out working on all those details and solving all those problems. But there are people who love that stuff. They don’t want to teach kids; they’ll never prepare a lesson. And, frankly, they just don’t care that much that your dog is suffering from canine depression. But give them a problem to solve or a task to be done and they’re in heaven. They love solving problems, will work themselves silly, and go home feeling great. They won’t give a thought to what happens at church all week long, but they’ll spring out of bed the next Sunday morning ready to go.


If all of this seems like too much for a volunteer, you’re right. It is too much. Here’s why it works.


First, I learned something significant from my father. He was a pastor and I swear he could say to a tree, “Come help me,” and the tree would get up to help. I’ve heard him ask a volunteer to show up and paint the fellowship hall and, “Oh yeah, you’ll need to buy the paint and the brushes,” and people happily signed on for the job. When I asked him how he had the nerve to ask people to do stuff like this, he told me, “I’m not asking them to serve me. I’m asking them to serve God. What task is too big when it’s for God?”


Here’s the principle. If people know they’re serving God and what they’re doing is significant … if we keep this in front of them … then working hard and sacrificing is a joy. It’s an act of worship to God.


Second, let me take you back to the fire analogy. A fire that’s fed doesn’t burn out. A volunteer who’s fed also will not burn out. What fuels our volunteers is care and support. We can invest in them, support them, teach and guide them, cheer them on, celebrate their successes, tell their stories, and help them see their significance. When we spend our time doing these things, we fuel the fire in the volunteers God has entrusted to us.


When we allow volunteers to work hard and take responsibility, we free ourselves to care for and support our volunteers. We should put our primary energies not into making their job easy and doing things for them, but rather into helping them feel the significance of what they do, caring for and supporting them in that role. When we do this, we will be continually adding fuel to the fire that God sparked in our volunteers. Instead of burning out, they will burn stronger and brighter. A fire like that spreads to kids and to others who long to serve God and make a difference in the lives of others.


How you spend your time matters. Will you burn yourself and your volunteers out by trying to do it all yourself? Or will you raise the bar, give away significance and responsibility, and invest your life in fueling your volunteers?












About the Author

Ned Gable serves as a children’s pastor at 12Stone® Church outside of Atlanta, GA. Over the last 20 years he has led children’s ministries ranging from a few kids in a elementary school hallway to ministries with large staffs, thousands of kids, and hundreds of volunteers., FB nedgable