I was once told that someone didn’t want to volunteer in the nursery because they didn’t want to get stuck there for the next 5 years.

Can you imagine?

I recently saw a post attributing low volunteerism in the church to the increase in busy family schedules.

Let’s face it.

No longer do we have stay-at-home mothers who are available to volunteer in church. Kids are now engaged in several evening activities creating hectic schedules and parents often commute to work rather than working locally.

Family life is so busy outside of work that there is no available time to volunteer. 

And that’s a reality.

Although this sounds rational, and I think busier schedules is a contributing factor, it shifts the responsibility to the volunteers rather than the organization.

To say there isn’t the same amount of available people is a bit of a cop-out, wouldn’t you agree?

Regardless of the volume of volunteers, Pareto’s principle states that 20% of the people completed 80% of the work.

So what happened to those engaged 20% of people? 

I believe the needs of the organization, not the needs of the volunteers, drove the demand creating an environment ripe for burnout.


Here are 5 ways leaders have created organizations that ensure volunteer burnout.

1. High Stress 

A key ingredient to burnout is prolonged levels of stress.

As leaders, we can become numb to the intense level of stress that is experienced.

Being on call, having to quickly switch gears from comforting the sick to celebrating the overcomer to sitting in a business meeting wears a person down and the constant hum of stress becomes familiar and normal.

We probably agree that a leader’s threshold of stress is often significantly higher than that of volunteers.

As a result, leaders are often not aware that they are assigning and offloading some of that stress onto an unsuspecting volunteer.

Without warning, training or support, leaders task volunteers with duties that are stressful and beyond what is reasonable. Volunteers become overwhelmed with the level and weight of responsibility and stress.

This results in worn out and dried up people.


2.  Nothing will change 

Hopelessness is fundamental to burnout.

Hopelessness is the belief that nothing will change; that there is no hope for growth, progression or relief. It can feel like you are stuck with no opportunity to leave and no voice to contribute to change.

The effort and resources needed to onboard a volunteer can be taxing to smaller organizations so it’s tempting to keep people in the same positions for long periods of time.

However, this can prevent people from volunteering.

Having strict commitments and not allowing people to move according to their interests and gifts can create a situation in which someone feels stuck and hopeless.


3.  Have no control 

I have heard of churches that are so process-oriented that they micromanage the volunteer down to the smallest action.

How many crackers each child should have, how a person should greet and welcome people and how exactly the desserts should be set out on the table.

I understand that quality and consistency are important, but when volunteers are not allowed to offer any part of who they are into the role it can be suffocating and it may increase the feeling of hopelessness.

The same result happens when people are not given the opportunity to influence and impact the work they are doing. Having an open channel of suggestions or ideas creates buy-in for volunteers.

4.   No time for rest

Jesus says in Matthew 26:11, that you will always have the poor among you.

The same is seen today. We are surrounded by needs and problems.

When a leader is faced with so many problems it can become all we see and we pull volunteers into the same focus. It is easy to lose perspective and race from need to need.

There will always be children that need care, people needing visiting in the hospital and events that need to be set up.

Problems, tragedies and issues often seem more urgent than our own and more numerous than we can do on our own so enlist the help of volunteers and now both the leader and the volunteer are on the hamster wheel.

Sacrificing without taking time to rest leads to weary and burdened people (Matthew 11:28).


5.  Isolation

We are created to be in relationship with people. We engage through common experience, problem-solving and creating together.

Volunteerism is no different.

With the many demands on a leader’s time, it can be tempting to get a volunteer set up with their task or responsibility and then walk away.

Training and regular check-ins engage volunteers in an experience and build relationships. When people feel isolated and lonely, they lose interest and the desire to serve.

People receive so many benefits when volunteering, but as leaders, it is important to know how to prevent burnout and keep volunteers engaged.

This can be done by ensuring we have reasonable expectations of volunteers, allowing for movement as people’s needs and interests change, creating opportunities for input, understanding when people need rest and opening doors for relationships.