Overcome Burnout By Building Capacity

Capacity has to do with the amount of resources in hand. For churches capacity could be reflected in the number of members, the size of the budget, the number of buildings, the amount of land, or the funding, number of volunteers, or equipment supporting its programs. Organizational theorists describe organizations or program with a relatively high degree of “slack” as robust. Imagine a large, well-stocked supermarket on the eve of a hurricane whose slack gets utilized as the crowds converge on the store to stock their pantries. Normally a convenience store would be do just as well, but with the storm coming in, the supermarket seems more likely to have everything buyers need.

Failure to pay attention to capacity can have disastrous consequences. In a workshop we taught together on equipping churches for outreach, the Reverend Roderic Frohman, a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor in Rochester, New York, described a worst case scenario: “A couple of years ago at Third Presbyterian Church, our Saturday noon lunch program had a glut of unexpected visitors, probably double the eighty people we usually feed every Saturday noon. We later learned that a neighboring social service agency, which held a Saturday lunch at exactly the same time, had shut down for a month in order to repair their facilities. The ten volunteers who served the lunch that Saturday were completely overwhelmed. Worried about not getting enough food, two guests began to fight, duking it out on a table, which fell on an elderly lady, breaking her hip. Pandemonium reigned, the police and an ambulance were called, order was restored, but our volunteers were significantly rattled.” The breakdown is simple to explain: a sudden surge in demand had overwhelmed capacity. A lunch program equipped to serve 80 persons experienced an influx of 160. The result was a food fight.

In the case of Third Presbyterian’s lunch program, robustness might have to do with any number of factors in addition to a hearty soup, such as 1) having more than enough volunteers 2) with ample training 3) serving an abundance of food 4) according to guidelines in a clear, easy to read handbook 5) with an appendix telling you what to do when emergencies happen. Such excess capacity that could be deployed in response to an emergency.

What about individuals? Here capacity has to do with the amount of time, energy or ability to get the job done. We know why volunteers burn out. Running a program that offers food or clothing assistance can feel so unrelenting. How can program leaders build capacity when the needs are so overwhelming? Remember the adage: Take time to sharpen the saw. As the saw becomes dull, the woodcutter or home builder may find the project imperceptibly slowing down. When this dulling happens to individuals, we call it burnout. What is burn out? It seems to have been coined by Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case. In this novel, the main character writes in his journal,“I haven’t enough feeling left for human beings to do anything for them out of pity.” Jennifer Senior, in an article for New York Magazine, observes, “People who are suffering from burnout often describe it in terms of emptiness— they’re a dry teapot over a high flame, a drained battery that can no longer hold its charge.”[1] It can happen to volunteers.

Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn answered a crisis of morale among its volunteers by shutting down its lunch program down temporarily. Serving a predominantly Polish neighborhood with a poverty rate of thirty six percent, the church found its food pantry and lunch program overwhelmed by a rising tide of clients. Worried about running out of food and funding, and saddened by the death of the chef and the departure of a college student intern, the pastor made a drastic decision: the program would temporarily shut down. For two months during the summer, the program closed its doors. Suddenly there was time to build capacity! Volunteers cleaned out the kitchen and brought it up to code, visited other food pantries to learn best practices, and drafted a set of volunteer guidelines. The result? Some volunteers got angry and quit. Clients were forced to go elsewhere, and when it re-opened, they did not immediately come back. Yet happily, volunteers and staff discovered a newfound sense of joy in their work.   The Reverend Ann Kansfield remarked, “I love being around on Wednesdays and Thursdays now. I never would have thought that managing a soup kitchen requires every last ounce of skill and brains that I have. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”[2] It took courage to kick the habit of working, but it rejuvenated the program.

What if you lack sufficient capacity to organize a project of your own and do not expect to get it anytime in the near future? In this case, try collaborating with a social service agency by providing them with volunteers from your church. You can still count this as your ministry when you report on your activities. Collaborating allows you to broaden the impact of your work without squeezing resources. Doing so makes it possible for congregations to have a larger impact than they otherwise would have, besides being more efficient to pool resources. Social service agencies provide a certain level of professionalism unavailable to volunteer groups working on their own.

Building capacity not only increases church leaders’ ability to respond to crisis, but it can create a higher sense of morale as volunteers feel more effective and better able to accomplish what they set out to do. Having ample capacity increases the likelihood of an enduring ministry. For example, congregations that regularly integrate social concerns into prayer and worship, and which regularly take the time to affirm the service of members, are less likely to experience a dramatic ebb and flow of community engagement activities. They took time to sharpen the saw.


[1] Jennifer Senior, “Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” New York Magazine, December 4, 2006,

[2] Genine Babikian, “A Brooklyn church temporarily shuts down its hunger ministry in order to sustain it,” Faith and Leadership,https://www.faithandleadership.com/brooklyn-church-temporarily-shuts-down-its-hunger-ministry-order-sustain-itutm_source=albanweekly&utm_medium=content&utm_campaign=faithleadership (accessed March 31, 2018).

Photo: pipalou, Morguefile license.


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