As a seminary student, I hear a lot about burnout. Dire warnings, invitations to self-care, and reminders that we can’t help others if we are too exhausted and overwhelmed ourselves. It is a problem which is so practical, so nitty-gritty, and so urgent that we are often pushed into a mode of discussing it which focuses on practical and urgent solutions. Only sometimes, in fragments or side-notes, do we think to encounter the problem of burnout theologically.

In a 1981 encyclical (letter to Roman Catholic bishops and the world), John Paul II writes that in speaking theologically of work, we cannot make the mistake of materialism – subordinating the personal and spiritual needs of humans to the material products of their work. In other words, he says that any Christian making choices about work (their own or other people’s) must keep in mind that “work is ‘for man’ and not man ‘for work'”; work must always contribute to, and not detract from, a person’s and the world’s well-being.

Yet many pastors or nonprofit leaders who would be happy to preach such a message to the business people of their congregations do not think to turn it on themselves. We do-gooder types are so concerned with “making a difference” or “helping people” or giving all we can, that we come to believe our work is more important than we are. We think we must get everything done before we can go home for the night, pushing down the needs of our spirits or even our families when they ask to take time and attention from the work we believe gives us our worth.

We cannot only blame ourselves for this. We live in a work-obsessed culture which takes a curious attitude towards non-profit workers in particular. The world casts a suspicious eye on nonprofit workers who strike or CEOs who make a salary approaching the value of their training and experiences. Meanwhile, the vast majority of nonprofit employees work very long hours for minuscule salaries, since there is always more work to be done with (it generally seems) ever-more-scarce resources. There is a belief that some people work for “job satisfaction”, warm fuzzies, or God points, and other people work for money. In an ideal world, of course, everyone would have personal, moral, and financial reasons for doing his or her particular job; but as it is, overtime earns some people money and career advancement, but for others it contributes to resentment, exhaustion, and eventually burnout.

What if the boards and committees who design policies for churches and nonprofits could think, not just economically, but theologically? What if we decided it was rubbish to expect nonprofit workers to bear special sacrifices out of their overblown nobility? What if we valued caretakers and maintainers of services as highly as we claimed to do? What if churches employed people, not based uncritically on the models provided by profit-driven businesses, but based on the way any employee would like to be treated?

For some groups, this may be more complicated than for others. When a church’s work is done both by employees and by volunteers, it can seem like a betrayal to volunteers if employees do not overtax themselves to earn their keep. Maybe this tension can never be eradicated, but it can be moderated by making both volunteers and employees feel valued by their organizations. So often the people who become fixtures somewhere, who prove themselves dependable, the kinds of people without whom the organization would simply collapse – are the people who are overlooked, taken for granted, and asked to take on more, year after year.

Some more suggestions for creating structures that value people more than the products of their labor – and in the process, are likely to encourage greater productivity:

Pay people more. To most nonprofit leaders, this sounds ludicrous. “Oh, right, we’ll just spend more of the money that we obviously have!” But what I mean here is not just increasing salaries (unless pay is below a living wage for the area). It’s providing tangible benefits in appreciation for what people do: more vacation time, or donated gift cards as bonuses for volunteers. In the end, this will probably cost the organization something, and that’s alright. If has to be cut somewhere else, it’s worth it to take care of people. Nonprofits are susceptible to the same sort of pride as many individuals: the idea that if we don’t stretch our resources to the breaking point, no one else will, and the world will fall apart. Christian organizations may need to do some soul-searching to find out where they can cut back and trust God to take care of the dropped balls.

Make the work- or volunteer site a great place to be. A leader’s “thank yous” don’t sound hollow if he or she creates a sense of community among workers, continually recognizes people’s specific strengths and contributions, and creates safe spaces for people to talk about and deal with the tough aspects of their jobs.

Encourage workers to rest. Make it clear that emails do not require responses after work hours; offer generous vacation and encourage employees to take it; notice when people seem exhausted.

Churches and nonprofits can’t keep using up young or idealistic people out of a sense of self-importance. May we find the courage and creativity to create workplaces that don’t mimic broken systems, but offer a witness to the possibilities for work in the kingdom coming.

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