As part of the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, many workers and organizations are reconsidering traditional work arrangements and thinking differently about work/life tradeoffs. Churches are right in the middle of this conversation, with many describing an increased experience of “ministry burnout” amongst their staff. So, is “ministry burnout” merely a short-term response to a difficult three-year pandemic-impacted period, or is it something else more elemental and enduring? If it is something more permanent, what exactly is it? And what does it look like in real life?
Churches and Ministry Organizations Report Increasing Levels of Ministry Burnout
According to Christian authors Bill Mills and Craig Farro, ministry burnout is a very real condition which can be defined as “The point at which a pastor, church leader, or missionary gives up, unable to continue in the ministry.” Their conclusion, shared by many others, is that not only is ministry burnout real, but it may also be inevitable for those who are not pacing themselves and “filling up their spiritual tank properly.”
A 2022 national ministry survey reported 42% of pastors confessed they were contemplating resigning from their positions because of the job’s immense stress and other factors leading to burnout. While specific reasons for ministry resignations can be as unique as the individuals themselves, pastors and other ministry workers consistently express common themes when discussing the reason for their departures. A seemingly endless supply of pressing needs, an unceasing demand for time and emotional attention, and an “always on” mentality are factors given by ministry staff as primary motivations for leaving their posts for other “less demanding” positions.
By its very nature, ministry is demanding, and these types of “burnout” factors are integral to most ministry endeavors. We are admonished in Colossians 3:23 to “work heartily as unto the Lord.” In John 9:4, Jesus tells his disciples, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day because night is coming when no man can work.” There is no getting around it — ministry will always entail hard work. So, what can a church do to minimize ministry burnout while still working hard and ministering effectively to a world that has many needs and desperately needs the hope of the Gospel?
What Can be Done to Advance Ministry While Protecting Against Burnout?
One of our pastor friends at New City Church described New City’s ministry challenge in the following way: “You get thirsty handing out water.” New City realized if it did not provide some space for its staff to fill up and rejuvenate, the team would have nothing to pour out for others. So, since last summer, New City has tried to address this challenge by experimenting with a non-traditional work schedule which builds in time for rest, rejuvenation, and connection. Known for its “Culture of Care,” New City has implemented a trial 32-hour workweek for all their church staff.
An Executive Pastor who had experienced the resistance of not being able to spend enough time with his family over the weekend initially proposed the idea for a non-traditional workweek. Since many of the pastoral staff worked during the week and served throughout the weekends, they would often show up for both family times and work commitments, utterly exhausted. Convinced such an ongoing scenario was unsustainable, New City began considering possible solutions.
Thinking through their options, New City decided to institute a 32-hour workweek schedule. The core of its plan was to end the regular work week for office staff at the close of Thursday and give them Friday off. (Other staff who work on Sundays already had Fridays off, and now can choose to take time off on either Monday mornings or Thursday afternoons.) By organizing this new 32-hour workweek structure, New City created space for its staff to be more “present” and available to their family and friends.
What Will This Experiment Look Like and Will it Actually Work?
At the outset of this experiment, New City’s big question was whether the staff could get their work done effectively in four weekdays instead of five. Since the intention of this 32-hour format project was to create flexibility and space, New City realized they would have to get creative. They emphasized accountability and empowered the staff to figure out how to get their work done in the new structure. Realizing everyone works differently, New City emphasized an ownership mentality, intentional leadership conversations, and open collaboration with others.
Since the staff have been operating under the new arrangement, New City pastors have noticed moods lightening and motivation rising. Where there was once a general feeling of overwhelm throughout the office, now people are beginning to experience a sense of peace. New City staff have loved the new flexibility and are motivated to work hard to retain the revised schedule. No one wants to penalize teammates by slacking off or failing to be a good steward of their time.
Though the ministry workload has not decreased, the staff have discovered tips, tricks, and tools to help them work more efficiently. During our interview with New City, two of the staff members were eager to share that “one of the best ways to maintain ministry work while respecting the new schedule is to take advantage of Microsoft 365 “Send Later” tool and the TEAMS Chat schedulers. Using these tools, staff can tie up loose ends without disrupting a fellow teammate’s rest time.” It did take time for the staff to learn new ways to prioritize their work tasks and to grow in the art of working together. But the staff’s effectiveness and work quality have soared. They attribute this uptick in productivity to the intentional inclusion of a rhythm of rest into their workweek design.
How Successful Has This Been?
This experiment drew the attention of the executive staff almost immediately. Operations staff recognized that the administrative staff worked diligently throughout the week to protect the flexibility of their schedule. The executive team also saw improvements in productivity, time management, and prioritization of ministry needs as people began to benefit from this new rhythm of rest.
Pastors began exhibiting signs of emotional relief as they were able to get some rest and have some extra space to seek the will of God. In return, they were able to better focus and showed spikes in creativity. Pastors also observed that ministry staff were more engaged with one another. Under the flexible schedule, the staff returned to work energized, ready, and willing to lean into another week of ministry. Observing the team, the executive staff realized, “when they were on, they were on.”
New City has experienced other ancillary benefits as well. Staff members have grown in their ability to teach others to lead and have learned to establish effective boundaries. The new work rhythm has also fostered improved communications, raised accountability standards, and helped the staff develop more effective goal setting.
Increasingly, all churches will have to wrestle with how best to address ministry burnout while working hard to achieve their ministry goals. Other churches facing similar challenges may come to different conclusions about how to manage them best. Still, all will have to invest in solving an issue affecting organizations across all industries. Burnout is not limited to churches, but it is present in many. For New City, at least, adopting the 32-hour workweek has seemed to alleviate some of the burdens of this challenge.
While this idea is still a relatively new “work in progress,” New City Church plans to continue this project into 2023. We are encouraged by and applaud New City’s desire to support and look out for its staff. Consistent with their “Culture of Care,” they have taken a bold approach with their 32-hour workweek to protect their staff from ministry burnout while remaining committed to diligent labor and effective ministry.
For other examples of churches taking innovative approaches to minister in their specific contexts, or for more information about technology tips, tricks and tools that help enable ministry, please visit our website.