Sunday, March 23, 2014

Volunteer Burn Out

How many of you have ever been on a mission trip? How many of you have ever served someone or helped at a non-profit in your community?

This week Joel sat down and figured out how many services he volunteers for. He came up with 9 things that he helps with on a regular basis. This is on top of the fact that he runs a non-profit and his job is organizing groups to serve at non-profits all over our city. I started thinking about the areas where I volunteer outside of my job description (director of middle school youth) and I am also part of 9 volunteer activities/organizations on a regular basis and some of them are different from Joel’s.

Just thinking about this made me tired. We had a conversation about what we would do if we weren't volunteering our time. For one thing, I imagined myself blogging a lot more. I also felt really free just thinking about it all that time I could get back. Suddenly, I had this urge to quit everything and start fresh. Then Joel asked me something, “Do you think we volunteer because we think we are important?”

I don’t know that answer to that. We do think our time makes a difference in people’s lives and that is a big motivating factor, but we began to wonder if we both stepped out of these opportunities…would they just cease to happen? Probably not so then, why do we do them? Why do we want to quit them so often?

I mentioned this conversation to my friend and pastor, Petra. She didn't say much at the time, but taught me a great lesson a couple days later. Ministry of Education (one of the committees I serve on) was asked to serve Room in the Inn for a group of young adults who were simulating the experience of being homeless and then being provided food and shelter by the church for the night. I've served our real homeless neighbors like this a couple times already this year so I didn't think it would be a big deal to spend a couple hours helping to make this young adult’s mission trip effective.

From 5:30-8:00 we prepared dinner, served dinner, ate with our guests and cleaned up. Petra came in and announced to the group she would like to debrief with us before we go. All of us sort of groaned and made lots of comments about how it “better be de-BRIEF because we have been doing this all evening.”

When we sat down, Petra asked us to reflect on our experience. So we shared our observations and comparisons. Then she asked what we did before we came to Room in the Inn. After that she said she was going to play a song from our worship service and asked us to dedicate the length of the song to thinking about why we volunteered tonight and what we will take with us.

I admit that when she said we were going to listen to the song I was pouting inside. I was tired. I had worked all day and I had already volunteered at the middle school that morning at 7am. I wanted to go home. By the end of the song, the words finally broke through my train of thoughts that seemed almost glued to worrying, complaining and exhaustion. It was like something clicked, finally. It was genius. I needed to be captured there just long enough for my own barriers to fall down.

The song seemed to engulf us all and we were held there in this suspended moment in time. Then Petra explained that so often we serve without ever pausing to reflect on the experience. We don’t think about what we just did for someone, what was said, why it matters, or how it impacted their lives or ours. We just do and do and do and then we go and do the next thing. This is how we become a church of exhausted volunteers.

I was floored. Not only do I serve like this- get it done, move to the next thing- I teach the youth to do the same thing.

One woman in our group began tearing up and shared with us that she had returned just a week ago from a mission trip with our church at Appalachian Service Project. She said she experienced heaven when she worked hard all day with God’s people and then spent the evening reflecting on that gift. The group would end their nights in song, worshiping God. It was so hard to transition back to the busy and mindless speed of life in Charlotte. She longed for that intentionality and reminder of purpose; that all she did was part of something grand and wonderful in God’s created world. She is right. We should be able to experience this Kingdom living every day.

Without these moments of pause all our efforts can become things that we do and things that we do soon pile up into burdens that we carry.

Thank you, Petra for reminding me that each of these moments of service are gifts and if I take but a moment to reflect on that, I will experience the greatest gift of all- fulfillment. 

Are we human beings or human's doing?