We Don’t Talk About Burnout: An Allegory About Church Staff Culture
Janetta Oni is the Creative Director at the Summit Church.
If you haven’t seen Encanto yet, then you’ve probably also avoided getting any variant of COVID-19, to which I say, “Where’s your bunker?”
I’m a mother of three quarter-Columbian kids under 10, so the Encanto soundtrack has been playing through our house for a month now. Not that you need to be Columbian or have kids to be part of the Encanto fan club. I listen to the album in the car … alone. Let’s face it, Lin-Manuel can write a dang song!
In case you haven’t watched it (seriously, is your bunker next to Area 51 or what?), here’s a brief synopsis:
Alert! Spoilers ahead!
You have been duly warned.
The Madrigal family was blessed with a miracle (an encanto) generations ago when Abuela was given a candle that produced a magical home. Through the years, each member of the family is given a magical power—a special “gift”—when they come of age, and they use that gift to bless the community that has grown around them.
Each family member, that is, but one. Mirabel, the main character, never received a gift. Surrounded by her special tías and tíos, primas and primos, she accepts the role of cheerleader and supporting cast.
Then, one day, Mirabel seems to become a threat to the magic. Gifts begin to wane. The magical house starts showing cracks. And the more Mirabel tries to fix things, the worse everything gets.
By the end of the movie, we find out that the “villain” threatening the family’s magic is not Mirabel, but the endemic pressure to protect the magic. Mirabel helps to free her sisters from the pressures of performance, her Tío Bruno from the disgrace of exile, and her Abuela from the toxicity of control. And she herself is rescued from the shame of non-specialness.
For the record, while that’s an accurate summary of the movie, the movie itself is much better. Seriously, go watch it. Or watch it again. I’ll be here.
Stars Don’t Shine, They Burn
Now that you’re back (did you cry again this time?), I invite you to see Encanto from the perspective of being on a church staff.
I’ve worked for the local church for 15 years. I’ve studied human service counseling for Christian organizations. I’ve seen and experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly of church work. I’ve talked with former church staffers who are traumatized, angry, cynical, or even antagonistic to the faith. When people leave ministry limping and wounded, one factor is often hovering nearby—burnout.
At its most basic, burnout is “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.” Burnout is not just the result of long work hours. It’s mental. It’s emotional. It’s made of the unhealthy routines we carry in our hearts, minds, and very soul.
Who knew that a cartoon movie with a dope soundtrack could bring the burnout narrative to the surface? Because stars don’t shine, they burn.
And that means they can burn out.
Your Ministry Encanto
Years ago, God gave you, or your lead pastor, or your church, or your core launch group a “miracle.” An encanto. Can you believe it? He chose you to do something amazing. The church grew. People got saved. Small groups were launched. The community was served. You felt it: This is it! This is the stuff Luke was talking about in Acts—God adding to our number daily those being saved.
Over the years, more and more people join the staff family. With each generation, new, awe-inspiring gifts come into the fold. The worship leader is anointed. The college pastor can preach preach. The creative team is crazy talented. The magic is strong. The community is thriving.
Until, one day, it isn’t.
Over the years, imperfect things start to happen. But you assure yourself: We can’t mess up what God has entrusted us with, right? So you stop talking about those things. People are tired? We don’t talk about that. Sex abuse? We don’t talk about that. Toxic leadership? Crazy work hours? People who can pastor other families and not their own? No, no, no, no, no. If we don’t talk about it, surely it will go away. The magic is fine. The magic is strong.
But it doesn’t go away. It lives in the very walls, and every now and then, some of us can hear it. Still, we don’t bring it up.
And then come the Mirabels. They’ve shifted from being the most positive cheerleaders of our mission to being the most counterproductive. They won’t let sleeping dogs lie. Some say they’re just negative, a “staff-infection” harming your otherwise healthy culture. They’re hurting the magic.
We start to suspect that they don’t have especially great gifts. We wonder if they’re just after more attention or a bigger job title. They’re bringing up things from the past. They’re questioning issues in the present. They’re pointing to the workload and the expectations. They’re asking why we do things the way we do. They know we don’t talk about those things. But they keep bringing it up.
Part of what frustrates us about Mirabel is that she seems onto something. Now that we think about it, we’ve seemed a little “down” lately. Attendance isn’t what it used to be. Giving is so-so. Is it the Mirabels’ fault? If they would just pull their weight, it wouldn’t be so tough.
Or maybe they’re jealous. Everyone wants to be a leader, don’t they? They want to be in charge, to have a special gift. If they only knew how hard it is to carry this load, then they wouldn’t complain so much. It’s pressure like a drip, drip, drip, that’ll never stop. Pressure that’ll tip, tip, tip ’til you just go pop.
And yeah, they may think it’s so great to be low-key famous, admired, and looked up to. But they don’t know what living in that kind of fishbowl does to you. They don’t realize that we’re so sick of pretty, we want something true, don’t you?
Anyway, there’s no time for any of that. Sunday is coming. The church keeps growing. The world keeps turning. But work and dedication will keep the miracle burning. And each new generation must keep the miracle burning.
What If We Talked About “Bruno”?
What if we talked about it? Not Bruno, the kooky uncle living in the walls and watching rats perform telenovelas. But burnout.
The good news is, you don’t have to be the first to say it. Chances are, somebody already is. In the staff meetings. In the staff memo. Sometimes, it’s just in the air. No one literally says all this. But we all know it. We all feel it.
What if we stared down the consequences of our behaviors and attitudes and admitted that the magic is not fine? What if we sat across the table from one another and made room for the things we don’t talk about? What if we refused to uphold this perfect house, and instead accepted an imperfect one built on the Rock? What if we did something unexpected?
What if we were weak? If I could shake the crushing weight of expectations, would that free some room up for joy?
What if we came out of hiding? What if we actually let the church help us? Some of the lay people in our churches are saying, Lay down your load. We are only down the road. We have no gifts, but we are many, and we’ll do anything for you.
Sure, there’s a solid group of people on your staff who have been blessed with extraordinary gifts. You have an all-star team who can inspire, lead, and shine. But stars don’t shine, they burn. And that means they can burn out.
How Do You Save a Miracle?
So what’s the way forward? If you find yourself in the midst of a burnout spiral, how do you recover? As Mirabel would say, how do you save a miracle?
Here are some biblical gems to start you down the road:
To the Luisas—the strong ones who feel the need to take on every burden, who never feel like they’ve done enough, who can never sit down and stop:
You don’t have to be strong enough for everyone. You’re not invincible. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29–30).
To the Isabels—those who always have to be on, who can’t show any hint of imperfection, can’t have an off day, or can’t show what’s really going on—at home or inside their souls:
God sees your rough edges, your not-so-graceful, not-so-perfect, not-so-polished self. Don’t pray them away; lay them down at the foot of Jesus. “But he said to you, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” And like Paul, say “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
To the Brunos—the prophets, the admonishers, the ones who see where the trends are heading and feel like they have to say something because they love those around them:
Truth telling is hard. But uncovering the truth in love, no matter how dark or tough, is not the sin or the cause. Be gentle, but be bold. “So, Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’” (John 8:31–32). “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
To the Abuelas—the leaders, the called ones, the ones who know that to whom much is given, much is required, the ones who have to make the tough decisions that no one sees:
God knows. God sees. You don’t have to hold on so tight. You can never earn the miracle—but you can still receive it. “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24, emphasis added).
To the Mirabels—the ones comparing themselves to others, the one wishing for the gifts of others, waiting on their turn to shine:
You are more than your gift. You—the Imago Dei, created and saved by God—you are the miracle. “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).And to the entire familia of faith: Remember, stars don’t shine, they burn. That means they can burn out. Let’s talk about it.
This post originally appeared on Lifeway Research.