Anti-Burnout Church

I’ve been hit or miss with this newsletter lately. Apologies. It turns out starting a church is quite the involving task. Even this one is coming to you later than my normal Sunday evening dispatch.

In some personal news, Anne Helen Peterson’s audible original came out this week. You can listen here with an Audible subscription. She interviewed me and a few other people about our experience with burnout. I haven’t listened because I can’t stand to listen to my own recording, but the reviews have ranged from “100% relatable” to “cry me a river.” Perhaps my favorite said, “Maybe these people should listen to Seabiscuit… The people in Seabiscuit would have laughed at the term ‘burnout.’” To be fair, I’ve never read or listened to Seabiscuit. Someone did say “The reverend was great.” I take this as the definitive review.

In her latest newsletter, Peterson referred to the church I co-pastor, Jubilee Baptist, as an “anti-burnout church.” She wrote there about when she asked people what made a huge difference in their work place, it almost always boiled down to not just better benefits or flexibility, but more empowerment and respect as human people with lives that matter outside the workplace.

Those of you that have followed the story of Jubilee Baptist and my writing for the last year or so know that we want to do things as a church that address the real problems we see in people’s lives. Burnout is definitely one of them.

When I think of why our church might be an anti-burnout church, I could say it's our commitment to keeping programming to a minimum. People have busy lives. They work. They take care of kids. They’re tired. Because of this we have one worship service on Sunday mornings at 11 am. It lasts for one hour. We have very little “programming” or weekly events. We have a Bible study before worship most Sundays, a six-week Financial Literacy class studying the fundamental structures and problems of capitalism. We have a support group for burned out working people. We pay off people’s debts so they don’t have to worry about them anymore. We have a fund to help people get out of poverty by paying for the things they need to get out of poverty. Okay maybe that’s a lot. Most people just show up for worship.

But I think our aim at being an anti-burnout church goes deeper than just not overloading people. We want to empower people. Every day working people show up to their jobs, and they have little say in their schedule or their tasks for the day or their wages or pretty much anything. Of course, this is the basic working contract. Those of us with nothing to sell but our labor sell our time in which our bosses can tell us what to do to make the stuff they want us to so they can sell the products we make to make a profit for the owners of the company. Most workers have absolutely zero contact with the CEO of the company. If they have an idea about how their job could be better either for themselves or the company, it has to go through approximately twenty-seven layers of bureaucracy to get implemented. Most people know ways their jobs could work better not just for themselves, but for the company. The problem is that capitalism (or capitalists more precisely) don’t really care. Capitalism, by its very structure, makes it more efficient to shareholders to burn out employees and replace them than actually make changes that benefit workers and treat them more humanely.

At a previous church, I remember telling a group of leaders that most millennials (I should have said working people) feel like institutions just happen to them. They have little to no say in what takes place in their workplace, their government, pretty much anything that actually determines their lives. I raised this point because often times older churches whose governance functions through committees get skittish about asking people to join. “Sorry, sorry if you join you’ll have to serve on a finance or personnel committee at some point, but we still want you to join because it means you belong.” I think this emphasis on belonging versus empowerment misses something about what it means to be a church.

I take the scripture that says “Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” as saying something like “Jesus didn’t consider condescension an option.” God didn’t enter the world as a matter of condescension, but solidarity. There’s nothing that pisses me off more than the hubris of so many rich people especially but not limited to the white male rich people. There’s a lack of self-awareness that angers me, a lack of understanding that their success depended on structures not of their making. You know the guys that talk about how hard their family had it and because if they made it anyone can? Because they made it to upper middle management in a time when the economy boomed and costs were low and you could buy a house in the burbs and now they’re your boss for some reason. The gospel cuts against not just them and their pride, but the very system and institutions that trained them to think they know something about poverty in the first place.

So what does it look like to upend this?

I think it looks something like making sure that working people, younger people, the burned out people are empowered to take charge of the institution in ways not normally afforded them. It means handing them the keys. It means treating them as equals to the CEO or the upper middle management or the older members and making sure that people approach each other free from condescension. It means making sure that the church isn’t just one other institution that happens to them. It means entrusting them to take into consideration other people’s concerns not treating them as one more demographic group to be catered to.

An anti-burnout church is one that actually empowers people that aren’t normally entrusted with power to shape the life of the institution. It’s giving a congregant the opportunity to teach a financial literacy class on the problems with capitalism. It’s asking a trans, non-binary person to lead worship. It’s having a finance team and governing committees that are all millennials. I think a lot about the apostle Paul telling people that had no citizenship that they did have a citizenship in Heaven and that it meant something for the way the church organized its life together. How often do our churches reproduce the power structures of the CEO, the corporation without thinking about it? What messages does it send to younger church members or people looking at a church when every committee, every leadership position is filled with older people whose privilege blinds them to the ways we’re burning out?

At that same previous church, I remember an older member, a CEO probably the most powerful person I’ll ever meet, telling me that he’d gladly take millennials in the church out for dinner and hear what they wanted the church to do. I don’t really remember what I told him, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that millennials as the burnout generation don’t want to have someone in power coming and sincerely asking what it we want or need in a church. We want to be the ones in charge, together.

Of course that doesn’t just mean subbing out older, privileged church leaders for younger ones. It means re-thinking how our church functions and to what ends. It means unions in the work place and democratic governance in our church. It means not treating all these things as something just to be grateful for, but the way things should be. That’s not always easy, but I do think it puts us on the path to alleviating the dehumanizing effects of burnout.

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