OCP offices will be closed on Monday, May 27 in observation of Memorial Day. Additionally, due to site maintenance, ocp.org may be unavailable 7 p.m.—10 p.m. PT on Wednesday, May 29. We apologize for the inconvenience.


June 20, 2016

Choir director truth: Burnout in music ministry is real, but avoidable

6 Truths infographic

You are always the first to arrive and the last to leave. You are among the 5 percent of people who do 100 percent of the work. These tongue-in-cheek truths demonstrate the dedication most music ministers feel toward their work. This article will cover causes for music ministry burnout; how to spot the signs and symptoms; and coping strategies.

We can relate to the choir director truths above, but we also know how taxing it can be to balance music ministry with other parts of our lives, particularly when you’re a volunteer and these hours are stacked on top of 9-to-5 job stresses, or even occupational burnout. This truth resonates especially loudly during the busy Lent and Christmas seasons.

At times, key volunteers from a parish’s music ministry may feel that people in your church expect the music ministry leaders to be at any and every event where music is desired. And there is the need to be constantly “up” for the congregation, since you are in a visible position in the community. You may begin to feel abandoned, unsupported, criticized, and generally overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated. If these feelings persist, a music minister must distinguish, for the sake of his or her mental health, if he or she is experiencing predictable and inevitable periodic stress or more detrimental burnout.

This information comes from Martin J. Gay, a licensed professional counselor, who specializes in marriage and family therapy, and who has served as a pastoral minister for decades at Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Salem, Oregon.

Signs you might be experiencing burnout in your music ministry.

These are a few of the set of symptoms of burnout that can be experienced by church ministers, or anyone who gives generously of their time and talent:

  1. It seems impossible to manage everything in our lives
    We all have days when it seems impossible to manage everything in our lives. However, if you feel like this most of the time, you may be experiencing burnout. Burnout feels different than stress, which occurs when the demands and pressures we experience in our everyday lives temporarily feel like they are too much. But, with stress, when we get everything done, that feeling dissipates. Not so with burnout.
  2. It feels like no one appreciates our efforts
    There are occasional objections about songs or styles that individuals don’t care for. There are volunteers or staff members who can be difficult to work with. When you find yourself spending extended periods of time dwelling on these negative interactions, so much so that you notice negative affects on your health, you may be experiencing burnout in your music ministry.
  3. You feel empty, or have low energy levels or motivation to the point of not caring about your ministry.
    You can’t imagine things getting better, no matter what changes you make.


What is burnout

Burnout is the condition of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged periods of stress. It causes us to feel overwhelmed and unable to meet the constant demands on us, leading to a lack of interest in or desire for doing anything at all. Burnout drains our energy and decreases our productivity. We end up feeling emotional exhaustion, negativity and resentfulness, and we may be unable to cope with normal stressors. If not attended to, we end up feeling like we have nothing more to give. The discontent and loneliness burnout causes can threaten ministries and relationships, and even affects your health. But we can avoid or heal from burnout if we recognize the causes, signs, and symptoms in its early stages. Simple strategies for better managing our stress may be enough to revitalize us. The longer we feel the effects of burnout, the more intentional our efforts will need to be.

Causes of burnout

Burnout can come from the ministry itself, but often includes personality and lifestyle factors as well. People don’t usually recognize that burnout is happening until they have already lost interest in what they are doing.

Ministry-related causes of burnout may include:

  • A disorganized, demanding environment
  • Too many responsibilities with too little support
  • A lack of control over our ministry
  • A lack of acknowledgment or compensation
  • Unclear expectations; a lack of supervision and feedback
  • Preparing music that is not challenging (too easy) or too difficult
  • A lack of resources or proper equipment—for ourselves and/or our volunteers

Personal and lifestyle causes of burnout may include:

  • Attempting to be everything for everyone
  • Taking on too many responsibilities without support from others
  • The need to be in control; not delegating to others
  • The need for perfection
  • Working too much without breaks or vacations
  • Not getting enough rest or sleep
  • A negative view of self and the world
  • Family hardships such as caring for a chronically ill family member
  • Not developing supportive relationships
  • Always putting personal needs last

Symptoms of burnout

Burnout develops slowly and almost imperceptibly at first. The warning signs and symptoms seem small and insignificant but worsen as time goes on.

Physical signs of burnout include:

  • Feeling worn out and exhausted
  • Forgetting things more often (tasks, location of supplies, etc.)
  • Change in appetite (eating significantly more or less)
  • Change in sleep habits
  • Frequent headaches or body pain
  • Getting sick more often

Emotional signs of burnout include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed and powerless
  • Loss of enthusiasm and motivation
  • Lack of contentment, purposefulness, and enjoyment
  • Becoming more critical and negative of others and the world
  • Feeling like a failure
  • Feeling isolated, alone

Behavioral signs of burnout may include:

  • Avoiding responsibilities or procrastinating
  • Taking frustrations out on others
  • Avoiding opportunities to minister
  • Withdrawing from people; not seeking feedback and support
  • Turning to food, prescription drugs, alcohol, or other unhealthy coping strategies to manage anxiety and stress

Preventing burnout

Paying attention to the early warning signs mentioned above and taking the following steps to get our lives back into balance can help us better manage stress and prevent burnout.

Slow down. Spend a few minutes in prayer and reflection on your day. Do something nice for yourself. Enjoy a cup of coffee or take time to relax in the shower. Anything that offers you stress relief can combat burnout.
Rest. Set more time aside for rest and relaxation along with social support from friends and family. Use the time away to re-create yourself, revitalize yourself, and gain perspective on why this ministry is important to you.
Get back to the basics. Eat right, sleep right, get some exercise, and take care of your relationships.
Practice saying “no, thank you” more often. Avoid overextending yourself. Learn to say “no” more often and you’ll be saying a better “yes” to those activities you choose to do. Set limits and get comfortable delegating, which is also beneficial, as it allows room for others to minister as well.
Clarify your ministry responsibilities. Clarify your responsibilities with the pastor or supervisor. Negotiate for those areas that you would like to include and against those that are negatively affecting your ministry. Get support and feedback from your pastor or supervisor.
Solve problems directly. Facing problems directly allows you to feel less powerless and gives you an opportunity to ask for what you need.
Pray. One must be a person of prayer to lead others in prayer. Prayer ought to be inspirational rather than a burden. If it feels like a burden, chances are pretty good you are out of balance.
Practice. Obviously, practicing the music will increase your confidence and enjoyment of your ministry; but you should also practice better management of your stress on a daily basis. Find ways to cope with everyday concerns in ways that nourish your relationships and yourself.

Recovering from burnout

If you’re already feeling burned out, you’ll have to get serious about your recovery. Continuing as you have been will only lead to more harm to your emotional and physical health, as well as your relationships. Besides the above suggestions, begin practicing these additional steps.

Reduce your commitments. You may need to force yourself to discontinue some activities. You need to take time for yourself to rest and heal.
Re-evaluate your priorities. Take time to re-evaluate your values and goals. What are you doing that is life-giving for yourself and others? What has been life-draining? If you can’t avoid certain challenges (e.g., ill family member), what can you do to get more support?
Get support. This is not the time to withdraw and isolate yourself. This is the time to confide in your spouse, friends, colleagues, fellow ministers, pastor, or whoever else might provide support during these difficult times. You will be surprised at how understanding and helpful people can be. Just sharing your feelings out loud to a supportive friend can be healing.

Take care of yourself every day as part of your repertoire for healthy living. To avoid ministry burnout, it’s important to reduce stress more effectively each and every day. First pay attention to what your stressors are, then find ways to better manage those stressors. Begin practicing these steps today and you’ll be leading others in prayerful song well into the future!

Prayer and meditation

It can be exhausting to constantly attend to the needs of others without also taking time to take care for yourself. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops offers resources for prayers and devotions, or learn how to practice lectio divina, the the traditional Catholic method of reading, meditating on and praying with the Bible.

Suzanne Toolan, RSM, advises liturgical musicians to experiment with quiet prayer and meditation to sustain and nurture themselves and their own spiritual journeys. “I am remembering something Jesuit Father Anthony de Mello (1931-1987) said, “Silence, silence, silence.” That seems a funny answer, but I do think that we need to make silent spaces in our hearts, in our minds, bombarded as we are by noise and confusion.”

Webinar: Renewing Your Spirit Through Prayer and Music

Tom Booth’s webinar about renewing your spirit offers ideas on how to rejuvenate your own spirit when your time is spent caring for others. You can watch that webinar here:

Music for prayer and meditation