Burnout and the Church Musician

Burnout and the Church Musician
N. Lee Orr

Someone said that you had resigned at Jackson Memorial Church,” Ellen remarked to David during intermission at the symphony Christmas program. “Yes, I did,” he replied. “I was doing twenty-one rehearsals and services a week, with the prospect of more being added. Some days it took all of my energy to simply get out of bed. I found myself resenting the next rehearsal or meeting. Even worse, 1 was constantly watching the clock during rehearsal so that we could leave as soon as possible.

“And my family: for two out of the last six weeks I was home only one night. My children don’t even know me. lam doing the job of two full-time people, but I’m not doing it with much enthusiasm any more. When I realized that I did not have any time for myself, I knew it was time to quit.”

“I know the church will miss you,” Ellen responded. “But you did the right thing. After some time off, you can reenter the field with a less demanding schedule.”

The next week at a planning meeting for Chorister’s Guild Ellen relayed her news to Rebecca, who was part-time at St. James.

“Burn-out isn’t confined to large churches, Ellen,” Rebecca added quickly. “I have been thinking about resigning as well, though 1 hate to do it. My fatigue is not so much added rehearsals and services, for these have not changed much. I just find myself increasingly bored by it all. I have been in church music now for eighteen consecutive years, and I find myself running out of ideas, energy, and, frankly, enthusiasm. The church has so many problems, everyone is a critic, and nothing I do seems to make much difference.”

“Why don’t you try some different workshops, or go back to school?” Ellen asked. “Oh, that wouldn’t help; they just say the same old thing. I think I’ll get through Christmas and seriously consider getting out after the first of the year.”

Sound familiar? Do David and Rebecca echo sentiments that most of us have felt at some time, to some degree? Is there anyone who has served in church music more than two or three years who has not fought such feelings? Burnout, for whatever reason and under whatever other disguise, poses a dismaying threat to our work. And it happens to the best and most committed people. Perhaps it happens more quickly and pervasively to those very people, owing to their commitment.

Burnout and the Crisis of Faith

At its root, burnout symbolizes a crisis of faith; faith in our mission, our ministry, ourselves, our work. It rarely happens simply out of weakness or a bad attitude. Most people in church music care and want to do well. They just encounter problems that make it difficult to continue.

Remember the life of Moses and his crisis of faith. The message of Moses’ story is clear. If we remain faithful, God will sustain us, even in the midst of what seems overwhelming work, unappreciative congregations, or simple boredom.

At the bottom of our flagging energy and frustration is a crisis of faith, a crisis we share with many of the heroes of the Old Testament: Moses, Joshua, David, Samuel, Solomon, Amos, and many others. So what is to be done? What causes our faith to flag, causes us to feel burned out?

The Causes of Burnout

William Willimon in his Clergy and Laity Burnout offers a thought-provoking discussion of this issue. Indeed, it can be caused by overwork, as most of us think. But, as Willimon disturbingly questions, does it always result from too many demands, constant stress, or unrelenting work? Honestly, do we not sometimes flag from lack of industry as much as from unreasonable workloads? Have we not somehow come to believe that things should not be difficult and that work should never be frustrating or distressing at times? Somehow we no longer understand that professional success only follows hard, challenging, and continuous work. Have we not traded in the work ethic for some vague idea that excuses us from rising early in the morning, working hard at solving problems every day, sometimes for long hours, and then rising the next morning to do the same? Besides, is our work in church music so difficult? Willimon soberingly concludes: “I really doubt that the parish [and music] ministry is the hardest, most stressful vocation. Many studies indicate that, when stress is measured, parish [and music] ministers are in minimally stressful situations.'”

In her book The Postponed Generation, Susan Littwin shares the responses from her survey of contemporary adults. She discovered that they us, if you will were reared by parents who almost unknowingly shielded them from the harsh realities of life. This protection conveyed to their children a message that somehow they would not have to work long and hard, make grating sacrifices, and endure delayed gratifications to succeed. No, many of this generation want what their parents slowly acquired, but without the wait, the work, and the worry.’

Our problem with burnout may lie deeper than just a disinclination for hard work. We may have internalized a cultural resistance to sticking with a task or pursuing goals until we achieve them. Christopher Lasch in his Culture of Narcissism identifies this cultural malaise. He argues that much of our own career disturbance our burnout comes from our wrong focus. We are living only for the moment, thinking solely about ourselves, how we are feeling, and whether or not we are fulfilled.’

This self-preoccupation, or narcissism, as some would call it, threatens our spiritual values. We have become a nation of materialistic consumers, where affluence and acquisition define not only our social status but our self-image as well. We then become consuming units only, which only reinforces our narcissism and produces a crisis of faith that “derives from quite specific changes in our society and culture from bureaucracy, the proliferation of images, therapeutic ideologies, the rationalization of the inner life, the cult of consumption, and in the last analysis from changes in family life and from changing patterns of socialization.’

This cultural heritage deadens our spiritual self and makes us avoid authenticity in our daily lives. We gradually lose touch with our inner selves, which then makes interpersonal intimacy difficult. As children we needed to repress our feelings to fit in and were compensated by material gratification. Now that we are no longer children we should grow up, depend on ourselves, and face life maturely.

It seems that many who are drawn to church music have this emotional profile in various degrees. Intense years of practice only focus attention on the self, which hinders developing skills for mature interaction with other adults. Further, since as young people we rarely saw the realistic side of church, the human part where people act out all the hurtful things that people can do, many thought church would be a “safe” place to work. Ensconced within the secure walls of artistic study and protected by the warm, caring, affirming shelter of the church, church music seemed a wondrous place to be shielded from the demands of the adult world. In fact, maybe we would never have to grow up if we spent our life there.

No wonder burnout poses such a potential problem for the church musician. When we do not get the unconditional warmth, caring, and support we feel we deserve in church, we feel cheated and betrayed. We then withdraw, sometimes a little bit, sometimes completely. Whatever the particular scenario, the problem is not really burnout–which is a symptom but a more fundamental loss of meaning. We feel that if we only had a larger church, a better choir, a more supportive pastor, or whatever, that our lives as church musicians would have more meaning.

But meaning does not reside in size of church, quality of choir, or pastoral support. It lies within us. And unless we confront this fact, grapple with its reality, and finally accept it, we can find ourselves withdrawing our investment in our church work. Slowly and insidiously, things we used to enjoy become tedious: preparing for choir rehearsal, practicing, selecting new music. Sadly, the very things that drew us so passionately to our work in the church now bore us.

The only solution to the situation, the only weapon against burnout is a renewed faith, a faith in ourselves and in God, that God will provide the strength for us to look inward. Willimon convincingly argues that “the `fuel’ that supplies the energy to minister as clergy or lay ministers [or music ministers] is a conviction that what we do has meaning. When we no longer find meaning in what we do, even the smallest action drains us. Burnout is the result of lack of meaning.”‘

As we look inward we find that the road upward comes from a new commitment to God, our faith, and ourselves, for it is our commitment that saves us. The size of the church, our choir program, or even the salary do not give our work meaning. The trick is to stop worrying about our success, and to recommit ourselves to be faithful to our work. If we do not have the heart to renew our commitment to the entire program, then we must commit to just one aspect. Decide to forge the handbell choir into a really fine ensemble. Then, emboldened by that success, set a goal of five new members in the adult choir. Of course these do not constitute renewed faith, but renewed faithfulness. Only in this way can we hope to move on through burnout and on to a new enthusiasm and faith.

Specific Issues that Cause Burnout for the Church Musician

Burnout for the church musician can result from very specific causes as well as a broader loss of meaning. Church work can, at times, become demanding, frustrating, and difficult in the extreme. Understanding some of the specific issues that the church musician can face will better prepare you for dealing with them as they arise. Willimon offers a penetrating look at some aspects of our work that contribute to burnout.

I. The duties of the church musician are never completed.

No matter what kind of appointment you have at your church, or anticipate having, you serve essentially in an open-ended situation. For one thing, few choirs have enough members, so recruitment is never ending. For another, your chorister’s musical skills are never strong enough, so you are continually working on sight-reading, diction, rhythmic precision, and so forth.

Absent or ill choir members must be called every week. (After a few years, one wonders if they can’t feel needed without telling them so all the time. The answer is NO). Sunday school classes are always seeking pianists, or the children need costumes for the Christmas pageant, or you must decorate the choir room for Easter. Again, faithfulness to these tasks is the response.

2. The job of the church musician is never clearly defined.

Even the best of job descriptions only tell part of the story the obvious one, the one that defines the work for Sunday worship, choir rehearsal, playing the organ, children’s choirs, and such. These are not the problem issues. It is the undefined expectations that can pose such difficulties, for they sometimes seem endless. No matter the size of the church, there is always work of a musical or nonmusical nature. In addition, the very nature of being a musician means that one never has practiced enough, can never cease searching for inspiring new music, must try a new approach to help the tenors improve their choral tone.

The most effective and mature way to deal with this issue is to draw gentle but clear boundaries regarding your responsibilities. This may provoke criticism from some quarters “I wonder how committed he/she is to the church; he/she was not there for the Fellowship Class Christmas party” but it will keep you from having a nervous breakdown. It will also demonstrate to those in your church that you are indeed committed to the church as well as to your own integrity.

3.Church music involves many repetitious tasks.

This can perhaps be the most immediate cause for burnout. Every week, the chairs must be arranged for the children, music must be ready for each choir for each rehearsal, deadlines for the bulletin must be met, and one is never finished recruiting new choir members. Even worse, there is never any real vacation from our work. While away from church, we wonder about the music for Christmas (or Easter if we are at Christmas time): “And how many different, appealing, quality, and appropriate Christmas works are there anyway? And where can I find better trumpets since the ones this year were terrible? And until I decide what we are singing I don’t even know if I need trumpets. . . ”

Again, only disciplined boundaries in conjunction with good organization will keep the sameness of our work from resulting in burnout.

4.The personnel we work with changes very little.

Thank goodness this is true, for the Church goes forward by the dedicated constancy of its people. But you knew that was coming it sure would be good to have a rehearsal one week where the basses were not flat, and the sopranos did not flag with their rhythm, and the altos had better vowels. None of them mean it personally, of course, but it can get to you. After seven years of saying the same things to the same people it is easy to forget that they do not do it on purpose. But after a bad day you may not want to say, for the two hundredth time, “energize the half notes” in a calm and gentle manner.

The challenge is to say the same old thing in a new way. For one thing, they can predict what you are going to say. So, say it differently, or do not say it, or exaggerate it. Remember: we work with volunteers. They come to rehearsal to be motivated and shown how to sing better. When we cease to do this, we allow burnout to catch up with us.

5. Choir and instrumental programs often attract people who are hurting and whose needs are not being met elsewhere.

The mission of the Church is to share Christ’s healing grace with all. This forges it into a family of Christians. Like all families, however, the Church can become dysfunctional if some of its members with serious problems are not helped kindly but firmly. Most members do not bring their personal problems to church, but some people who do not find the personal support they need elsewhere do. Since it is their inappropriate behaviors that have caused their problems in the first place, the cycle is repeated when they come to church. Unless these behaviors are addressed honestly and firmly, they can cause serious disruptions.

When a dysfunctional personality joins a choir the problem can take on dismaying proportions, because of the smaller size of the community. In the larger context of the congregation, the disruptive personality can often be absorbed by the group. But the small group dynamics of the choir intensifies the problem because a music rehearsal does not effectively address personal issues. Choir rehearsals focus mainly on nonpersonal interactions. In fact, the very goal of the choral experience is to blend disparate voices and their personalities into one coherent whole. Someone coming to choir for individual, personal attention and affirmation can easily feel neglected and frustrated. This then begins their disruptive cycle once again.

Much of the time a person’s need for attention will remain limited to asking a lot of questions or objecting to certain anthems. These issues can be handled easily. When the person joins the choir seeking deep friendships or romantic hopes, then things can become problematic. When this is not forthcoming from other choir members, the person can look to the music director or the organist to fulfill this relationship. This can pose a real bind for the church musician when he or she tries to be friendly and supportive. The new choir member views this as responding to a deeper level of friendship and develops more serious expectations.

Soon, things can be more personal and difficult than they first seemed.

Without drawing firm and clear boundaries the problem can quickly escalate. If the choir member grows too disruptive, that person may need to be asked to leave. This can leave you open to harsh criticism from others because the choir is supposed to be “open” to all. Remind the church though, that you are first charged with the care of the whole music program and the choir as a community, which takes precedence over any individual. If someone threatens to damage the community, you must prevent this, even if it means taking the issue to the pastor or a committee of the choir. Ignoring the problem until it divides the choir can be fatal to your program. Only with consistency, honesty, and forthrightness can you develop the integrity that will hold in the face of these types of problems.

6. The role of the persona.

This is a term adopted from Greek tragedy by psychiatrist Carl Jung to describe the role we often present to the outside world to mask our true feelings. Left unattended, it can easily forge a split between our real personality and our “church” one. This split can then breed a vaguely dishonest facet to our personality, which accounts for the “fakeness” we can observe in church members or staff.

Dealing with the persona by no means implies rushing to the other extreme and abrasively confronting every single issue or event with which you disagree. This kind of “honesty” simply veils other issues of anger and control. It also seriously undermines one’s effectiveness when confrontation is needed. Addressing the persona does not mean abandoning the professional demeanor we need in order to carry on our day-to-day work. We all have a Sunday when we do not feel good or Wednesday afternoons when the kids irritate us. Being professional means simply acting as positive and reasonable as you can, even when you do not feel like it. No one seriously expects someone to be immune to the daily ebb and flow of life’s emotions.

The issue of the persona involves something else. Many factors in church work can cause it: hidden agendas, personal insecurities, unsaid prohibitions against negative thinking. In spite of these very real issues, however, it is crucial that we work continually at lowering the persona and becoming as genuine and authentic as possible. Left unchecked, an inauthentic persona can develop into a deeply disturbed personality where someone exhibits one personality at church and another elsewhere, or even worse, never exhibits a genuine personality. Not only does this negate everything our Christian faith stands for by its dishonesty, it can result in losing touch with our inner selves. Moreover, it leads to depression, alienation, and early burnout.

Finally, the struggle necessary to maintain the persona can consume so much energy that it leaves little strength for anything else. This often happens when we experience problems in our personal life. Something such as marital or family difficulties can understandably cause depression and anxiety. Exerting the immense effort to hide these feelings can dominate our entire daily life. If this situation becomes the norm rather than the exception, we can find ourselves literally worn out emotionally and intellectually before we even begin the day. Then, burnout easily sets in and our tasks become drudgery.

7. It becomes difficult to deal with church members when their unrealistic ideals are not met.

Meeting people’s expectations as a church musician can be daunting. Congregation members often bring overly idealistic hopes to church. When these hopes collide with reality, the resulting anger can cause problems for the church community. Life’s complex problems often defy simple solutions, something that many in the church do not want to hear. Marriage difficulties, teenagers, financial setbacks, or health issues can overwhelm many. They then turn to the church for hope, support, and affirmation, which is the church’s role. When they expect more, seek easy solutions, or expect the church staff to solve their problems, then things can become difficult.

Our task as church musicians remains that of ministering to those in our care, offering them support, affirmation, prayer, and the assistance we can provide. Anything beyond that really moves out of our realm of ability. We can encourage them to stay involved in the music program because commitment to a project outside of oneself relieves some of the stress. Also, as the choir member makes a positive contribution to the life of the church, they begin to have better self-esteem and to resolve their issues.

8. The many demands on the time of the church musician can result in poor time management.

Few careers demand as many skills as church music does: years of study, arranging music, visiting, fixing a cipher on the organ, accompanying a singer, meeting with the staff, and much, much more. The one solution to what seems like overwhelming demands is to organize your work by priority and goals. Only by forcefully and intentionally doing this can you take control of your time. Otherwise you become a prime candidate for burnout. Also, after you have put things in priority you have a better idea of which tasks to decline and ones on which to work harder. Unless you decide what to do with your time, everything becomes effectively equal in importance. This can mean that everything then receives the same insufficient attention and preparation.

Since most church musicians serve in a part-time capacity, prioritizing your duties becomes even more crucial. How many situations have we seen or been involved in, where duties were gradually added to a part-time position until it effectively equaled full-time work, but without full-time compensation? Only clear decisions as to time management and goals will keep these problems at a minimum.

9. We need to develop more flexibility, but without compromising on important issues.

Flexibility can be one of the greatest assets for working in church music, for it helps compensate for our artistic training, which exists on unwarying exactness. After all, singing a C sharp in place of a C natural can cause havoc in an anthem. Without correcting the C sharp we become remiss in our work. It becomes a different issue, however, when we fume over two sopranos changing seats in the chancel. While they indeed may sound better in one arrangement, they had a reason, or at least they thought so, for moving. Letting it make you angry defeats your larger goal of working towards fine worship music. The goal is to develop exacting music standards while growing more flexible in insignificant issues.

Dealing with Burnout Through Personal Assessment

Understanding the issues involved in stress and burnout in church music is only the beginning. Addressing them is another. The best way to do this is to take an assessment of where you are in your church-music career (see the appendix). Ask yourself some basic questions:
How am I doing musically, personally, spiritually?

What do I want at this point in my life?

How can I integrate my life more completely?

Is my current position a way station between the past and the future, or is it where I choose to be for a while?

Am I taking responsibility for change if I need to?

Only by seriously facing these questions can you hope to arrive at a lasting solution.

Start thinking about your work in church music in five-year blocks. This will give you a clear structure and some objectivity. Write down a summary of your last five years. Begin every entry with an action verb and be as specific as possible. Here is an example:

During the last five years I have:

Selected and installed a new $60,000 organ.

Found $7,500 to have the piano in the sanctuary rebuilt.

Directed six weekly choral and instrumental rehearsals, totaling over 100, people, serving at two worship services. Increased the music budget more than 200 percent.

Attended more than 100 hours of workshops, seminars, and master classes.
Added more than 100 new titles to the church library.

Increased participation in the music program by 20 percent.

Whew! No wonder you are tired. And this is in addition to your other job as high-school choral teacher. Since you have not taken time to examine what you have actually accomplished, you did not realize the extent of your contribution. Now you know and have a clear assessment of your accomplishments, which will enable you to decide how you are doing compared to what you would like to be doing.

If you find too much disparity between what you wanted to accomplish and have actually done, then you need to do some more reflection and take some more time. This is critical. Unless you think about where you are and where you want to go, you might end up somewhere else. As the Cheshire Cat remarked to Alice: “If you don’t know where you are going, then it doesn’t really matter how you get there.”

There are so many variables in church music: new pastors, changing congregational profiles, new choir members, budget issues, and many more. The only place that you can exert any serious control is on yourself. So the next step is to decide what you want to do. If you conclude that you are unhappy with your current position, consider the following options.

1. Make sure you want to change positions.

Even if your current position is far from perfect, remember: the grass always looks greener and looks can be deceiving. A better and more understanding pastor in another church may not compensate for the smaller choir and electronic organ. Redoubling your efforts toward improving where you are is always a good option to keep in mind.

2. A bigger job is not always better.

Remember my friend with twenty-one rehearsals. Yes, he had a big church with many programs and lots of people. But, it almost gave him a nervous breakdown. Everyone wants challenge, but too much work can be overwhelming in the long run.

3. If change is chosen, count on at least twelve to eighteen months for it to happen.

Quality church-music positions open up at random times and can be quite competitive. Know that it may take some months to move if you choose to.

4. Fantasize about your ideal situation.

What is it you really would like in a new church? Do you have the credentials and qualifications to do it? If not, are you willing to pay the price to acquire them?

5 .If you find that you are approaching burnout, perhaps a rest or career change is necessary.

Changing careers can be difficult, so you will need to read the literature available on it. Perhaps some career counseling is in store as well. There are many people and resources available; you will need to avail yourself of them.

6. Consider changing your denomination.

Some of your frustrations may result from your current denominational position. Moving from free worship to a liturgical church (or vice versa) may relieve a number of your problems.

7. Finally, if you still feel stuck, make a decision.

The worst thing to do at this stage of the game is to avoid coming to a conclusion. This only puts you back where you started, only more frustrated since you now know that you must change some things. The reality is that you must solve your problem, no matter how intimidating it may seem. If the current situation is difficult, it most likely will not change. But you can change, and you can decide on how and when you do it. The alternative is burnout, loss of enthusiasm, and perhaps dropping out of a calling in which you have invested years. Our commitment to our music, our faith, and ourselves demands nothing less.

The above article, ‘Burnout and the Church Musician’ was written by N. Lee Orr. The article was excerpted from the book The Church Music Handbook for Pastors and Musicians.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, ‘Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.’