Avoiding Burnout

Self, Mental Health , Support

Most organizations working with street involved people have staff stay for two to three years and then move on because they are exhausted, highly stressed, and burnt out. But this almost 27 year-old ministry has staff with seven, eight, nine, even 15 years – one staff person has been there for its entire history – and most want to
continue to be here for life. Sanctuary Ministries in downtown Toronto does something different and their people are thriving.

Eric Strom sat down with Sanctuary founder, Greg Paul, to learn more.


Eric: What would you say is the core purpose of Sanctuary?

Greg: Sanctuary Ministries’ purpose is about becoming a healthy, welcoming community where people who are poor and excluded are particularly valued and that this community is an expression of the Gospel that’s embodied by Jesus Christ.

We aren’t an agency – not an old-school mission – we’re actually a community that’s trying to find a way to live our lives together. It works itself out in a variety of ways.
Meals are shared together a couple of times a week and we might have as many as 200 people. These meals are not a soup kitchen kind of endeavor either. They are meals that are prepared by, planned by and served by people who are street-involved.

We do all kinds of community events like excursions, concerts, art shows. We have a health care clinic with three nurses and a couple of volunteer doctors. We run a bicycle shop which is about employing people with barriers to employment.

We also have a couple of houses we facilitate that function essentially as homes for constructed family units for people who are street-involved – homeless, living on the street, underhoused. That’s the core of our community, people who are struggling with addictions, mental illness, post-trauma issues, criminal background, etc.

But it’s not that we’re serving the community made up of that demographic. They are the core of the community that also includes people who are wealthy, powerful, middle-class folks. It’s a mix of demographics. Sometimes we describe it as a very large and extremely dysfunctional family. (Said with a chuckle.)

When I started, few if any places were doing this kind of thing. Now there’s quite a movement in this direction, over the last ten years especially. People are realizing that community is right at the heart of the Gospel and it’s actually what’s most effective.


Eric: One of the biggest things that stuck out for me in our previous conversations was how long staff have been with Sanctuary Ministries. You hinted at some of the practices and measures you have in place for preventing burnout, compassion fatigue. Would you share more about that?

Greg: Burnout is a huge and significant issue. Most organizations working with street-involved people find their staff stay for two to three years, maybe five at most, and then move on because they’re fried.

Because of the commitment to being a community together, we have said from the beginning that people who are on staff need to see themselves first as members of the community. If I’m trying to foster a community that’s good for street involved people, it also has to be good for me – meet some of my needs and help feed and care for me as well. Core commitment is really fundamental.

There’s not a lot out there about positive best practices around this stuff. So we’re continually revising what we do. One of the things in place the longest is a commitment to each other that we will all have a mentoring network in place. Each of us will have two, three, even four people in our lives who are providing consistent mentoring to us. So we talk about needing a senior mentor – someone who’s older than you and has been down the road and can provide some kind of care for you out of experience. Maybe someone will have a pastor or therapeutic role for you. We talk about wanting somebody who’s a peer mentor – about your age and experience – who’s going through the same stuff and you can kind of unpack that together as equals. And another thing we think is important is a vocational mentor.

It’s harder, when you have a network of mentors, to baffle everybody all the time, to make them feel like you’re okay when maybe you’re not.

We feel so strongly about this that for years we’ve provided time within the work week to meet with mentors. That’s one of the ways we say this has to be part of what you do.


Eric: What are some of the specific challenges you face around burnout and what best practices do you have in place to prevent burnout among your staff?

Greg: One of the challenges is that because our people come here with a sense of calling and mission, the majority of our staff don’t punch the clock. So our concern is often to get people to work less, not to work more, to protect them.

We have a number of measures to be checking in with people on a regular basis. We do staff check-ins before every time we have a program in the building; before and after we go out and do outreach. We want to make sure our people are caring for each other well and that staff are caring for each other well. We try to make sure people take their holidays. We also have a goal to have every staff take a sabbatical every 7 years. And we try to pay people pretty well as well. We’re committed to doing that to the best of our ability.

Sanctuary has a couple of annual staff retreats. We plan days away to deal with big issues every three or four months. Getting resolution of heavy issues lightens the load for staff. The Executive Director, Alan Beaty, works with a group, with a rotating membership of four or five staff who function as a leadership resource to Alan and the rest of the staff. It’s not a management structure and not hierarchical. Everyone participates in it. It’s not based on managerial ability but that you’re committed to the community. When people have served on that team and they come off that committee, they have a way better understanding of, and compassion for, what leadership deals with. It’s another way of lessening the load for people. We’ve really ended up with a staff culture where people support each other really well.


Eric: What pieces of advice do you have for people on the front line working in a Canadian context for poverty alleviation?

Greg: Sure, you refer to it as poverty alleviation and other people will talk about justice work, and those are real terms, good terms. But, if you want to continue, you’ll need to be able to live a healthy life, as I have; I’m still doing this 30 years later, because it’s been a good life and I still want to be in this community until the day I
die. That’s a good sign.

The reason for that is that I have made a practice of engaging with people. I would not say that my core mission is justice work or poverty alleviation, although certainly we do that; my core way of being in the world is to be with people.

I don’t honestly come to Sanctuary with a sense that I’m working for people, I come to Sanctuary to live my life with people and that together we’re going to work to alleviate poverty and work toward justice amongst other things. It’s people actually who feed you more than they cost you. It’s loving and being loved that feeds us and
sustains us. I’d say this to people doing this kind of work, put yourself out there. Love people and maybe even more importantly, allow them to love you.


Eric: And what encouragements do you have for the average Canadian asking questions about poverty in Canada?

Greg: Go and be with people. Find a place where you can just go and hang out with people. And let me be very clear what I mean by that.

We have folks who come to visit us at Sanctuary from suburban churches – very well-meaning folks – who come out of a sense of God’s calling. What they want to do is volunteer work. They want to serve a meal. They want to give out clothing. They want to give something material. And some of them really struggle when we say, “don’t do anything. Sit down and be with people.”

The people doing the work are a function of our core community. It’s their home, it’s not your home yet. It might become your home but it isn’t yet. So just come and be with people and open yourself up to the possibility that they may have more to give you than you have to offer them. That’s the nature of the Kingdom of God. That’s the way to really follow Jesus and live a life full of Shalom. This kind of community is not all sweetness and light, by a long stretch. There’s stuff that’s just incredibly painful. But it’s a beautiful thing. It’s a powerful thing. And when you get into it, you just want to keep doing it. Somehow there’s this razor’s edge that God calls us to walk in this kind of environment. You can burn out. You can make it your mission to save people. If you do that you’ll die. You’ll burn out. And you’ll become angry and bitter. You can decide nothing matters. You can become calloused and indifferent that way.

And walking on this edge is another way of expressing that you’re hanging often between joy and sorrow. Between pain and ecstasy. Between love and whatever its opposite is. Deep, deep riches and great poverty in a spiritual and emotional sense. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which one of those places you’re landing in.

We have a staff that have been here seven, eight, nine, even fifteen years. Most people want to continue to be here for life. That tells you something about this life of living with and amongst people I would call beatitudes people – the kind of people Jesus describes in Matt. 5. Is it easy? No. Is it incredibly challenging? Is it magnificent? Is it joyful? Is it full of God’s shalom? Yes, it is.

If you would like to learn more about Sanctuary Ministries, please visit: sanctuarytoronto.ca