Boundaries Prevent Burnout

Bob Lupton, author and experienced community developer, described this pattern in giving handouts and creating dependency. Keep in mind that this is general, and not every specific time we give:


Establishing boundaries can be very difficult; however, it is one of the most important things volunteers can do to ensure healthy long-lasting relationships with their refugee partners. When refugees first arrive, they are often in ‘crisis mode’. There will likely have more needs than any one person can appropriately address. It is important for volunteers to understand that they are not responsible for solving all of the refugee’s problems; relatives, community resources, and WRD exist to help them as well. Volunteers should remember that they are working to empower their refugee partners toward self-sufficiency. If volunteers are doing too much for refugees, they are not learning how to do things for themselves.

Self Awareness in Creating Boundaries

Volunteers should pay close attention to the situations where they lose energy, feel a knot in their stomachs or get upset. Identifying where and when they need more space and energy is the first step to setting appropriate boundaries. Volunteers should also remember to set appropriate boundaries with their time. Volunteers should not feel pressured into spending more time than they can afford. Once volunteers have identified their limits, they should stick to them.

Boundaries from the Beginning

It is best to establish clear boundaries at the beginning of the relationship; however, volunteers should not be afraid to have a conversation with their refugee partner to clarify boundaries, if needed, as the relationship develops. Volunteers should be in communication with WRD if they are feeling overwhelmed. It is important to WRD and to the refugees we resettle that relationships formed with volunteers are healthy and long-lasting. This can only happen with appropriate boundary setting. If a volunteer encounters a situation where they are unable to assist a refugee, they can contact their church's WRD liaision or the refugee's WRD case specialist. Also consider referencing other local organizations or agencies:

Empowering the refugee community:

  • Make refugees feel welcome.

    • Example: When you first meet them, bring them your favorite candy, soda, item from the U.S. to share 

  • Teach refugees to do things for themselves, even if it is not as efficient as doing something for them

  • For example: If a child has a field trip permission form in his or her backpack, do not sign the form for that child. Instead, help coach the child's parents on how to check their backpacks for notes from school

  • For example: Do not buy healthy food for refugees. Instead, ride the bus with them to the store and teach them what items are healthy and what items are not. 

  • For example: If a refugee wants to use his or her EBT card to buy groceries, ride with them on the bus to the closet grocery store, or teach them how to ride the bus to the nearest grocery store. 

  • Avoid driving refugees in your car in order to avoid creating dependency. You will not always be there when a refugee needs a ride, and empowering them to take ownership of finding sustainable transportation is more effective. 

  • Don't expect to be the only one giving or serving -- refugees will often desire to give you things, or serve you. Do not be high and mighty and deny these gifts -- allow them to bless you! Also, be careful to avoid a paternalistic perspective, or the idea that you're 'above' the refugee community. 

  • It is not your job to 'fix' a refugee's life, or solve all of their 'problems.' Volunteers should use their skills to assist in whatever way they can, not every single possible way. 

Avoiding burnout and establishing appropriate boundaries with refugees:

  • WRD views our volunteers as leaders. Volunteers are encouraged to mobilize others, and multiply themselves out. Oftentimes volunteers can be enthusiastic about volunteering to start, serve at an above-and-beyond rate, and then become burned out, no longer wanting to serve. Volunteering in a group helps prevent this burnout, as people are able to hold each other accountable.

  • WRD does not expect you to be professionals or experts in the refugee population from the start, but to learn as you go along.

  • WRD’s intent is that you will not experience burn out. Volunteering with the refugee community is to be a healthy part of your life, not a taxing or draining part. If volunteers do feel that they are reaching burn out, either directions are not being followed or WRD is not directing, equipping and guiding volunteers well.  Volunteers are to be in close communication with the volunteer coordinator if they are overwhelmed.

  • Volunteers should understand that the refugees with whom they are working will struggle with adjusting to America.

  • Do life with refugees. WRD staff will handle the required responsibilities of resettlement, unless you indicate that you wish to assist with those.

    • For example: If you are going to the grocery store, invite a refugee to come with you. If you are going to the park with your kids, invite a refugee family to come to the park with you and your kids.

  • When helping refugees, stay within volunteer guidelines. Do not feel overburdened by other issues that a refugee may express they are facing; know that if they are in their first three to six months of living in the U.S., WRD staff is handling those issues. If refugees are no longer involved with WRD (or never were to start with), volunteers can empower refugees to solve the issue, rather than volunteers solving the issue themselves.

Note: Although WRD wants to help you establish boundaries with refugee families, we believe that the Holy Spirit is the guiding force in all of our conversations and interactions. If there is ever a time when your conviction from the Holy Spirit appears to contradict the boundaries we are encouraging you to maintain, we urge you to let the Spirit lead you in your involvement with these refugee families.

Assist with what you can:

What if my refugee partner needs special help that I can’t provide? You will probably encounter situations with your refugee partners that are beyond your knowledge and understanding. For example, immigration issues are frequently a confusing area for refugees and volunteers alike. Another area of concern relates to specific mental health needs such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Public aid and medical assistance regulations also can be very technical. Case managers and counselors are available who have the specialized skill needed to handle these issues. If your refugee partner needs help that you can’t provide, contact a WRD case manager. Particularly regarding legal advice: only those accredited with USCIS can complete immigration paperwork or give advice or answer questions about it. That means volunteers should never help someone fill out any immigration paperwork - including green card applications, AR-11 documents or anything else. To do otherwise is immigration fraud.

[Parts of this material has been adapted from World Relief Minnesota’s Volunteer Handbook]