I have been in youth ministry long enough to know that arguing with your senior pastor in a public setting does not bode well for personal job security. Yet, for a mind boggling thirty minutes I was doing just that at a recent staff retreat. Oblivious to the obvious discomfort of the other staff, I plowed ahead as if the fate of the free world hinged on me winning this argument about a casual comment that had been made earlier in the evening. Now, I have also been in ministry long enough to know that I have certain indicators that let me know when I am starting to fall down the rabbit hole toward burnout. One of the first signs is when my ability to critique difficult issues and then come up with solutions turns into a hyper-critical spirit which leads to a tendency to want to argue, which leads to the need to prove that I am right, which leads to sitting on a couch in someone’s living room with twenty other people arguing with my boss.
For some reason, or perhaps many reasons, burnout is part of the DNA of the youth ministry profession. In fact, I do not know of anyone who vocationally does youth ministry for any significant length of time that does not struggle with burnout. I suspect this is true in other professions as well but in youth ministry, where experts tell us that the average length a youth pastor stays at a church is somewhere between sixteen and eighteen months, it feels to me like the burnout ratio is much higher than it should be. That leads me to believe that if you are in youth ministry, whether as a paid staff or committed volunteer, you will deal with burnout and your ability to deal with burnout will be one of the factors that determines how long you will work with teenagers.
I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who said “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That old axiom provides some guidance for the youth ministry burnout scenario that I have been describing. By taking preventative measures, I believe that in many instances burnout can be stopped before it grows roots and chokes out your ministry. Here are four “preventative measures” others in youth ministry have recommended to me over the years that I have used to stave off debilitating seasons of burnout.
1. Learn your warning signs: My car has a warning light that comes on when something is wrong under the hood. Unfortunately, we do not have a little red light on our left elbows to let us know when we are burning out. However, you can learn your warning signs. One indicator that is tied to burn out in almost every case that I know of is spiritual apathy. When you catch yourself growing lazy in your devotional habits or avoiding time alone with God then grab the biggest Bible you can find (the heavier the better), tell the secretary that you are out for the rest of the day, grab some Starbucks (it has been proven that youth workers need a Starbucks cup close by to do their best thinking), turn off your i-phone and do what you know you need to do.
2. Find accountability: Far too few Christians seek accountability within the body of Christ. We were not designed to live our lives in isolation from the rest of the body. However, I often listen to stories of burned out youth people who talk about loneliness as a factor for stopping working with students. Finding a group of men who can probe into any hidden corner of my life, including whether I am burning out or not, has been one of the great blessings of my life. The Lord has used this group to pull me back from the brink of burnout more times than I can recount. Not having a similar group means that when burnout comes knocking you will have to deal with this unwanted visitor alone.
3. Do what you are called to do: My first mentor in youth ministry, Len Teague (Associate Pastor of Children and Youth at Lookout Mtn. Presbyterian) sat me down and told me that when he is starting to burnout he takes a student out for a meal or goes to a ball game or takes his discipleship group out for coffee. In other words, when he sits down with students and gets away from the office, he regains perspective on his calling.
4. Continue to grow: Len also made sure to remind me regularly that I could not take someone further than I had been in my own walk with Christ. When youth workers begin to burn out two of the first things to go are time in the Word and time in prayer. As I mentioned in point one, this is a sure indicator of a burned out youth worker. Personal experience has taught me that when I teach teenagers from an unhealthy place spiritually I do more harm than good. Not to mention the tendency to fall into destructive sin patterns when I am spiritually worn down.
One of the services CEP provides for the local church is confidential counsel for youth workers. If you are in the clutches in burnout or feel like you are heading that way, then feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 678-825-1144.
Another way that CEP supports youth ministries in local churches is by providing leadership and worldview training for high school students. We do this through a conference network called YXL. With conferences at Covenant College on Lookout Mountain, one in Pennsylvania at Refreshing Mountain Camp and one in Glorieta, New Mexico, students can chose between three unique summer conferences. Each conference has its own leadership group and own program. For example, CEP runs the conference at Covenant College, but they all adhere to the same philosophy of training high school students as Christian leaders. You can find information about all three conferences by going to www.pcacep.org/yxl.
What is the tie in between YXL and burnout? I believe there are two. First, by identifying potential student leaders and sending them to YXL for a week for training you will be strengthening the youth program at your church. I know that is a bold claim. At YXL, we challenge youth to go back to their churches and become disciplemakers. I have seen in my own church that when students step up to that challenge, then youth ministry becomes easier. Second, you can come and spend a week with us either as a counselor getting rejuvenated by spending time with students (see point 3) or by spending a week at Covenant College recharging your batteries by hanging out with us, but not being a counselor and using your time to read, pray, reflect, journal, sleep, and relax (see points 1 and 4).
There are probably as many suggestions for preventing burnout in youth ministry as there are reasons that people burn out. However, at the close of this article, I would like to add one thing from the Apostle Paul in Romans 8 worth remembering when struggles with burnout come … 38For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.