Staying Sane and Avoiding Burnout in Youth Ministry

This blog appeared online first on October 4, 2016 on the Youth Specialties website here: http://youthspecialties.com/blog/staying-sane-and-avoiding-burnout-in-youth-ministry/

I live in the west Michigan area, and we just had a season change. One day it was cold and snowing, the next day it was sunny and hot and I was at the beach swimming. It was like a switch was flipped and we went from winter to summer with not much spring thrown in. The weather isn’t the only thing changing. We’ve finished up our celebration and recognition of our graduating seniors and are getting ready to usher them into our young adult ministry. We are also beginning to prepare for the Fall with our teaching series, recruiting leaders, and figuring out how best to bring the fifth-graders-becoming-sixth-graders into the youth ministry.

There’s a lot of change that happens year-to-year, and a lot that goes on during the year. We have the high attendance Fall as everything starts again, and then we have the low attendance during the holiday seasons. There are the highs of everyone coming back to school after the New Year, and then the lows again basically from Spring Break until school starts again in the Fall. Attendance is one of those highs and lows that can sometimes be predictable, but can also bring about some anxiety and nervousness. It’s not all about the numbers, but numbers are unfortunately one of the main statistics parents and church members (and our bosses) use to measure effectiveness and success.

Tracking attendance is not the only roller coaster we ride through the year, though. If it were, there may be less youth ministry burnout. One roller coaster I’ve ridden is in lesson preparation. Certain parts of the year can become so busy with event planning and paperwork and tracking down kids who still need to pay for the Winter Retreat or whatever it might be, that lesson planning and “future planning” fall to the side. These, thankfully, are only seasons, but they definitely come around and are frustrating to go through.

There’s also the roller coaster ride of students. One day we have a student who is spiritually thriving, bearing fruit, discipling other students, being a leader in the youth group, and the next they have fallen off the wagon and you haven’t seen them in months. It is hard not to take this personally, as if somehow you have failed that student and it is your fault.

What about leader attendance and retention? This can be a hard one too. Everyone goes through seasons, and their seasons don’t always line up with our seasons or the seasons of our ministries. Leaders can all of the sudden disappear without much notice, leaving kids wondering where they went and sometimes leaving the youth leader wondering the same thing.

There are a lot of things to navigate in youth ministry. There are incredible, amazing, the-reason-why-we-do-this highs, and then there are horrible, gut-wrenching, why-do-we-do-this type lows. How do we navigate this well while maintaining some measure of sanity and avoiding burnout? I think there are four things that must be a part of our lives:

  1. We MUST have a personal, thriving spiritual life
    1. This should go without saying, but it must be said. It is too easy to fall into the trap of using lesson preparation as our spiritual growth strategy for ourselves. After all, we are reading and studying the Bible and praying, right? Shouldn’t it count? Well, it definitely shouldn’t hinder our spiritual growth, but it should not be the thing that we rely on to help us grow. We must independently grow in our Christ-likeness and biblical wisdom so we can give out of the overflow. This, too, will help us maintain the proper perspective during the highs and the lows.
  2. We MUST have friends and hobbies outside of the youth ministry
    1. If all of our time as youth leaders is spent in the youth ministry, with students, we do our students and ourselves a disservice. We must spend time with people over the age of 18 and we must spend time doing something other than ministry. It could be a recreational sport, woodworking, housework, or scrapbooking, but we must find a hobby that fills us up.
  3. We MUST always remember the WHY
    1. God can use anyone to accomplish His purposes, but He has chosen us to be with a specific group of students for a specific length of time, and He has done it for a specific reason. Don’t lose sight of the end-goal. Our youth ministry has a goal of guiding students forward one step at a time in their faith. That’s what we call a win.
  4. We MUST hold to the truth that all things last for a season
    1. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 is a great passage to talk about navigating highs and lows., The first verse says this “1For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…”

The truth is, there is a time for everything. Don’t let discouragement or burnout get a hold of you. Stand firm in the faith, stay grounded in the Word, and be diligent in prayer through the high times and the low times. Stay faithful, friends.

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