I hit a seriously dark time in my third year of youth ministry. I had just moved from Middle School Youth Minister to the Director of Student Ministry. The work was overwhelming. The transition was rough because it meant more responsibility and new problems. I felt like I was in over my head. Conflict and tension were at a high point. It almost seemed like the work wasn't worth it.
I was approaching burnout.
You don't have to be in youth ministry for too long to realize that there are going to be extreme highs and extreme lows. I've had my fair share of dark times and in some of those times flirted with burnout. But I've always managed to pull out. It's not easy, but these are some thoughts on how to turn it around:
First, I had to accept that everything was NOT fine. Too often we respond to the question, "How are you doing?" with, "fine" or "busy." But denial will only make the problem grow. You need to accept the situation you are in.
Once you realize what you're facing, I recommend at least one day out of the office. No technology, just you, the Lord, and His word. It's not a vacation, but an intervention to rest your spirit, and to allow God to speak to you. When you take a step back, you allow God to pour in His grace.
If you are married you'll want to go to your spouse. But it's important in this situation to find someone who can separate themselves from the emotional consequences of what you're feeling. You'll want someone who is going to pray with you and listen to you, but not necessarily take on your burden in a way that might be unhealthy. If you have a mentor or a trusted friend, go to him or her and share what's going on.
Catching burnout before you get torched is a "one-step-at-a-time" process. It's a marathon, not a sprint. In my experience with running marathons, as I approach the 20th mile the only thing keeping me going is my heart and mind. My body feels depleted. If you're approaching burnout, you're going to need God's grace to pull you out. Your spirit and will might have already tapped out.
Now here's the hard part: things may never be the same. Sometimes we travel through dark times to realize we aren't called to youth ministry. Sometimes it's to unravel a deeply embedded scar. Sometimes it's uncovering a sin. And sometimes it's Satan just beating you down. Regardless of what sent you there, you'll come out changed. And the change should be for the better. If it's handled the right way, it will.
But what if you handle it the wrong way?
Burnout only gets ugly if you abandon God and try to do it on your own. So how can this be avoided?
It's hard to stomach the idea of burnout, but just know these hard times are a part of the journey. Anytime I hit a rough patch in ministry I remember Paul's interaction with our Heavenly Father:
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:8-10
Have you ever caught yourself as you were beginning to experience burnout? What did you do to avoid a total meltdown?