Loneliness In Youth Ministry
The article was on loneliness in youth ministry, a daunting and important topic.
Below is the article printed in its entirety.
To outsiders the concept seems absurd, a contradiction in terms.
“A lonely youth minister? Impossible. How can you be lonely? You're busier than anyone I know, and you’re constantly surrounded by people!”
But therein lies the rub. There’s a wide gulf of difference between being alone and being lonely. And unfortunately, many if not most youth workers find themselves wandering through this bleak landscape, some for short periods of time, others for much of their ministries. Loneliness doesn’t require any unique circumstances, no genetic predisposition. Loneliness hits us in the midst of our busyness, even as we’re surrounded by people. And the nothingness of loneliness can be crippling.
Youth workers are seldom alone. But youth workers are routinely lonely.
But what causes loneliness? How does it impact our ability to ministry to students? And how does it affect our relationships? Better yet, what steps can we take to deal with it? As much as possible with any topic this large, I’ve sought to address these questions over the course of the next few pages.
One word about this article before we move on. My role with youthministry360 allows me to form relationships with awesome youth workers from across the country. When I was approached with writing this article, I immediately knew that I would be picking the brains of some of my friends, each of them wonderful youth ministers in their own right.
Over the course of this article you'll hear from a variety of youth workers. Three are men, three are women. They represent different denominations. They are spread out across the country. And to a person, over the course of their vast youth ministry experience, they have dealt with some level of loneliness. I'm thankful to each of them as their openness will no doubt help other youth workers deal with the loneliness that seems to be part and parcel to our calling to minister to teenagers.
What Causes Loneliness?
“In the 10 years I’ve been doing full time ministry, loneliness is probably one of the greatest struggles I’ve had.” This was the response I received from Alanna Arceneaux, Minister of Education and Discipleship at Pineville Park Baptist Church (Pineville, LA), when I asked if she ever experienced loneliness in youth ministry. Her response would echo others I reached out to. Of the six youth pastors I approached, not a one replied that they had never dealt with loneliness. And yet I was surprised by the variety of causes of loneliness that youth workers listed. Summarizing their thoughts, and my own experiences, I drilled down to identify what seem to be the most common causes of loneliness in youth ministry.
Demands Of Ministry
Let’s face it: the pace of youth ministry is frenetic. If you’re a youth minister in any capacity, you don’t need to be reminded of this. The demands of youth ministry beget loneliness. Youth workers wear dozens of proverbial hats. We work odd hours. We are available at any time to put out fires in the lives of those we minister to. Full-time youth workers have to deal with the Bermuda Triangle of relationships (church staff, students, and students parents). The high demand of ministry leaves youth workers exhausted, and more often than not, feeling like they are on an island, isolated, lonely, and worn out. “I don’t feel like I always have a recurring, daily time to just withdraw and recharge,” says Brooklyn Lindsey, Youth Pastor at Highland Park Church of the Nazarene (Lakeland, FL).
In a particularly cruel twist, many youth workers try to fill the void caused by the demands of youth ministry by working more, fueling the self-destructive cycle. Arceneaux reflected on this phenomenon. “I pour everything I have into my job in an effort to forget or avoid loneliness. I go through periods of time where I am a workaholic because it feels like I have some purpose.” Work fuels loneliness, and loneliness fuels work, which feeds loneliness, which . . . You get the point.
Lack Of A True Peer Group
Maybe the most common response I received when I chatted with youth workers about loneliness had something to do with the fact that our call to minister to students creates a “peer-vacuum.” Ben Kerns, Pastor of Children and Students at Marin Covenant Church (San Rafael, CA), articulates this struggle really well: “My hours are the exact opposite of my demographic. So my natural peer group and I have little space to hang out because their nights and weekends are packed for me, and vise versa. When I’m at church, my attention is towards students. So while I goof off with them, my demographic is talking about deep things without me. I’m too old to have the students as my friends, and too young to be contemporaries with their parents. It’s a strange “no man’s land.”
Arceneaux chimed in with a similar response, though with a slightly different angle: “The people I do spend time with are typically involved in my ministry in some way. They are church members. They are parents of teens or children. While that’s not a bad thing I also often feel like I can’t fully be myself with many of them because of my position.” Regardless of exactly how it fleshes itself out, the manner in which youth ministry impacts our ability to engage with our peers is a chief cause of loneliness.
I was surprised by two responses I received. Though when I thought about it, it makes perfect sense. Consider the “age spectrum” of a youth pastor, the young and inexperienced on one extreme, the aged veteran on the other. Finding oneself on either end of this spectrum can contribute to feelings of loneliness. Chris Wesley, Director of Student Ministry at the Church of the Nativity (Timonium, MD) remembers when he was just getting started in youth ministry, and the loneliness this caused: “I didn't know how to ask others for help. I played the ‘comparison game’ with other ministries. I was oversensitive and whenever someone critiqued me or gave me feedback I became defensive. It led to definite feelings of loneliness in my ministry.”
35-year youth ministry veteran, Richard Parker, Minister of Youth/Education at First Baptist Church Russellville (Russellville, AL), found that on the top end of this spectrum, there is loneliness caused by the age gap: “As a younger youth pastor I had a peer relationship with my students and their parents treated me like a son or daughter. In my mid-adult years I was the same age as students’ parents. It was easy to be friends with students and their parents. I think my most isolated days have been as I have gotten older. I don't have the same generational relationship with students or their parents.”
How Does Loneliness Impact Our Ministry?
We know that there are many variables that lead to loneliness. But what affects does loneliness cause in our ministries? Lindsey was comically candid in her response: “Shoot. I get depressed. I get grumpy. I get upset at my family, our world, I take offense. I forget to pray. In general, peace leaves me.” Now that’s an honest response! And while Lindsey is demonstrating a more outward response to loneliness, Wesley shares that loneliness impacts him in a much more understated way.
“It might not have been obvious to outsiders, stated Wesley. “When I have dealt with loneliness before, it resulted in burnout. I exhausted myself trying to do everything on my own.” But one of the most interesting points was raised by Kerns, who points to a more damaging effect of loneliness. “The isolation of loneliness can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms. For me this is food and movies. But as we’ve all had the unfortunate chance to witness, there are plenty of our peers who have found coping behaviors that have gotten themselves and their ministries in serious trouble,” said Kerns.
What Can We Do To Address Loneliness?
Instead of masking over the issue, we must address the issue at its root. We must meet loneliness head on, breaking its crippling grasp on our lives. Here are a few thoughts on how that gets done.
Find Community Among Youth Workers
An empathetic community is one of the major cures for loneliness. And though you might not have a ready-made community of fellow youth workers, with a little intentionality you can make one happen. It’s worth the work; a community of peers is one of the best solutions out there. Kerns articulates this well: “For me, the friends in which I feel most totally seen and cared for are other colleagues in youth ministry. And since I figured that out, both my local ministry network and my denominational clusters have become of utmost importance to me.” Wesley puts it this way: “To get out of a season of loneliness, I need someone to speak hard truths to me.” Who better than those who know exactly what you’re going through.
For some, the loneliness they experience becomes such that they need to seek professional help in dealing with it. If your feelings of loneliness begin to consume your everyday life, dominating your thoughts and impacting your behavior, you could probably benefit from time spent with a professional counselor. “Talking to a Christian counselor can be invaluable,” says Arceneaux. “There is something about talking to someone who can give an outside perspective who isn’t a friend that helps. Knowing it is confidential allows for more honesty and open communication.” Seek a counselor who is credentialed in a mental health field, i.e., a licensed family therapist or psychologist, or someone who has extensive experience in pastoral counseling.
I’ve saved the best method for dealing with loneliness for last. There is great solace to be found in God’s presence. Scripture is full of passages that speak to God’s nearness, and His propensity to draw near to those who seek Him. Reading Scripture, prayer, meditation, even worship through song are powerful ways to break out of the negative emotions and behaviors that come with loneliness. “I try to identify my loneliness, confess my fears and seek God's face . . . When I do this, I find that God gives me what's needed to move forward,” says Lindsey. Amy Jo Girardier, Girls Minister/Student Missions Coordinator at Brentwood Baptist Church (Brentwood, TN) expressed similar thoughts: “Schedule sabbaticals of silence where it’s just you and God before you begin to feel like it's just you alone. Rhythmic moments of getting away from the busyness and getting alone with God helps maintain the connection you need experience the “GOD WITH US” Savior that you serve on a daily basis.”
Nature Of The Beast
In the classic song, “Lonesome Valley,” Woody Guthrie channels biblical imagery to make a point: there are tough times we all go through. And, like those who have gone before us, we have to gather our strength and forge ahead. Guthrie imagines these challenges as a lonesome valley, and writes:
"You gotta’ walk that lonesome valley,
You gotta’ walk it by yourself,
Nobody here can walk it for you,
You gotta’ walk it by yourself."
Loneliness is no respecter of role. Though it manifests itself differently, loneliness affects all varieties of youth worker, the full-time, bi-vocational, and volunteer alike. It plagues everyone from time to time, some more so than others. It’s an almost inevitable part ministering to students. And each person must deal with it in his or her own way. In this way Guthrie is right. But how nice it is to know that in another way, he’s dead wrong.
While we may in fact have to walk through the valley of loneliness, we don’t have to walk it alone. Of course we have the Spirit with us, always. We have God’s Word to guide us. Most importantly, we have other youth workers who know what we’re going through. And many of us, without realizing it, do in fact have people in our lives who would jump to help us if given the chance.
Maybe that is one of the biggest lies of loneliness. We may in fact be lonely, but we are never truly alone.