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Stressed Out? Or Burned Out?: The Hard Work Of Youth Ministry

Stressed Out? Or Burned Out?: The Hard Work Of Youth Ministry

So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, "May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them." Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day's journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. "I have had enough, LORD," he said. "Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors."1 Kings 19:2-4 NIV

Elijah had just finished an epic battle with the false prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, which resulted in God's exaltation and the false prophets' destruction. Queen Jezebel was not a happy camper and set in motion a plan to have Elijah killed. In Elijah's response, we can actually see some of the classic symptoms of burnout: depression, fatigue, and isolation.

A little bit of stress in life isn't a bad thing. It keeps us on our toes. But the challenge of meeting goals and the adrenaline rush of a hurried lifestyle chip away at our coping mechanisms.

When we place too many demands on our bodies and our emotions, we start to experience the symptoms of stress overload. Constant, long-term stress can lead to burnout. Youth workers are especially at risk when it comes to stress and burnout for many reasons:

  1. Youth ministry tends to be cyclical with few definable end points.

  2. Dealing with problems in the lives of students can seem like a never-ending job.

  3. The hard work of getting parents and volunteers to help share the load in student ministry can lead to frustration and overwork.

  4. Youth ministry tends to be a job with high expectations, low pay, and a low position on the church personnel flow chart.

  5. IMO, youth ministers and leaders are often people-pleasers who over-commit and have a hard time saying "no."

Dr. Archibald Hart has written many books on stress, depression, and burnout including The Anxiety Cure, Adrenaline and Stress, Overcoming Anxiety, and my personal favorite, Coping With Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions.

Dr. Hart says that there's a clear distinction between the emotions and feelings associated with stress and those linked to burnout. Here are a few of his insights:

  • Stress is over engagement; burnout is disengagement.

  • Stress results in over reacting; burnout results in lack of emotion.

  • Stress affects our physical energy; burnout affects our motivation and drive.

  • Stress makes a person tired; burnout makes a person feel hopeless.

  • Stress produces anxiety disorders like panic and phobias; burnout produces paranoia, isolation, and feelings of worthlessness.

So the question is, "Are you experiencing too much stress? Or has your condition gone on for so long that you're either burned out or on the verge of burnout?"

Look at it this way: When we don't take time to "recharge our batteries" we call on our energy reserves to continue pressing on in our work, creating enormous amounts of stress in our lives. When we continue to depend on our energy reserves to get things done, eventually the energy storehouse becomes empty and the end result is burnout. While it can take weeks to recover from a pile up of stressful events, the recovery period from burnout can take months or even years.

So what can you do if you feel you're in the stress and burnout danger zone?

If too much stress is the issue then here are a few suggestions:

  1. Take some time off to refresh yourself.

  2. Learn to leave your work at church and create some space to be you.

  3. Learn to say "no" to some things.

  4. Put your family first.

  5. Let your ministry flow from your spiritual gifts. Doing too much ministry in areas you're not spiritually gifted can be very draining.

  6. Take care of yourself by exercising and eating right.

  7. Learn to pace your ministry. Create plenty of space between big ministry events at church and give yourself lots of recovery time.

If burnout is the issue then I want to urge you to seek help immediately and ask for some time away from your responsibilities.

Your physical and emotional health as well as the future of your work in ministry is at risk! When I graduated from Seminary, at the Graduation Breakfast our president said, "Always remember that when Jesus died on the cross, rose from the grave, and later ascended to Heaven, He didn't leave you in charge." That statement is such a stress reliever for me. The stress of my high expectations and worry over numbers and programming seem much more manageable when I remind myself that God is ultimately in control. When I trust Him and let Him lead, things always work out so much better.

Maybe more youth ministers could avoid burnout and lessen their stress if they would let God drive and be willing to sit in the backseat more often.
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