Youth Pastor Panel: How To Prevent Burnout
Part of the Refresh series.
August means a brand new school year, new kids, and a new year of ministry. It also means a lot of us (and our students) are coming off the highs and lows of summer camp. With the continuously on-the-go lifestyle and demands of youth ministry, it’s easy to get exhausted.
Not just exhausted. It's easy to get burned out.
Being a youth pastor is an amazing calling, but if you're not careful you can get all the energy sucked right out of you. That's why we interviewed of awesome youth pastors who have been there, gone through, and dealt with burnout. Some even learned to recognize signs so they could avoid burnout. Let's find out what they had to say:
1. A new year of ministry is ahead. It's exciting ... and intimidating. How do you plan on dealing with burnout this year?
LEN (writer of lenevans.net): If you do not guard against burnout it will eventually catch you and beat you. You have to have a holistic approach in avoiding the negative patterns that contribute to burnout and pursue the positive habits that keep you strong enough to avoid it.
KELLY (writer of the blog Listening to My Life): I suffered major burnout in my third year of vocational ministry, nearly crashed out, mentors helped me apply these four important habits to foster sustainable ministry:
- Keep consistent (as in weekly) days off.
- The Sabbath, keep it.
- Schedule vacations that focus on rest and recreation.
- Keep track of how many weekends you are expected or asked to be gone, and say no to things so you are not gone more than one weekend per month.
ERIK (youth pastor at CrosslineYouth): I have a few key things that I try to remember and practice:
- I can only do what I can do. God does everything else. The reality is, I'm one guy with very limited gifting, energy, and reach. God is limitless and is the one who is truly capable of accomplishing life-change.
- Do ministry as a team, share the calling and the burden, as the load is spread, so are the struggles, the joys and the stresses.
- Take your day off. No seriously, take your day off! Heck, take 2 days off. Protect those days like an injured athlete protects an injury, so that it will heal and come back stronger.
JOHN (from Word of Life Student Ministries): To avoid burnout, I try not to take on new responsibilities without first ending or delegating current responsibilities. I plan my calendar a year in advance - this includes ministry, family, and personal obligations. And I continually seek out and recruit others to join my ministry team to help share responsibilities.
BUDDY (from Knights Quest Ministries): To avoid burnout, I have to ensure that I schedule down time with my wife and kids, as well as for my hobbies. Self-maintenance is crucial. I also will limit myself to no more than two seminars in a day, and nor more than five a week. Planning and WORKING THE PLAN are crucial, to keep stress down.
CAM (writer of CamBrennan.com): We try and maintain a balanced ministry calendar, remembering that just because we can do something doesn’t always mean that we should. There are times to hang out with students and their families during the week, but I maintain certain boundaries that ensure time with my family, for myself, and for fun.
My wife is a great barometer of where I am emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. She can read me like a book and call me out if I start acting funny. It’s really hard sometimes to admit when you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed, but I’m a big fan of talking through my junk with my wife or a trusted friend, they are a boon to my growth and development as a follower of Christ.
2. What situations tend to really make you feel burned out? How do you deal with them?
LEN: My life is a situation that is open to burnout. I typically work six days a week between working full time for the National Network of Youth Ministries, part time as a hospice chaplain and part time for Simply Youth Ministry as the pastor of Simply Soul Care. It's a lot of juggling.
Personally avoiding burnout means I do one thing at a time and I don't feel guilty for what I'm not able to do. I am blessed that the majority of my work, is in my proverbial “sweet spot”. So my work is more "life giving" than "life draining". Also it's vital that I honor the Sabbath principle to rest and be renewed physically & spiritually once a week.
KELLY: There are three things that make me feel burned out.
- I know how to run events rather well, but didn’t realize that so many plates spinning at once creates a great deal of stress for me. If I'm not careful to allow some time between events, I rapidly lose steam and become short-tempered and quite unpleasant.
- Camp, which is just about the most effective tool we have in youth ministry, absolutely exhausts me now that I'm older (I'm 51). I realized I needed more personal space to sleep well and recuperate from the never-ending line-up of activities, conversations, lousy food, dirt and dust, and spiritual intensity. A few years ago I worked with the camps to allow for me to stay in a room by myself. Having a separate room allowed for me to have meetings with leaders and offered a space for them to get some rest as well.
- Crisis and conflict, which are obviously draining, sometimes come in clusters, and cumulatively create a massive need for recovery as I seek to be available to students, families, and friends.
ERIK: New and lengthy expectations from senior leadership that may or may not be in line with where I'm gifted - that's what burns me out. I deal with this by continuing to do what I'm gifted at. I seek to meet the expectation but I try to remember that I can only do what I can do, I have to give the rest to God.
I get burned out from parents who complain about things and want to meet about things that I can't control. This one hits me the most and sucks the life out of me. In these meetings and seasons, I simply have to hand the people and the situation to the Lord and tell Him, "This situation is Yours."
JOHN: The times when I felt most burned out have been when I accept new responsibilities without taking the time to fully evaluate the time commitment they require. As a result, I was forced to rob time from other obligations or do a number of tasks with less than my optimal ability. I was able to avoid this by delegating some of my responsibilities. Also, as commitments have ended, I’ve learned to say no to new commitments.
BUDDY: Dealing with fundraising projects burns me out. To deal with this kind of burnout, I often shift work from fundraising to other projects to switch gears. I also have to intentionally lay any concerns I have at the Cross, and NOT PICK THEM UP again!
If I am burned out due to too many seminars/workshops I will schedule dead space to recover, or I will schedule "clumps" of seminars close to my ministry's "natural dead spaces" at Christmas and summer so that the recovery period is already planned.
CAM: Doing ministry on my own strength burns me out. As cliché as this answer might sound, it’s true. The point of ministry is not to stand on your own strengths but to allow God to work through your weaknesses and strengths to do more than you could ever do on your own.
3. To really stay refreshed, our walk with the Lord needs to stay healthy. What advice would you give the youth leader that's dealing with burnout to keep their foundation strong?
LEN: Get, be, and stay connected to other believers whom you can trust. Don't hide your struggles or temptations from them. Renew your mind by being in God's word for yourself and not just for a lesson. Know that God is more concerned about you, than what you do for Him. Burnout can be prevented, do you best to prevent it in your own life
KELLY: A huge chunk of the problem is due to a lack of clarity in regard to job descriptions and time management. Even if you have a realistic job description, this information is not shared with parents, who then place their own uninformed demands on the youth ministry. Furthermore, I have found that the majority of those in vocational ministry (not just youth pastors, but senior pastors too) do a terrible job of managing their time well. They are reactive and crisis-oriented, giving in to the "tyranny of the urgent," rather than focusing on healthy, proactive projects and priorities.
ERIK: I have no cutting edge information here ... just blue-collar stuff. A regular and deep devotional life with daily scripture reading and prayer is the crux of the believer "abiding" in Jesus and the youth worker dealing with the pangs of the job wisely.
I would also say that you absolutely have to make yourself accountable to others. Your wife, your best friend, someone who you can be 100% honest with. Not only to discuss temptation and sin, but also to discuss and pray through your stresses, hang-ups, and hurts.
JOHN: I have yet to meet anyone who is able to maintain a strong relationship with God without some form of personal accountability. Also, I have personally experienced the benefits of following an established personal growth plan. An effective plan should be viewed as a guide. Rather than aimlessly searching for a passage of scripture to read or getting caught up in the latest Christian fad, I prayerfully consider what I would like to study or learn throughout the year.
BUDDY: First off, remember you are not Superman, nor should you aspire to be! You have to be as intentional about downtime and self-care as you are about ministering to your youth. If you burn out, you are useless. Ditto if you STAY burned out. Remember that.
- If you are already dealing with burnout, GET HELP. See a good Christian counselor, and check with your doctor. Remember that mental stress affects the body, which then impacts the mind and emotions.
- Don't try to plow through it, alone. Be honest enough to dial back, even if you have to offload something to another minister or volunteer.
- Finally, most of us neglect the spiritual disciplines when we start burning out. We don't make time. Re-introduce your spiritual studies and quiet times, and do so slowly and gradually. BUT, do not ADD this to your schedule. Carve other tasks/activities out to make room for the spiritual. If you add it on top of what you already are doing, you will get worse, not better.
Along similar lines, you may have folks working for you. A good leader will keep an eye out for signs that his/her troops may be burning out and will take appropriate steps to help them.
CAM: Learn how to study the Bible for yourself, not for your lesson. If you’re teaching through Philippians, do your personal study in Job. If you’re teaching through Psalms, do your personal study in Romans. Try and keep personal study as far from your teaching as possible, that way you can focus on what you are studying and not what you are teaching.
If you are burned out tell a friend or mentor. Tell your boss. Tell your spouse. Community sharpens us and grows us. We can’t grow, become healthy, and develop if we don’t let others into our lives.
Take it from youth pastors who have been there: burnout can be avoided, managed and treated. They’ve offered some spectacular advice on a variety of levels of burnout, now it’s time to apply it.
A special thanks to all the youth pastors who have shared from the heart on how they deal with burnout in youth ministry!
- Len Evans – National Network of Youth Ministries District Coordinator for Texas and New Mexico; read more about what's going on with Len at his blog
- Kelly Soifer – Director of Recruiting and Leadership Development for the Free Methodist Church in Southern CA; read more about Kelly on her blog
- Erik Williams – Youth Pastor at CrosslineYouth Crux33 in Laguna Hills, CA - find out more about what's going on at his youth group by checking out their website & blog
- John Powley - Word of Life Local Church Missionary reaching throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia; read more about the ministry at their website
- Buddy Knight – Director and principal speaker for Knights Quest; find out more about the ministry by checking out its site
- Cam Brennan – Jr. and Sr. High Youth Pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Gardner, KS; read more about what's going on with Cam at his blog