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Dealing with the Stress of Youth Ministry

Dealing with the Stress of Youth Ministry
Sharon Hoover

Another student ministry leader resigned. Not to go to another church but resigned from full-time church service. How can we better prepare leaders for the life of student ministry? Having been in ministry for twenty years, I have attended many conferences and read many articles and books about youth ministry. One thing I hear repeatedly is how unique and stressful our calling is. Many of the stresses detailed, however, are not unique to us. They are true and we do need to address them. But what we really need to address is the one area that is genuinely unique and creeps up unexpectedly on new leaders driving them out of ministry.

Myths of Uniqueness

We first need to dispel some myths about the unique stresses of working in a church: Working with teenagers and their parents is uniquely difficult. According to US Department of Labor, nearly 2 million men and women work as middle school and high school teachers. They encounter the same struggles of expectations, discipline problems and communication breakdowns that we deal with regularly with our students and parents.

Serving in a church provides minimal financial benefits; we do it for the love of the work. Millions more, however, who work for nonprofits, not-for-profits, and tax-exempt organizations can say the same. In my home state of Virginia alone, nearly 32,000 nonprofits exist and receive enough funds to file annual IRS forms. Very few of these employees add abundant funds to a 401K or receive a year-end bonuses either.

Setting boundaries is very difficult when working in a church. When I googled “setting boundaries”, my laptop coughed up 10,800,000 hits (in 0.49 seconds!). Truly, this is critical for a healthy life. We do need to be clear about office hours and personal/family time. We can all use better time management skills. However, this is not unique to ministry.

Job expectations in a church are too high, too broad, and too ambiguous. The list is long:

1. Heavy workload, infrequent rest breaks, long work hours; hectic and routine tasks that have little inherent meaning, do not use workers’ skills, and provide little sense of control.
2. Lack of participation by workers in decision making, poor communication in the organization, lack of family-friendly policies.
3. Poor social environment and lack of support or help from co-workers and supervisors.
4. Conflicting or uncertain job expectations, too much responsibility, too many “hats to wear.”
5. Job insecurity and lack of opportunity for growth, advancement, or promotions.
6. Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions such as crowding, noise, air pollution, or ergonomic problems.

This list is actually not for our vocation. It’s for secular managers to help themselves and their employees deal with workforce stress. Indeed, many of these can be applied to working in the church but we are not unique in our job stress.

Student Ministry requires time away from family due to evening meetings, retreats, and more. According to one online report, business travel by US companies exceeded $250,000,000 in 2010. Furthermore, many employees in the corporate world work very long and inflexible hours. Indeed, retreats, short-term mission projects and conferences do pull us away from family, however, we are not alone in this demand.

Much ink is spent and seminars are led to help with all of these topics. Books and conferences have provided me with valuable resources to navigate my years of ministry. We cannot delude ourselves, however, in thinking that our ministry responsibilities are our special burden to bear due to God’s unique calling in our lives. Many amazing believers are serving in secular jobs with our very same challenges … and they don’t even get to start their meetings with group prayer and reading Scripture!

The Unique Stress of Ministry

What then is unique? Connectedness. The entangled, ongoing relationships with church, family, work, boss, and friends require a unique sensitivity for all who work in the church. The emotional, deeply-relational, and ongoing life of ministry is unique to a pastoral calling. Addressing awareness early in ministry and ministry training can help better equip new leaders. One student ministry leader who recently resigned put it this way, “I can’t do it anymore. I just want a separate life.”

A separate life? Some of my best friends are members in my church. Students call on my day-off. Parents forget when I am on vacation. My family is rooted in the church where I work. We serve as a family on mission teams and in the community. I support missionaries that our church supports. My salary is directly tied to the financial success of the church.

What I post on Facebook, confide with friends, order in a restaurant (wine??), tweet or wear are evaluated by the people I work with, play with, and go to church with. Very little separation exists. Where can I let my “guard down”? Herein lies the rub…don’t we teach our students to be authentic everywhere they go? That they should be the same person at home and on their sports team and with their theater crowd and on Saturday nights as they are in the church building? Don’t we also clearly say that no one is perfect and we are all on this journey together? We all stumble but we walk together to encourage and guide and admonish. Me, too. I continue to try.

We need to be prepared to heed our own message. I chaff under the call to be above reproach. Being all things to all people is disturbing to my individuality. Weeping with those who weep can get inconvenient. But it is a way of life. It’s my life of mission. Please know that I do recognize the importance of boundaries. I preach them incessantly to new leaders that I mentor. Be aware, however, that life and ministry are messy. Rarely do they abide by my time schedule (!).

So Why Do It?

I have given two decades to church ministry, first, because I have felt God’s calling in my life to do so. Secondly, I serve because of this very connectedness. My life and relationships are woven around my community of faith. I attend weddings, pastoral ordinations and missionary commissionings of former students and adult leaders. I interact with younger siblings of former students forming new relationships with the next generation. Recently, I spent the afternoon with a youth group alum. She has just begun hospice care after an aggressive cancer sped through her 30-year young body. They never really graduate from the student ministry…or at least from the heart of this student minister.

I am also involved in my children’s schools and activities. I seek to live missionally as God’s hands and feet wherever else He places me. Caring for neighbors, greeting the same store clerks, encouraging the mailman, volunteering in the food pantry remain a part of our daily calling. It can feel overwhelming to be part of God’s plan in other peoples’ lives. Thankfully, we are not called to do it alone. The Holy Spirit and the community of the church make it all happen!

Is it a burden? Occasionally. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Would you?

References:

1. Working with teenagers and their parents is uniquely difficult. According to US Department of Labor, nearly 2 million men and women work as middle school and high school teachers.

2. Serving in a church provides minimal financial benefits; we do it for the love of the work. Millions more, however, who work for nonprofits, not-for-profits, and tax-exempt organizations can say the same. In my home state of Virginia alone, nearly 32,000 nonprofits exist and receive enough funds to file annual IRS forms. Very few of these employees add abundant funds to a 401K or receive a year-end bonuses either.

3. Setting boundaries is very difficult when working in a church. When I googled “setting boundaries,” my laptop coughed up 10,800,000 hits (in 0.49 seconds!). Truly, this is critical for a healthy life. We do need to be clear about office hours and personal/family time. We can all use better time management skills. However, this is not unique to ministry.

4. This list is actually not for our vocation. It’s for secular managers to help themselves and their employees deal with workforce stress. Indeed, many of these can be applied to working in the church but we are not unique in our job stress.

5. Student Ministry requires time away from family due to evening meetings, retreats, and more. According to one report, business travel by US companies exceeded $250,000,000 in 2010.

This article “Dealing with the Stress of Youth Ministry” by Sharon Hoover was excerpted from: www.youthministry.com website. July 2011. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”

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