Early on in my ministry, I was young and green. I was single, had a ton of energy, and took seriously the idea that I was supposed to give myself fully to the work that God had called me to. The problem that I quickly discovered was that no one else was going to set any limits on the time I was spending at the church, on the phone with students and families, or time away at camps and retreats.
This is the kind of job where there is always something else that could be done. It is also the kind of job in which you are the only one who really knows the amount of time that is worked.
That means that if you enter into youth ministry with a passion to serve students and their families but don’t keep track of your hours, you could be on the path to burnout. It might not feel that way now, it might even feel like the “Christian” thing to do, and it will especially feel like the thing that others use to congratulate you on the great job you are doing.
But, if you aren’t careful, compassion, overwork, and a lack of boundaries will eat you alive.
I’ve seen it worn as badges of pride, touted as reasons for success (which was usually of the numbered kind), and used for excuses to not engage in deeper relationships. But I’ve also seen how burnout results in damaged marriages, disastrous indiscretions, compassion fatigue, and an inability to continue working for Christ and the Church.
Those same individuals that allowed this work to overwhelm their lives were ultimately unable to complete that work because they failed to put into place these 5 essential practices that can protect us against burnout.
1. Find The Ability To Give An Account
One of the key reasons I’m still in ministry after 20 years is because every Friday morning I meet a friend for coffee who is also in ministry. There are no rules, no limits to this conversation. He can ask me anything about my life, my health, my marriage, my fears, and I know that I can do the same. He doesn’t track my hours but he can hear it in my voice when I’m not healthy. He can tell when it’s time for me to slow down and get some perspective. If you are in ministry and you don’t have someone you consistently meet with who keeps you honest, find one now!
2. Schedule Your Dates
Schedule a date with your significant other. If you don’t schedule a regularly occurring date with your partner then someone else will take that time. Protect this time with your partner and your family. Go out and away with them and make sure that you spend your most precious resource on them.
This also works with time spent at work. The more you schedule and block out time that you are working on something the more aware you are of the time you are putting in. Google Calendar has become an essential tool for me to block out my essential to do’s and gives me a reminder of what I’m supposed to be spending my time on.
3. Beat Your Body And Make It Your Slave
One of the best ways to work out stress and maintain energy for long-term service is a healthy diet and regular exercise. Pizza and pop youth nights can take their toll on you in more ways than just a tap on emotional energy. If you want to guard against burnout and significant health deficits then you need to start walking, running, biking, swimming, or playing 3 times a week. Even better, find someone in ministry who is also at your level and interest in exercise and your work out now doubles as accountability time.
4. Setting Boundaries
One of the worst ways to help others is by making yourself perpetually available to them. Students and families need to know they can call on you, that you will pray with them and for them, that you will support them through their struggles. But taking on their struggle as your own doesn’t help them and it hampers your ability to support others. If you care about others and you love to help someone out of their struggle then check your boundaries and learn how to compassionately communicate what you can and can’t offer.
5. Ask For Help
Psychologists have identified a new kind of burnout named Compassion Fatigue which can sneak up on many helpers engaged in social service work, health care, animal care, and youth ministry. If you notice that you are losing your ability to empathize, are mentally and physically drained, overly distracted, have bottled up emotions, and are excessively blaming others, then you need to ask for help.
Talk to your pastor or board chairman about what kind of counseling or other support is available. Investigate some ways that you can care for yourself and build those habits into your week.
Caring for others in a sustainable way means protecting your time, your health, and your family from unclear boundaries and an inordinate amount of time poured into others. Without these practices, you could become a burnt-out youth worker who has lost their ability to empathize with others, not because you don’t care, but because you cared too much.
What are some of the ways you’ve found helpful in guarding against burnout? Comment below and let’s help each other stay in the game for the long term.
- 5 Ways To Protect You and Your Family From Burnout - September 1, 2016
- Getting Out of the Youth Room: 4 Keys to Discipleship - June 28, 2016