Coping With Stress and Burnout in Youth Ministry: A conversation with Carmen Renee Berry

October 3rd, 2009

We can ignore long-term stress, we can spiritualize it, we can overlook what our bodies are telling us. But before long, unless we begin by acknowledging to ourselves that we're living an addictive lifestyle, we'll hit burnout. And something will die.

Carmen Renee Berry has lived on both sides of stress. While a social worker specializing in child sexual-abuse prevention and treatment, she carried several other helping loads—and before long, gradually but inexorably, stress and burnout became a life-and-death situation for her.

The former director of the National Association of Christian Recovery, she is currently a speaker and vice president of Christian Recovery International. In these capacities she has helped hundreds of people who grapple with this distinctively American trauma.

As a mental-health professional, Berry has studied the effects of stress and burnout in our lives and developed the “messiah trap” concept. She teaches about healthy living—psychologically and physiologically—in workshops and through her books (The Messiah Trap, Loving Yourself as Your Neighbor, When Helping You Is Hurting Me, Your Body Never Lies).

Youth worker-writer Jeanette Gardner recently talked with Berry about how stress affects you—and what you can do to get help before the stress burns you out.

Youthworker: How does stress affect our lives?

Carmen Renee Berry: Stress is not intrinsically bad. We need a certain amount of stress because it's a challenge to our physiological system and motivates us to live our lives.

Good stress is a challenge. It helps us complete anything that is hard to do, that requires effort, but can be done—like getting up in the morning. So if you wake up every morning and you've got a challenge and you're excited about it, you run hard and you play hard and you win or get close to winning. Then at night you can relax and let that go and sleep.

Good stress becomes bad stress, however, when it affects us physically and emotionally. For instance, stress becomes negative when a goal is impossible to reach and you keep trying to achieve it. Stress also becomes bad when you're being challenged at an extremely high level for a long period of time.

When stress hits, your nervous system shifts to a fight-or-flight mode. It triggers your adrenal glands and a number of other hormones in your system. That function is meant for one-time shots—bursts of energy to move your body fast and cause quick action. The adrenalin produced by stress can see you through a crisis.

Unfortunately, a lot of people live in that state. Because of stress, their adrenalin is pumping regularly if not continually. That deteriorates our bodies physiologically. The adrenal glands themselves can just fry.

Youthworker: Sounds ominous. Anything else relentless stress does to us physically?

Carmen Renee Berry: It weakens your immune system. It can open the way for heart attacks and even for cancer. Of course, we have the cancer potential in us all the time; our immune system usually fights it. But with prolonged stress, our immunity can decrease.

Studies by physicians show that maybe two years after a major loss or major depression, cancer can appear. They're beginning to link a time of loss or serious stress with a drop in the immune system, and it takes two years for the cancer to become visible.

That doesn't mean everyone who experiences a loss or stress gets cancer, but the two are definitely related. When your immune system drops, you're more susceptible to whatever is going around—whether it's a simple cold or a fatal cancer.

Youthworker: What noticeable symptoms can tell us that stress is getting out of hand?

Carmen Renee Berry: One big indicator is extreme weight loss or gain. If you have a tendency toward any eating disorder, stress exacerbates this problem. I lose weight easily, so I'm more anorexic. I could drop 10 pounds a week.

On the other hand, if you perceive food as a nurturance or a way of taking care of yourself, you'll naturally eat more when you're stressed. Then your body suffers from overeating, and the problem is only intensified.

Depression and irritability are other biggies. So is a circular thought process, which is when you just can't figure out the solution to problems and questions that would have been simple to you before.

Or you may feel dissatisfied with the people in your life, or feel you're constantly giving without getting anything back.

Youthworker: You distinguish stress from burnout. How are the two related?

Carmen Renee Berry: If you live in an overly stressful environment, eventually your system will burn out on every level—physically, emotionally, spiritually. Burnout is the result of mismanaged stress.

Just being challenged and excited does not cause burnout. What burns you out is when you feel frustrated and can't achieve your goal—because your goal is an impossible one to reach, or because there's some craziness in the system, so you're disempowered and just can't get where you feel you need to go. The frustration builds.

When you're really about to burn out, you usually feel very angry. Or you feel you're late, or that you're never enough. You're just fried to a crisp. So if you're driving somewhere, even if no one is waiting for you, you still drive like a maniac to get there because you just feel late.

At that stage, you know you're burning out.

When you're burning out, you move from trying to seek your worth in other people to being more connected to them and needing their approval. The closer you get to burnout, the more driven you get. You try to increase your productivity—and if you don't succeed, the more guilty you feel until you give out. You get more driven, more rigid, less compassionate. Definitely less fun at parties.

I feel that God speaks through our bodies. They usually give us signals that stress has built and burnout is inevitable. My burnout began with headaches and upset stomach. Instead of doing something about the cause, I just treated the symptoms by taking aspirin and Maalox. I didn't pay attention to it. The symptoms got worse and I started getting migraines and waking up with panic attacks. It kept getting worse until I finally collapsed physically and emotionally.

So we can ignore long-term stress, we can spiritualize it, we can ignore our bodies. But before long we'll hit burnout.

Youthworker: How long does it take for stress to cause burnout?

Carmen Renee Berry: In child protective services, the saying was you'll either burn out in two years or last the rest of your life. Actually, that's pretty accurate. Although it's different for each person, most people burn out in two years or stay numb for the rest of their lives. It took me four years to burn out—probably because I was fairly healthy and sturdy.

Youthworker: Is stress and burnout more prevalent for those in ministry?

Carmen Renee Berry: I think it's very prevalent because so many people in the ministry fall into what I call the “messiah trap,” a syndrome common in our culture but especially endemic in the Christian world.

A person falling into the messiah trap tends to believe two lies. The first lie is “If I don't do it, it won't get done.” Which is an excessive sense of responsibility. We feel that we're really important and that God needs us. This happens especially when people are trained to be very responsible. A lot of people who end up in ministry—including youth ministry—are good people whose identity is based on being a good and helpful person.

The second lie is “Everyone else's needs take priority over mine,” a combination of grandiosity and low self-esteem.

Messiahs are perched on life as if they are on top of a pyramid. One leg of the pyramid is the victims—those who need the messiah's help. In youth work, that's usually the teenagers. The other leg is the offenders—anyone who can harm the victims or the messiah's effectiveness in helping the victims; in youth work, this could be society, gangs, whatever.

The messiahs have no problems, no needs; they are the controllers of the bad people and the helpers of the good people.

This is a dangerous hook, because when you're feeling good and confident, you'll take on more than you should. But when you're feeling badly about yourself, you feel you're not worthy enough to take time for. “I can't cut back, the kids need me,” you tell yourself. “So much is going on in church right now. I know I should take a couple of days off, but I have too much going on.”

And it becomes an addictive lifestyle. To complicate matters, churches often reinforce it. For the most part, churches underpay and overwork their employees. A church staff member gets one day off, but is generally on call 24 hours a day. The idea of a six-day workweek is unheard of in most other professions, but not in churches. Even if you're giving residential treatment, you get two or three days off a week. Because the ministry has such an unrealistic demand and pays so poorly, it sets you up for stress with a double whammy.

Usually that stress is mismanaged and ends up resulting in burnout, because little support is built into the system.

Youthworker: Then is the image of youth ministry as an exciting, progressive, energizing career deceptive?

Carmen Renee Berry: There's not a lot of acknowledgment of how hard it is to work with kids and parents and to be held responsible for everything that every happens to and in the youth group.

Add to that other people's expectations of a youth minister, who are often the kind of people who find identity in pleasing others. They therefore develop a finely tuned intuitive ability to scan a room and discern what everybody wants.

You've got the parents, the kids, the church, the senior pastor—this whole complex of expectations. Add to the situation the fact that people in this kind of work are very sensitive, very aware. They usually have a conscious or unconscious sense of “I must do this well. These kids are counting on me, and so are their parents.” As a result, they're highly sensitized to succeeding in the eyes of teens and parents and senior pastors—and this only intensifies the stress.

Because of the volume of stress, burnout is very prevalent in youth ministry. In many youth ministry cases, the burnout is hidden. It will often come up in ways that don't look like burnout—a youth worker bursts out in an argument with the senior pastor and gets fired. Or he or she may act out sexually with someone. Or perhaps the person will just become dissatisfied and angry.

Youthworker: What's going on under the surface of a ministry and family of a youth worker under excessive stress?

Carmen Renee Berry: As we've mentioned, stress is an addictive lifestyle. So the youth minister ends up modeling this addiction for the kids.

You wrap it up in Scripture and convince kids that this is good. And the kids get the message that if you're a really good person, you're overachieving. Really good Christians are involved in every activity. Really good Christians are there whenever the church is open. Really good Christians do nothing for themselves, but are always involved in ministry programs. A youth minister living in the addictive lifestyle of stress emphasizes in his or her teaching how to take care of other people while ignoring the signals God has given you about yourself.

So we model this addictive lifestyle for kids. As if that's not bad enough, neither do we give them anything of substance. After all, we can't give what we don't have and can't receive. Messiahs are usually so busy trying to meet others' needs that they haven't learned how to receive love and help. So their supply is low.

Youthworker: Certainly youth-working messiahs have some idea of what's happening inside them, that something isn't quite right.

Carmen Renee Berry: That's why they try to compensate in other ways. Burnout can begin by feeling like a failure. You feel guilty, you feel angry, you do more to try to compensate and work to gain approval. You blame everybody: it's all their fault, it's all my fault, it's all God's fault. You become irrational.

To top it off, family problems become apparent. Usually the family of a messiah plays second fiddle to the youth ministry, so the marriage suffers. If you're really burning out, the family relationships are very dissatisfying. People are getting angry and sick. Or maybe there's an affair or something else that blows up.

It's difficult for messiahs to admit to themselves and to others that the burden of stress is getting too heavy. If they could admit it, they wouldn't be burning out. As it is, those caught in the messiah trap really feel they are worthless and that self-denying, sacrificial service is how to earn their salvation or self-worth. It's a way of surviving.

Remember the image of those caught in the messiah trap, perched atop a pyramid? Usually they're surrounded only by victims and offenders. They don't have others to balance their lives. So when burnout strikes and life crumbles—and you don't have a support system—the only way to go is down. Messiahs slide down their own pyramid, either on the victim side or the offender side.

Youthworker: Which side did you fall down?

Carmen Renee Berry: The victim side. I got depressed. I missed meetings because I couldn't function. I got befuddled. People said, “Carmen tries harder because she's not a very strong person.” They felt sorry for me. I lost my status. They didn't perceive me as a messiah anymore—but they were kinder to me and took care of me.

Men, however, tend to go down as offenders. They get mad, have an affair, tell off the boss, write a letter to the board, blow up and smack someone.

A lot of ministers who have affairs end up as offenders and get kicked out of church. If they had gone down as victims, they could have stayed in the church, but without status—in which case the likelihood is good that they would have gotten well and returned to their same positions. But usually they change denominations or move out of state or something because they've burned bridges.

Here, by the way, is my practical advice if you're going to burn out: at least go down as a victim. Look pathetic, cry a lot, don't tell anybody off. You want to work after you get through this, don't you?

Anyway, say a youth pastor is going through all this in the course of burning out. The church, especially if it's a dysfunctional organization, tends to blame the person burning out and replace him or her. “We thought he was moral,” they say, “but he's really just a weak character—and his affair proves it.” Or “He's twice as bad as we thought, because he deceived us.” Or “She never was very strong…always depressed and complaining.”

People who fall are typically people with integrity. They don't just wake up in the morning and tell themselves, “I'm going to cheat on my wife” or “I will betray everyone who loves me.” She is usually an individual in enormous pain who finds a listening, caring man who gives her a little comfort or whatever—and then makes a really bad decision. Then we kick her out.

Youthworker: How can we keep from getting to that stage? When youth pastors feel stress rise, what should they do?

Carmen Renee Berry: You have to take a hard look at your life and honestly decide if this is a situational stress—something that is infrequent and like everybody has to deal with—or if you're into a lifestyle of stress or a set of expectations that are impossible to meet. If you've agreed to a lifestyle that's impossible, you'll need to get help.

Messiahs not only feel no one could do a better job than they can. They also feel that no one would love them if it were known how bad or lazy or selfish or sinful the messiahs really were. They aren't nearly as wonderful as they put out, they feel, so they develop a severe sense of alienation.

But messiahs have to come out of that mode. They need to acknowledge the problem and get help through a support group, a therapist, or a bodyworker—or through some combination of these three.

Messiahs have usually arranged their lives so that everyone looks to them for answers. So if you, a messiah, start to change that, your family and friends won't like it at all. They may love you, but they'll feel deprived. Consequently, when you start to get help, you'll probably have to go outside your circle of friends and family. You need to get support outside your system.

If you're a youth minister and the church is the primary stress, you need a support group that has nothing to do with the church, that doesn't care if you stay or go, that wants nothing from you. You need a place where you can just go and complain and talk.

If your stress is primarily with family, you need a support group that's outside your family, where you can get help and maybe some counseling.

It's important that you have a regularly structured program to go to—some place or organization where people know you, where they hold you accountable, where they will call you on your actions when you try to rationalize it.

If you're burning out, you need to tell someone and get help—but it must be the right someone. Otherwise you'll get creamed. You aren't neurotic if you sit in your room, afraid that people will come after you if they discover you're burning out. Some people really will come after you. It's tragic, but it's real.

Youthworker: You mentioned “bodywork” as a form of relieving stress. What's that-aerobic exercise or something?

Carmen Renee Berry: Not exactly. The evangelical church has traditionally suspected the body as a source of sin. They've misinterpreted Scripture, especially concerning the word flesh. A couple years ago I learned about two Greek words, both of which have traditionally been translated into English as “flesh.” One of the words refers to the physical body. But the other refers to—and should be translated as—our sinful nature. Just as they are two distinct words, they are two separate concepts in the New Testament.

I was not taught that. Like most people, I was taught that the body is unmentionable. If you get too connected to your body, it's probably a sexual thing—and you don't want that. So I'm developing an approach to conservative Christian spirituality that is body based. In my workshop I talk about the different ways the body remembers and how God communicates to us through our bodies. I feel massage and bodywork is one way to interact with that.

I get massages or bodywork almost every week. It's a way for me to be still to hear God's voice, a way to connect to myself, a way to take care of myself.

In terms of stress management, massage is fabulous because the body actually carries the stress—and massage can release it. Massage moves the fluid and the blood through the system. It detoxifies the muscle tissue, it relaxes the skeletal system, soothes your anatomic system, and it helps you physically combat the effects of stress. If you go further and use it as a prayerful approach, then I believe there can be emotional healing because the body remembers past struggles and can come to terms with it.

Youthworker: So what happens if we don't want to risk getting help? Say we avoid support groups, therapists, and bodywork—and just keep trying to deal with the stress and burnout problem alone, on a nonprofessional level?

Carmen Renee Berry: The good news and the bad news is that all addictions lead to a premature death of some sort. What dies may be your health or your marriage or your job. But something will die.

If you don't acknowledge the stress and get into recovery, you plummet—and that's the moment God has a chance of getting your attention and letting you know your own efforts just aren't working.

So when you hit bottom, you have a chance to get into recovery or go through the cycle and hit bottom again—and again, and again, until you either die or you get the clue. Most who go into recovery—whether it's for addiction to a stressful lifestyle, or any other addiction—say, “I went into recovery because it was either that or death.” Alcoholics go into recovery because they realize that if they don't stop drinking, they will die. It's a very serious life choice.

That's how I have felt about my recovery from stress and burnout. It was very clear to me that if I did not get into a stress recovery process, I would die prematurely—I think I probably would have been dead by now. It was a life or death choice to me. I could fear those who criticized me for getting help, or I could die. It really wasn't a difficult choice.

But if it isn't a life and death choice for you yet, the decision to recover may be hard.

Youthworker: If they realize that stress is a life-and-death matter and get into recovery, what are the odds that youth workers can have a satisfying professional life or personal life again?

Carmen Renee Berry: The odds are very good. I could not imagine that there could be life for me after burnout. I was a failure, that's all. I'd failed God, I'd failed myself, I'd failed all the kids I was working with. But I learned that when you start recovery and begin dealing with the underlying issues, life is not only as good as before, but even better.

This is the core of Christianity to me. Spiritual growth is the continual death and resurrection of the spirit. If you're in an addictive process, you just keep dying and dying and dying—and eventually you die completely.

But with spiritual growth, you die and you're resurrected and you die and you're resurrected and you die and you're resurrected. That's life. Eventually, we will die physically and be resurrected. Similarly, I need to die to the dysfunction that's in me now—the dysfunction of stress. It won't be pleasant and I won't like it. But God will follow it up with resurrection and bring something new.

I used to be in an addictive lifestyle, but dressed up with spiritual, Christian clothes. But the way I live now is much safer. It's not scary at all. It's more being led by the Holy Spirit. It's painful, but it's good. It's a beginning, not an end.


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