Preventing Burnout as a Paid Staff Member
I laid on my back in the middle of the empty youth room. The lights were turned off, except for one dim light that hung above me. To an outsider, I looked like a boxer that was knocked out and left in the middle of the ring. I was exhausted, beaten up, and defeated. It actually wasn’t far off the mark. As I lay there, a thought crossed my mind:
I can’t do this, anymore.
After four years of non-stop, high-energy, “souls-at-any-cost” ministry, I finally burned out.
“Burnout” is one of the dark youth ministry words spoken in hushed corners at hipster coffeehouses. We all know it exists. Some of us fear it, while others believe it can never happen to them. At some point, we are going to burn out. And when we do, it may actually be healthy.
I’ll let you read that one more time, because it is probably a statement you’ve never heard before: Burnout can be healthy.
I live in the southwest and wildfires are a reality we face, especially as things get hot and dry in the summer. There are two kinds of fires that can start in a field. The first is the kind of dangerous wildfire we are familiar with. It burns hot and uncontrolled. It is destructive and moves quickly. Only ashes and charred landscapes remain once this kind of fire moves through. The second kind is a controlled burn. Local fire departments will intentionally burn through certain areas to help clear them of potential hazards. This kind of fire burns for a short period of time and sets clear boundaries that prevent disasters.
You could have the greatest prayer life, most superb support system, a calendar with perfect color coding and an administrative assistant that the Holy Spirit has given the gift of prophecy to foresee any potential scheduling conflicts but you are still going to face burnout. God permits this kind of “controlled burn” to help us grow. Ancient spiritual writers called this kind of experience “desolation.” If we approach it correctly, it can help us grow and be safer from the dangerous kind of burnout.
Controlled burnout teaches us boundaries. Maybe you began ministry as a single person but along the way you got married. Suddenly, the schedule you kept perfectly is daunting and problematic. The feeling of burnout is signaling you to reassess your priorities.
A program you run that used to bring you a lot of life is suddenly draining your energy every week. This burnout is signaling you to pray about that program; maybe it is no longer effective.
A tragedy strikes your community and you go into full crisis mode. After several weeks, you are exhausted and realize you’ve spent very little time praying. The burnout you are feeling is calling you back to prayer.
In each of the above, the situation can still get out of control if we don’t recognize it. If firefighters are working a controlled burn but don’t pay attention things can get out of hand. If we feel burned out, but don’t make changes our entire ministry can wind up ash. (And our marriages. And our families. And our sanity. And our faith.)
Don’t fear burnout. Use the experience to help you learn new boundaries in ministry, discern new movements of the Holy Spirit, and grow. There are three ways to make your burnout healthy:
1) Lean into prayer.
Burnout often comes because we pray less, not more. Still, we may be feeling burned out even with our normal routine of prayer. In these situations, lean into prayers even more fervently. Ask God to reveal areas where you are working too much, too little, or misdirecting your energy. Trust that your prayers are heard, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
2) Don’t make big changes.
Burnout can sometimes force us to hit the “panic” button in ministry, which just makes things worse. If a firefighter suddenly got freaked out by a controlled burn and deviated from instructions, it could make the fire worse. Stick to your commitments and resolutions while you work through burnout. Suddenly quitting the gym or working longer hours to finish a project aren’t in your best interest. Neither is quitting your job right away. Stay put until you figure things out.
3) Ask yourself where it started.
What caused the burnout to begin? Was it long hours? A program that was no longer effective? A lack of prayer or boundaries between work and home life? Find out what caused the burnout to begin, then you can trace the fire back and fight it from the source.
God uses burnout to help us remember one thing: God owns the ministry and without Him we can’t do anything. Sometimes we cause the burnout, but other times God will permit it so we can grow. It helps us learn better boundaries and ultimately become more effective servants. So the next time you find yourself KO’ed on the youth group room floor, pick yourself back up and get into the fight. You aren’t fighting alone.
JOEL STEPANEK has been actively and passionately involved in youth ministry for over ten years. What began as a simple internship in a parish youth ministry office evolved into an incredible adventure that led him on numerous middle school lock-ins, high school retreats, and ultimately to meet his wife, Colleen, who is a campus minister. Joel is the Director of Resource Development for LIFE TEEN INTERNATIONAL where he creates engaging youth ministry resources for middle and high school students. Joel is a sought after speaker and has traveled across the world training youth ministers and speaking to teenagers. He is the author of two books, “THE GREATEST JOB ON EARTH: SEVEN VIRTUES OF AWESOME YOUTH MINISTERS,” and “TRUE NORTH: A ROADMAP FOR DISCERNMENT.”
Joel received a Master of the Arts degree in religious education with an emphasis in youth and young adult ministry from Fordham University. Joel is an avid Packer fan (and owner), loves cooking, weightlifting, and spending time with his wife and children, Elijah Daniel and Sophia Grace.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.