WHAT I WISH I KNEW BEFORE I STARTED IN YOUTH MINISTRY: SELF-CARE
Have you ever felt invincible? In my early days of youth ministry, I had days when I was convinced I was a borderline superhero. There’s a power that comes from crushing it as a youth pastor. You stay up all night with students and still go hang out with them the next day. You teach multiple times a week, sometimes with minimal or no prep. Parents declare your praises. Well maybe I’m exaggerating some, but there’s a rush that comes from being in the trenches of a thriving ministry.
As I look back on those energizing days in the mid 1990’s, I roll my eyes at how ignorant I was to the need for self-care. I simply didn’t take care of myself, and I paid the price with multiple ministry burnouts. With that in mind, here are three things I wish I knew when I started caring for myself.
I Wish I Knew: Paintball Doesn’t Equal Cardio
I honestly thought I was considered active as I ran around the woods of Indiana, using teenagers as paintball target practice. This, shockingly, failed to compensate for all the pizza, fast food, Frappuccino’s, and more that I consumed. I had a 42 year old pastor tell my then 22 year old self that I needed to establish healthy rhythms before my metabolism changed. I thought, “Yeah, thanks old man. I’m good.”
I’ve since learned that I was not good. It wasn’t until my late 30’s that I realized I was in trouble. It might “feel” sufficient to hit up the Youth Pastor Diet every January or try that keto thing once in a while, but it’s not. If I could go back 20 years, I’d tell myself to lay off the fries once in a while because it only gets more and more difficult as you get older.
I Wish I Knew: Retreats Are Not Just for Students
Like many of you, I love retreats. I’d argue passionately for the value they have in the lives of students. Yet I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t start taking retreats for myself until I burned out, the second time, in my thirties.
Luke 5:15-16 is fairly to the point. Jesus was facing the demands of ministry and his rising popularity. The Bible tells us the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
The demands increased. Jesus withdrew. Not only does he withdraw to pray, but Luke wants us to know that Jesus does this often.
Jesus invites us to retreat. I’ve heard author and speaker Ruth Haley Barton say when we retreat we make a generous investment in our friendship with God (her book on retreats is stellar). I would say there are few things I want more than to invest in my friendship with God, and the daily rhythms simply aren’t enough to feed my soul. This is why I sabbath weekly, day-retreat monthly, take a two-day retreat quarterly, and a one-week retreat yearly.
Of course retreating will be a struggle. Life happens. My wife and I have mutually decided on the value of these things, so they become a priority. I hear people in ministry often justify their pace with the guilt they feel for stepping away from their ministry or their families.
It comes down to deciding that you’ll be better for the investment you make into your relationship with Jesus, and having the faith that He is going to tend to things when you step back.
I Wish I Knew: People Actually Want to Help
I spent years holding onto bitterness over the lack of mentors I had pouring into me. I envied the youth pastors who had people with wisdom and experience they could turn to at any time. I wish I knew how much people wanted to help me, if I had only asked for help. When I finally asked, everything changed. I remember asking “Do you think we could meet once a month just to talk about my leadership?” He responded “no…” and I tensed up until he finished with “…I think we should meet every week!” Whoops.
If you want someone who you can process the challenges of ministry with, ask someone. As I write this, I think of the young leader I’ll meet with this week to talk through Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead. I love these times and they only happen because I was asked. I have become passionate about being a mentor or helping others find a mentor. Just ask!
I know when I call one of my personal mentors this week, he’s going to ask me about a few specific things that I’ve been working on. This happens because I’ve asked him to. It took me far too long to make this happen, and I could not possibly list all the ways God has used these relationships in my life.
I’ve fallen flat on my face multiple times, and these three things have played a huge role in keeping me running in this race of youth ministry. No matter where you find yourself in your ministry race, you are not alone.
There are many of us who are cheering you on as you care for yourself. If you’re not going to, who will?
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.