Zombie & The Ghost Office: Burnout in Youth Ministry

Youth Specialties
March 28th, 2016

This time of year is notorious for producing burnout among American youth workers. Most school years are just over halfway done, winter is hanging on a bit too long in some corners, and the approaching summer prompts reflection on whether we want to sign up for another year. Some mainline denominations schedule their pastoral moves in the summer. The job postings for youth ministry opportunities surge as churches and leaders make the seasonal transitions.

And sometimes we just feel burned out and stuck in a rut for no particular reason at all.

Burnout is consistently in the top three topics of concern for ministry leaders. Despite the many books and seminars on the subject, we can still find ourselves at the end of our abilities and emotional strength, and we can feel barren, empty, or dusty. Parker Palmer says, “Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess.”[1]

What I do not possess. This has been a helpful prompt for me to make sure I’m pursuing patterns of regular renewal in my life. We get into seasons and realize we’re worn down, beaten up, or just plain tired. We can try to fire up productivity levels in our work, but if we’re empty, we don’t have much to offer anyone. Like with a mostly empty coffee carafe on a hot burner, over time we burn, begin to smoke, and stink. What once was full of comforting flavor and aromatic appeal becomes tarry and repugnant.

Burnout is the symptom—but it’s not the problem. The problem can be found when we explore how we became burned out.

I remember coming home one day feeling like a zombie. I didn’t have the weird waddle-walk, but my eyes were glazed over, my mouth hung open, and I just didn’t feel it for the ministry. I was a few years into full-time youth ministry, and I sat on the couch, seriously wondering if I had what it took. I was constantly irritated, and nothing about youth ministry had any flavor—I felt as if I were just fulfilling my job description. I sought godly counsel and even visited with my doctor to explore whether I might be suffering from depression. I wasn’t—but it took a while to confirm that.

I kept marching. And I began to take steps to fix the problem rather than wallow in it or let it win. About six months later, I emerged from that period with a new freshness and a deeper understanding of seasons of life in ministry. The problem is that there’s no magic formula for dealing with burnout. However, there are some basic life patterns that must be in place for you to emerge from dusty periods:

  1. Personal health. A biblical view of how we’re created includes our bodies and the role they play in our well-being. If we’re not sleeping, eating, or exercising well, then youth ministry will be an uphill battle.
  2. Spiritual renewal. This differs for each person, but what I’ve found is that Jesus regularly turned to his Father for refreshment, recalibration, and rest—and we don’t. We neglect the soul in our leadership development and forget that at our core is a person who needs to grow and develop, too. The path out of burnout is rest, renewal, and revival in God, during which we allow the Spirit to heal and mend.[2]
  3. Intentional reading.
  4. Journaling.
  5. Defining achievement. We will grow weary in ministry—it’s part of the work of ministry. Jesus grew weary. But I think self-sufficiency is the potting soil where burnout roots. We’ve filled ourselves with ourselves, and that won’t nurture for long—if at all. Nor does it bear fruit. We think we can save one more person, leap one more tall building, and just flex our muscles—and then we’ll be able to overcome any dry periods. We forget what even Jesus demonstrated: real ministry is doing the Father’s work, not ours.

It was just a few months after my period of burnout that I walked into Pastor Devin’s ghost office. The former youth pastor had just walked out of his job one day. I mean, he was gone. All of his books, papers, mailers, and even his official college and seminary transcripts were left untouched, as if he had been sitting at his desk the day before. He left months prior, and the church hadn’t even touched his office. It was strange, dusty, and spooky . . .  and the people of his church were still hurting.

As I coached and consulted with the church, his volunteers shared their feelings about being abandoned. One minute Devin was there, leading with a smile, and the next day he was gone. Devin’s patterns before his departure sounded similar to mine: Isolation from others, inability to learn from others, lack of a mentor, ministering for achievement versus shepherding, and an absence of Christ-centered spiritual disciplines. The church had just hired his replacement, so there was hope for healthier days ahead.

Christian leadership brings with it a subtle temptation to abandon the practices that form its foundation. In the moment we think we’re capable, but as the stress of the year piles on, we can too readily abandon the basics and try to become self-sufficient. And then we offer that which we do not possess . . . and we burn out.

There’s much more to discuss about burnout, but let me encourage you over the next four weeks to find some retreat time, grab your Bible and a good book, schedule time with a godly mentor, and find the necessary refreshment.

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terry linhart_400x400Terry Linhart (@TerryLinhart) is a speaker and educator who has authored numerous youth ministry books. He’s editor of the book Teaching the Next Generations (Baker, October 2016), and his forthcoming book with IVP (due out in 2017) will help Christian leaders address the personal areas necessary for effective long-term ministry leadership. Terry coordinates the Academic Support Network for Youth Specialties and co-hosts 37 the Podcast. Connect with Terry at terrylinhart.com.

[1] Palmer, Parker, Let Your Life Speak, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 49.

[2] An excellent book on how to handle periods of burnout is Wayne Cordeiro’s book (2011), Leading on Empty: Refilling your Tank and Renewing your Passion. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers).

Youth Specialties

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