On Monday I had the awesome opportunity to hang out with about 100 youth pastors in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. We were all attending a Youth Specialties luncheon, checking out their upcoming events, hearing about some of their ventures, and just having a good time networking with other youth pastors.

Hanging out with youth pastors is one of my favorite things to do. It’s just a fun, lively bunch of people to hang out with, and I have found over the years, that there is more rich theological thinking and praxis in youth ministry than in most other areas of the church (that’s why it’s a shame when pastors poke fun at youth ministry so much from the pulpit). I’ve never been a full-time youth pastor (i.e. middle school, jr. high, high school), but I’ve volunteered in them for years. I’ve held interim positions, been a college pastor for almost eight years, and I’m currently working part-time in the youth department at Highland Park Presbyterian Church working with families (thanks to my good friend Lars Rood who has given me the opportunity to do some cool stuff in this area).

Youth ministry is a great area of the church to work in.

But one of the things that I have noticed over the years is that we aren’t very good at setting healthy boundaries. Of course, there are a lack of boundaries in other areas and life stages of ministry, but I think youth ministry has it’s own challenges. And the more I work as a full-time marriage and family therapist, I have had more of a burning desire to help those in ministry, especially youth ministry, set healthy boundaries — and if you can establish those boundaries early on in life, they will reward you greatly.

So beginning with today’s post, I’m going to spend the next five posts talking about some specific things that often prevent us from establishing these healthy boundaries, and what you can do about it.

Youth Ministry as a Stepping Stone
I consider it a huge blessing that most of my friends in youth ministry, and those who have had, and continue to have the most impact on me are those who consider themselves youth ministry “lifers” — translation: they love youth ministry…their heart is in youth ministry…they aren’t in youth ministry in order to use it as a stepping stone to positions that are considered more elevated in the Church (i.e. associate pastor, head pastor, etc.) It’s hard to explain, but you can tell the difference between those who don’t see youth ministry as a stepping stone, and those who do. That doesn’t mean of course that you can’t leave that position later — nothing wrong with that — but it’s all about the current mindset of the youth worker.

Here’s then what I often see happening. When we place ourselves in positions where we are always looking to “move up”, we are less likely to set healthy boundaries. Why? Because there is always someone to impress (i.e. head pastor, elder board, etc.). That often translates in to working harder (in an unhealthy way), working more, and creating unhealthy boundaries — all which can eventually lead to burnout.

I recall a time early on in my college ministry career where I was asked at the last minute to do back to back international mission trips with about a two day turn around period. I said I would step in and lead those two trips (trips in which the leaders fell through at the last minute). But my motives were mixed. I wanted to do it to be helpful (and we all have to step in and fill the gap when others need help), but I also wanted to signal to my boss that he could always count on me to step in and be available. And that by doing that, hopefully they would realize I’m a great asset to the church, and they might one day consider me for a more “elevated” position in the church. I’m not saying I consciously thought all of this — and at the time I was super happy with college ministry, and not wanting any other position. But my desire to impress my boss, knowing that this moment may be a memory for him later on if he could count on me was something I thought about. So in order to impress him I sacrificed some relational commitments, school commitments, and it ended up being a real unhealthy time for me in regards to setting boundaries, and feeling burned out.

As I look back at this time I am able to identify it as a situation in which my inability to set clear, healthy boundaries, led me down a path of not being able to establish them for sometime down the road. In fact, it took me another 4-5 years to get to a healthier place, and I continue to work on those boundaries.

If as a youth pastor you are always looking at the next position in the Church, and not planted in the context you are currently serving, then it is that much more easy for you to say yes to things, rather than say no. Being planted in your ministry and not looking on to the next step allows you to have a clearer sense of identity and worth, rather than always looking for it in the next position.

Establish Clear Expectations
One of the things you can do as a youth pastor is to establish early on some clear expectations of your role. This sounds simple enough doesn’t it. But it’s not. I know too many youth ministers who are just so happy to get hired they lend themselves out to be almost a ministry “clean-up” person — always available to do anything that is asked — always willing to say yes — even if it’s not the healthy thing to do. Unfortunately, there are some pastors who know this, and who use their authority and power differential to call upon the youth pastor to pretty much do anything and everything out of their job description.

So if you haven’t established clear expectations yet, it’s never too late. I recommend for a youth pastor at some point (maybe an annual review) to bring forward a discussion of what some clear expectations of what their job description is. You can frame that conversation around self-care, stating that you are wanting to take better care of yourself in order not to burn out, and therefore, better serve, God, the ministry, and the students and families you work with. Establish some clear guidelines/expectations about days off, working overtime, being on call, your ability to serve in other ministries in the Church. Establish the expectation that you too want to be a part of the church as an attendee, and not just a youth pastor who can’t find a place to worship, pray, and be a part of a community as well.

One of the things we have to ask ourselves as youth pastor as well is this: “Am I in this job only as a step to the next church job?” Or “Am I doing this job cause I love it. Because I want to be here and nowhere else?” Knowing your answer to that question is an important step in understand who you are, and what some healthy boundaries in ministry may look like.

Next Steps
Here are some things you could do in the next few weeks/month to begin to establish some healthy boundaries in this area:

  1. Write up a new job description, inserting clear expectations about days off, hours you work, and what areas fall under your responsibility.  Discuss this with your supervisor, and if at all possible, have them help you do these things.

  2. Assemble an accountability groups consisting of some members of the church, and those who have no ties to the church.  Talk with them about your job and expectations, and use them as a barometer in how well you are doing.  Give them permission to step in and say something if you aren’t setting healthy boundaries.

  3. Take some time for self-reflection and determine the reasons for why you are in youth ministry.  Are you happy in youth ministry?  Is that where you feel God wants you?

  4. Practice saying no.  If asked to do something that you feel is a violation of some healthy boundaries…say no.  See what happens.  You have to start somewhere.

  5. If you are in a church setting where youth ministry isn’t valued that much, or where those in pastoral positions see it simply as a stepping stone — then take some time to re-evaluate if that is really the place for you.  How a church views youth ministry and your role, will say a lot in their ability to allow you to set healthy boundaries — or if they will actually be the perpetrator in violating those.

Have you ever found yourself violating healthy boundaries because you wanted to impress a pastor, a parent, an elder board, etc.?