This is the third post in five part series on Youth Ministry, Boundaries, and Burnout. Be sure to check out the previous posts, Youth Ministry as a Stepping Stone (Fail), and Looking at the Population You Serve.
One of the great benefits of ministry in general, but especially youth ministry…can also be it’s greatest downfall, and risk to whether or not you set healthy boundaries and are able to survive the awesome and chaotic world of youth ministry without burning out.
One word — SCHEDULE!
In most churches that I know, youth ministers have all the freedom in the world to create, minister, and live by their own schedules. Except for some set things (i.e. staff meetings, services, etc.) they can create their own schedule. That is truly one of the great things about working in that world…and I can honestly say, it’s not truly appreciated…not even closely appreciated, until you have a job that doesn’t allow you that freedom. Trust me, I know from experience.
But this freedom to create one’s schedule in youth ministry also puts the youth worker at the greatest risk for burnout and unhealthy boundaries as well. WHY? Because if one is not careful, their ministry, life and schedule is soon dictated by everyone else…and will often be dictated by the slightest whim or impulse. And remember, we are already working in an environment, and with a population who hasn’t really really figured out yet how to set healthy boundaries, and who most likely doesn’t care if you are on the path to major flame out…until of course you are gone because you no longer can function.
Why is having a schedule important in youth ministry?
Because without a schedule you soon let really important things slip by. It doesn’t happen all at once, but is rather a slow slide away from essential things that are needed in your life and role as a youth worker.
You soon don’t make time for solitude and silence. Listening to God takes a back seat and the still, silent voice becomes muffled.
You soon don’t make time for a Sabbath. You work seven days a week, making justifications like “well, I take off a couple of half days here and there, or go in to work late.”
You soon don’t make time for pray. God soon seems distant and you feel disconnected.
You soon don’t make time for study and preparation. The teaching time is thrown together the day of or the hour before.
You soon don’t make time for students. The pastoral care that was once important to you slides away.
You soon don’t make time for your important relationships away from ministry. Your friends, spouse or children begin to feel like you are always working, always on call, or willing to drop their needs to meet the needs of the students you minister to.
And on and on and on…until one day you feel like you barely have the energy or motivation to serve in the ministry that once brought you so much life.
It won’t happen over night, but slow, subtle loss of your schedule, just makes it easier to justify some unhealthy boundary the next time…it may take months, it may take years..but it will happen if you aren’t careful.
If you don’t schedule things that are important to you, it won’t become long before you won’t have the time to do them at all.
What can you do?
- Sit down with a blank piece of paper and write down the most important things that you want to accomplish. For you youth ministry work, your family life, friendships, personal life (goals, hobbies, etc.) Just list them out
- Sit down with your youth ministry calendar and look at your work requirements (i.e. staff meetings, retreats, services, campus visits, pastoral care, preparation, pray, etc, etc.).
- Sit down with a blank calendar and begin to insert your work responsibilities and the additional things that are important to you. Like a puzzle, see how they can fit, or not fit together in a schedule.
- Be thoughtful of things that can help reduce the risk of burnout and add them as well. Things like exercise, rest, Sabbath, time with friends, etc. Don’t forget to put those in there.
- Play around with the schedule. See what maybe isn’t working. Maybe you discover some things aren’t necessary, and other things are. Maybe you realize that you are doing way too much and need to cut back on some things. Maybe you realize you aren’t doing enough, and need more structure to your schedule.
- Continue to come to this exercise every few days and make adjustments. Like a budget that sometimes takes months to refine so it becomes a healthy working budget, this will take some time. Don’t get frustrated.
- Include others in this process. Co-workers, spouses, friends, etc. They can often see our blind spots and give us good feedback.
Ultimately we often have to schedule things that are important to us. Like prayer, exercise, and other habits that require discipline, so does living by a schedule.
Of course our schedule should never be so rigid that we can’t make exceptions and do what we need to do to be in the moment and be with others or meet their needs. But trust me…no schedule means that you will rarely say no to things, and that you will eventually let go of the things that are important to you, and that will bring forth the life you need to minister long term in a healthy youth ministry.
Let me close with perhaps my favorite story about scheduling. One of my favorite authors is Eugene Peterson (if you haven’t read him, or you don’t regularly return to his work–you are missing out…big time). In his book Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, he says this:
“But here I was [like Jonah] on a religious ship on which God was peripheral to the bottom line, in the background of an enterprise that was mostly informed by psychology, sociology, and management-by-objective… Then, I found Fyodor Dostoyevsky… I took my appointments calendar and wrote in two-hour meetings with ‘FD’ three afternoons a week. Over the next seven months I read through the entire corpus, some of it twice. From three to five o’ clock on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday I met with FD in my study and had leisurely conversations through Crime and Punishment, Letters from the Underworld, The Idiot, A Raw Youth, The Devils, and The Brothers Karamazov. I spent those afternoons with a man from whom God and passion were integral–and integrated. All winter long, through the spring, and a month or two into the summer, I hid away in my study reading Penguin paperbacks… And then the crisis was over. Thanks to Dostoyevsky, God and passion would never again be at risk, at least vocationally.”
I love that. We must make time for things that are important to us. Making time each week to read a novel; to spend in silence; to prepare for a talk; to spend in conversation with a friend; to care for a student — those aren’t moments just in and of themselves, but you are intentionally setting aside time that will have a greater and lasting impact on your ministry and longevity in it, then you can possibly imagine at the time.