Dealing with problems in the lives of students can seem like a never-ending job.
In the previous post on The Stress that is Youth Ministry, we saw some shocking statistics about pastors and stress. But let’s face it, even though the scope of responsibility may differ, being a youth pastor isn’t that different from being a pastor. Especially in bigger churches, leading the youth ministry can be a lot like leading a church. Which means those statistics may very well be or become a reality for youth pastors as well.
Why youth ministry is extra stressful
That being said, youth ministry comes with its own unique challenges and may even be extra stressful. Youth workers are especially at risk when it comes to stress and burnout for many reasons, states for instance youth ministry veteran Richard Parker:
- Youth ministry tends to be cyclical with few definable end points
- Dealing with problems in the lives of students can seem like a never-ending job
- The hard work of getting parents and volunteers to help share the load in student ministry can lead to frustration and overwork
- Youth ministry tends to be a job with high expectations, low pay and a low position on the church personnel flow chart
- Youth ministers and leaders tend to be “people pleasers” who over-commit and have a hard time saying “no”
Matt Murphy, another youth ministry veteran who’s also well trained and experienced in counseling and trauma, offers another list of reasons why so many youth workers experience what he calls “compassion fatigue.” I’ve chosen those I think are relevant:
- Unchallenging work
- Monotonous routines
- One-Way Relationship
- Need for Approval
- Lack of Feedback
- Low Salary
- Difficult Populations
- Unrealistic Expectations
- Need to Control Others
- Poor Boundaries
- Pressure from Supervisors
- Personal Problems
Do you recognize these? I sure cringed at a few of them.
My thoughts on stress in youth ministry
I’d like to add my personal observations and thought to these. I think personality plays a big part. Like many other youth pastors who struggle with stress, I’m a type A personality with a great drive to succeed, prone to perfectionism and always willing to help others. That doesn’t help obviously.
Yet I never faced quite the same stress issues when I was still working as a manager in a hospital (I was a youth ministry volunteer at that time), despite that being an awfully stressful job as well. I can think of a few reasons why working in the church makes you more susceptible to burnout.
1. No boundaries between work and private
The first is there’s hardly any boundary between work and private. You can’t “switch off” work the way you can with a “normal” job, because you constantly take the job home with you. Even when you have an office in the church, you will work partly from home, get called at home, house events like small groups at home, etc. Work and private, work and home are completely intertwined.
2. Spiritual pressure
A second reason is the spiritual pressure that can get so out of hand, it can even be labeled spiritual blackmail. Let me give you a taste of what that argument looks like. You see, when you work “for the Lord,” nothing is ever good enough, is it? The Lord deserves our best so everything we do needs to be perfect. You can’t really say no if someone asks you to do something, because how can you say no to Jesus and to those students who need you?
Sure, I’m overstating it, but doesn’t this sound awfully familiar? I’ve heard many, many variations on this throughout the years. It’s not just a matter of saying no, it’s also about getting people to accept you saying no. Even then, many youth pastors make similar arguments to themselves. Can they really say no when a student calls who needs them urgently, even when it’s date night or family time? How can you defend giving priority to your family or yourself instead of to God’s work?
3. No clear end goal
A third reason is the work is never done. There is no clear end goal, it never stops. There’s always room for improvement, always opportunity for growth, for more, for better. It’s hard to determine when it’s good enough, or just enough in general.
4. High stakes
And lastly: There’s so much at stake. Most of us really love our students and their eternal destination can weigh heavy on our minds and hearts, driving us to go an extra mile, and another one. The statistics about college students losing their faith makes us want to try even harder to equip them for life … and we just don’t want to lose them forever.