Combat the Ministry Blues

We love the students in our ministry, don’t we?

They cause us to laugh so hard we cry. They challenge us to staring contests with billboards (we always lose). They come up with the wackiest ideas, and they try their very hardest to keep us up to date on the latest slang (bless their hearts).

We would do anything for them.

They are the reason our cell phone is on loud next to our bed at 3:30 in the morning. We have cried tears of bitter pain on their behalf and along with them. They have shown us the incredible amount of hurt in the world, which seems to be exposed to our high schoolers at younger and younger ages.

I know I am not alone in saying if I could, I would give my students the world. I would take away the pressure of being skinny enough, of making the baseball team or of finding the perfect date to the prom in a heartbeat if I were able. But I can’t.

Youth ministry (or any type of ministry, really) can be just plain emotionally draining. We feel it – the ache, the tension, the joy, the excitement. A text from a student can change the entire course of our day. A Wednesday night at youth group tires us out in ways we didn’t even realize were possible. Sometimes, we come back from youth group and want to share the amazing ways Jesus was working in our students’ hearts in such a short amount of time, and sometimes we come back and just want to throw a pizza in the oven and have our backs rubbed.

Both are legitimate.

Youth worker, your emotional health matters. Because each day has the power to be filled with such intense emotions, we need to recognize the mood swings and learn how we respond to them. It is downright difficult to lead a student who struggles with depression if your own depression is out of control. It feels like the straw that breaks the camel’s back when a student makes a joke about how “old” you are after a long day of fighting for more funding for your summer mission trip. Sometimes, stress from our own personal life causes us to have to take the night off, or the month off, or the rest of the year off.

Learning to cope with the different mood swings you will have in youth ministry begins with recognizing that this is not an easy task. Retreats and Serve trips can make it seem like youth ministry is a lot of fun, and it certainly is. However, if we are only in it for the fun we get to have sporadically throughout the year, I would argue we are in it for the wrong reasons. High school is hard, and it tests our kids. Being an adult is hard, and it tests us in some pretty significant ways as well.

So when the hard times come, and they frequently do, it’s important to have an action plan in place for yourself to combat the ministry blues. Treat yourself to some alone time, and do what it takes to recharge there: buy yourself a cup of coffee, take a walk, or take a nap. Make time for those you are close to outside of ministry: leave your phone in the car when you’re out for date night, binge watch your favorite series on Netflix with a friend, or call your parents.

Know that your emotional health matters equally as much as that of your students. Do what you need to do to keep yourself healthy for the sake of your family and friends.

Finding My Own Faith

I grew up in a tumultuous home. My family was lower class, and I was the middle child of a somewhat recovered alcoholic father and a mother who was trying to piece together what her newfound faith in God meant for her and for her household. As a child and well into my teen years, my mother’s journey toward God was a hodgepodge of regurgitated televangelists’ theology. Our family bounced from church to church, receiving offerings of extreme grace one Sunday and being pelted with hell-fire-and-brimstone the next.

I learned about Jesus at a young age. This foundation of knowledge was important, and along with my mother’s expanding journey, led me to say prayers I think I meant, ask Jesus into my heart (on a regular basis!) and feel the pricks of a guilty conscious when I was sure I was not doing what Jesus would like. During my early teen years I thought this was all there was to faith.

Thank God for my late mother, but thank God also for youth group leaders and the opportunities they gave me to explore my own faith among my peers and among adults who felt called to foster the faith of young people. I would not be who I am today without having had the chance to escape everyday life to a safe place where I could learn to cry out for God in my own way.

If you are a youth leader, take heart. Sometimes the smallest acts of care can change the trajectory of a young person’s life. While on a youth outing, my youth pastor, on a sudden whim of inspiration, gathered every available pot and bucket and turned them upside down for me to drum on as hard as I could. Banging on pots and pans at 13 or 14 to Wes King (showing my age) may not seem like a big deal, but it was the first time I felt like someone had taken the time to see into me, recognize my desires and encourage them. I still play the drums, and I still remember that it was my youth pastor who first took the time to foster my passion and taught me to use my gifts for Christ.

Then there was the camp week where I finally felt the freedom to say that “I just must not feel it as much as the other students” because my emotions and reactions to the week’s teachings and worship were just not like the rest, and I felt so guilty. One dear, elderly lady sat me down and said that I was just trying too hard. Her words finally released me to be myself, because not all faith journeys should look alike. What a release from such simple words. For the first time, I quit overthinking and trying to mimic what other’s faith looked like, and I cried out to God on my own. She probably had no idea what freedom she gave me that day, or that I still hear her words when I feel out of place or am striving too hard to reach God when he is always right by my side.

I needed escape from routine, home and everyday life to discover who I was in Christ. As an adult, I still need that. We are a people made for God’s whispers and shouts. Sometimes we just can’t hear them when we are surrounded by everyday life and all the things we think we’re supposed to be doing.

This is why I work at Youth Unlimited today; students need time and space to begin forging their own journey with Christ. They need to receive care and mentoring from other adult Christians who love them. They need opportunities to get out of their comfort zones and make their faith their own.