I had a reality check six months ago while sitting in a volunteer training seminar. Our instructor suggested that youth ministry volunteers focus on their hobbies and figure out creative ways to get the youth to participate too (a youth flyfishing expedition? Why not?) He had us start with a list of our hobbies… and I realized that I didn’t have any hobbies outside of my job in youth ministry. This cannot be healthy.
In a profession like youth ministry, it’s easy to get caught up in the role of youth pastor/youth director and lose touch with who you are as a person. Youth workers almost by definition are givers, people who sacrifice their goals to help others. It is almost universal that youth workers will ignore their own needs every chance they get. But you have to spend some time taking care of yourself or you will find yourself where you have nothing left to give, and probably at the worst possible time. Here are 7 choices you can make to keep from losing your sense of self in your job:
The first 4 choices are internal things you can control – basically ways to take care of yourself. The last three involve external factors that you can work on but you might have limited control.
Four Internal Choices to Make to Keep from Losing Yourself in Youth Ministry
- Choose to care for your own soul. You pour your heart into helping others. But who is your pastor? Consider finding a pastor who is not your boss. Who holds you accountable for your own spiritual growth? The best way you can minister to other people is to make sure you are spiritually fed yourself. Choose to make time for personal Bible study, retreat, worship – whatever you need for your own spiritual growth – and make sure to do these things before you get caught up in work. Do not get in the habit of putting youth ministry before your own relationship with God.
- Choose to care for your mind. What do you think about? The questions you ask will become habitual. What kind of thoughts are you letting into your head? Are you reading positive things and surrounding yourself with a positive helpful message? Just the simple act of reading positive material can keep your mind from spiraling down into negative thoughts. (check out some inspirational books, read Scripture) You need to keep yourself in a positive and healthy frame of mind.
- Choose to care for your body. We all know youth work can mean lock-ins and a seemingly limitless number of occasions to eat pizza. That might have seemed like the ideal job in college, but we’re not getting any younger. Be honest, are you eating well? Getting enough rest? Exercising? You know what you need to do – do it! We all need to take care of ourselves physically – get adequate rest, exercise regularly, wear sunscreen. If you are taking care of your body, you will find that you have more energy and you will last longer. One of the healthiest things you can do is to say “no” when people are asking you to add another commitment to your schedule. Consider this: When asked the secret to making amazing products, Steve Jobs said “It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much”. Your ministry works the same way, do too much “not amazing stuff” and you can’t focus on the truly important stuff.
- Choose to develop yourself outside of your profession. Get a hobby. Learn new things. Keep your mind sharp. [Have a bucket list? No? Make one. Have one, cross one off this month. Who do you have fun with? In the military they say at social events, “never open the hangar doors”, which means when you are at a social event with people in your unit, focus on the fun, and don’t talk about work. Having trouble turning off the worker mode and relaxing? Maybe you need friends that are not involved in youth ministry in any way shape or form.
Three External Choices to Make to Keep from Losing Yourself in Youth Ministry – these are about your relationships
- Choose to make your home relationships a priority. It’s too easy to take your family for granted. If you are married, you need to make sure your marriage is a priority over youth ministry. This might mean turning the text messages off when you get home, scheduling date nights and not letting youth events conflict with them, eat regular meals together. If you have children, you need to be demonstrating the priority your own kids have over the youth events. Bonus: when you choose to make it clear that family is your priority, you are being a great role model for youth. Set boundaries.
- Choose to build positive work relationships. Church politics is [not any different than office politics, when people who have different opinions and values work together, sometimes their personalities don’t fit. It’s] unavoidable. But you can be part of the solution instead of feeding the problem. Make sure you are keeping things positive with your coworkers. Try to understand the pressures the senior pastor might be under. Take the janitor out to lunch. Lift people up. Work relationships are one of those things that make the job joyful when they’re great, miserable when they’re bad.
Work relationships also include your relationships with volunteers – be positive, affirming. And if there is a problem with fit or calling be loving but direct, not everyone is going to be a successful long term volunteer.
Along those same lines, choose to have healthy youth relationships – set your boundaries and make sure your relationships are appropriate. If you are not doing safe sanctuary where you are consider adopting it as a standard, it helps keep everyone safe, and it doesn’t leave room for any inappropriate rumors to take root. Remember that your role is not to be the “cool buddy” of teenagers, you are an adult. Being a youth worker is not the same thing as being a youth. You can coach your students, you can listen, you can cheer them on, but you are not there to live life for them or through them. Choose not to be alone with youth or to be in situations that can be misunderstood.
- Choose your job wisely. Churches and youth ministries have different personalities; just like youth workers have different personalities. If you are working in a church that has unrealistic expectations for you or just isn’t a fit for your personality and gifts, you might be miserable and on the way to losing yourself before you even begin.
Choosing the job that is right for you starts with an honest self-assessment.. What are your strengths? Gifts? Passions? Are you an extrovert that gets your energy from having a large number of people around? Then don’t go to work for a small church with a high average age and few youth. If you are passionate about student leadership, will you be content working for a church that expects you to produce programs? If you are passionate about discipleship, will you be content working for a church that expects big outreach events and large crowds? How much time does your job really require? Will this work with your other priorities for spiritual growth and healthy relationships?
If you find yourself in a church that doesn’t fit your personality and gifts, it may be time to make the difficult choice to make a switch. The more you can align who you are as a person and how you are comfortable in ministry, the healthier you’ll be.
Erin Jackson is a veteran & certified youthworker as well as part of the Youthworker Movement team. If you are in youth ministry, you should learn more about Youthworker Movement at http://www.ywmovement.org. She lives in Arlington, Texas with her husband Dennis and three kids. She can be found blogging at http://umyouthworker.com/ If you like this post, please let me know.