Retreated: 2 Things Learned This Week

This week I retreated to a camp in Glen Rose, Texas, for three days of spiritual retreat. Going on a minimum 3 day spiritual retreat is a requirement for my ordination in the United Methodist Church. I had a lot of flexibility on how the retreat itself would go.

Inspired by the TED Talk I heard from “planet walker” John Francis, I decided to incorporate silence and not using a vehicle as part of my retreat.

Two things I learned in the process:

1. It is relatively easy to be silent when you’re by yourself, but it is a challenge to be around people without feeling pressured to say something. For most of my time away, I was on the camp by myself. I went for a long walks, I hiked through the forest, I spent time creating art and reading. I was quiet.

In the silence, I was able to rest. I was able to just be, just listen. I noticed things I might have overlooked – the smell of dew in the morning, the sound of deer as they scamper away, even the sound of a bird’s wings flapping. I ate when I was hungry and slept when I was tired.

On the few occasions I walked in to town, people were friendly and I felt compelled to speak. The person I talked to the longest, an elderly man in an antique store, seemed lonely. While a vow of silence seems like a noble idea, sometimes small talk is a compassionate act.

2. Sometimes I have to consciously choose to feel safe. One of the hardest parts about being by myself, especially as a petite female, was getting over feeling anxious about possible dangers. I had to let that fear go in order to feel at peace. The fears of unknown dangers, especially while walking alone at night in the dark, cluttered up my thoughts.

Once I made the conscious choice that I was going to feel safe, I could enjoy nature fully. I was able to pray and sing like no one could hear me. It was only then that I could fully experience God’s presence.

I think it’s worth mentioning that living in a culture that feels dangerous even if the dangers are not real makes spirituality more difficult. When I walk alone at night, a part of my brain is constantly on the lookout for possible attacks, alert for sudden movements around the corner. I cannot be the only woman who feels this way. It’s a bit heartbreaking to have to choose to feel safe. My hope is that by mentioning it we can all work together for more peace, working to create a culture of safety. (Maybe you were expecting me to learn something more profound, and I did learn other things – I spent a lot of time reading, studying, writing and creating. There will be more blog posts to come.)

“for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. ” 2 Timothy 1:7

Project 365: Day 57 Senior High Sabbath Bible Study


Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.
Psalm 46:10

Tonight I gave SBUMCSHBS the gift of quiet time with God. We have been studying time, Sabbath and connecting with God a lot this year. We began the hour by centering ourselves, getting the noise out of our heads and putting aside our phones:


Students, journals and pens in hand, quietly rotated through five prayer stations. Each station had a description, Scripture, reflection questions, an activity and a prayer.

They lit a candle and asked for God’s light in the areas of life that needed guidance:


They wrote on a stone as they remembered what God has delivered us from and what He has given us:


They enjoyed grapes and bread as they remembered God’s blessings from the earth:


With water, they were cleansed and made whole and renewed:


And, perhaps most importantly, they
simply rested in quiet meditation:


What a joy to share the gift of quiet time with God!


How do you observe Sabbath time?
What can you do today to quiet yourselves and just be in God’s presence?

7 Choices You Can Make To Keep From Losing Yourself in Youth Ministry

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

  1. 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.
  2.  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.
  3. 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.
  4.  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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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  She lives in Arlington, Texas with her husband Dennis and three kids. She can be found blogging at If you like this post, please let me know.






Two weeks’ notice

In a quick, unscheduled meeting after weekly staff meeting today, I was given my two weeks’ notice.  It’s called two weeks of notice, but in actuality, I have about 5 days to process that I’ve been fired, to compose myself, and then to say goodbye to young people and colleagues I have grown to love as my own family.  (The church is reducing staff and the new clergyperson who is replacing both me and two associate pastors has to start after Annual Conference…so it’s time for me to clear out.)  What’s worse to bear,  is that my husband and three kids are expected to leave the church with me, so I’ve also got to tell my 4, 7 and almost 10 year old that this isn’t our church family after all.  In five days.  


In my heart, I have known there was a problem.  I have tolerated feeling isolated and frustrated for months…tolerated it because I love the youth in our ministry and I have seen God at work in such amazing ways during my tenure here:  A first international mission trip igniting a passion for missions.  Thousands of dollars raised by youth to help the world’s hungry.  Former youth called into youth ministry as young adults…current youth hearing God’s call into ministry.  Student leaders blossoming into leadership and taking ownership of their areas of ministry.  Youth that were on the fringe becoming excited participants and sharing their life with me. The creation of the most enthusiastic losing basketball team ever witnessed.  (Only God gets the glory for these things happening, but it’s been exciting to see it all unfold on my watch.)


So, how did this job loss come to happen?  I have done all that I was asked to do, I have poured my heart into my ministry, I know students are closer to Christ for my having been here…but it basically boils down to program performance and attendance.  In short, I may have mistaken the lofty words as my primary directive (equip students to be Christ’s disciples) for the business reality (the number of students you should be equipping is at least 25% more than your current attendance rate…or at least as high as some unspecified number that we believe we used to have in the youth group 10 years ago…)


Ugh.  This has been a very tough day.  I know my emotions are raw so I don’t want to write too much.  Just the same, I still believe God has a hand in all of this.  He clearly, faithfully called me to my current church, He’s clearly calling me to something else….something I haven’t quite grasped yet.  Maybe in His creative wisdom, God has found a way to prune the things I’ve held on to that are not of His Kingdom – things like my pride of working for a big church, my ego associated with feeling immune to being fired (this happens all the time in youth ministry – just look at the job postings – but it is a first for me), my reluctance to quit because of actually having a decent salary in youth ministry.  


Perhaps divinely inspired, I’ve focused a lot of my studies this year on the importance of youthworker self-care.  At youth ministry conventions I kept hearing this recurring theme of a deep need for healing in the souls of youthworkers.  We need to take care of our own spiritual health in order to take care of feeding the souls of others.  We need rest.  We need mentors.  We need pastors that are not our bosses so someone can give us pastoral care when we, say, lose our job or some other crisis.  Perhaps God has just provided me with the perfect opportunity to rest, to regroup and refocus my calling into ministry.


I do not know the plans God has for me, but fortunately He does.  I know from experience that His plans are good.  


I hope you’ll join me on the journey to see what He has in store.  I wonder if anyone reading this has a story of their own to share?


Yours in Christ,






Reality Bites And Some Churches Have Fangs

Reality Bites And Some Churches Have Fangs

By Len on Sep 17, 2010 in Articles

When I began my first full-time youth ministry position, I had a utopian view of what it’d be like working in a church. I believed that since everyone loved Jesus it’d be an ideal work environment; I expected to hear “Kum-Bah-Yah” in the background as we closed our staff meetings. Reality hit me soon after the last book went from box to bookshelf.

A few years ago, Your Church magazine ran a series about “Forced Exits” (Mar/Apr 1996). They reported that almost one fourth of senior pastors had been fired, forced to resign, or pressured to resign. They also discovered that 91 percent of senior pastors knew three to four pastors who’d been forced to exit. I personally know four youth pastors who’ve lost their jobs this past year.

Bob Long, the national youth ministry director of the Baptist General Conference, shared this: “A high dose of cynicism is sadly normal in veteran youth pastors as a result of seeing the church in action over the years.” I wanted to hold on to my naivety and deny what he observed, but I knew it was true.

Originally appeared in Youthworker Journal June/July 2003

An unspoken theme I’ve sensed at national youthworkers conventions is this deep need for healing and rest for those in youth ministry. There seems to be a desperate cry for hearing that things will be okay, this deep need for encouragement to keep pursuing the call. It’s heartbreaking to know that so many people called into youth ministry feel beat up and hurt by their church. I appreciated Len’s honesty in this article.

Spending time sharing the Christian journey and loving on youth should be a joy. Here are a few joy killers I’ve observed for youthworkers:

Fatigue – too many of us neglect to rest (see earlier post on sabbath). A wise youth worker friend pointed out that the church will gladly let you work 50-60 hours a week and miss taking any of your vacation days if you let it.

Isolation – youth ministry is a quirky area….who really understands the unique challenges you face of serving youth, parents, future youth, expectations? When the pastor is also your boss, who do you talk to when you need pastoral care? A supportive network of Youthworker friends and/or mentors can be a joy saver.

Expectations – so often expectations are unclear, implied, unrealistic or uncommunicated. When the focus shifts from making disciples to counting heads, joy can be lost. Sometimes the performance expectations are from the church, just as often they are self-imposed.

Prayerfully, we can remember this is God’s work. If we are called to ministry by God, He will be faithful to use us as we are to do the work He has set for us.

Maybe we all just need a hug and to be told it’s all going to be okay. Be encouraged! It’s worth it.

YouthWorker Movement » Is it still a Sabbath Sunday?

Is it still a Sabbath Sunday?

March 30, 2011 |

Administration, Featured, Parents and Families, Program, Spiritual Life

Sundays in a large church with an average worship attendance of about 1100-1400 people begins at approximately 7:30 AM.  The preaching pastor prepares for the first service and spends some quiet time in reflection with God.  A group comes in and prays for him/her and then begins the marathon of three worship services; 8:30 – 9:45 – 11:00.  Following the services, prayerfully, the afternoon is open.  But for a youth minister, the day has just gotten warmed up.  Sometimes there might be an afternoon meeting, but mostly the time is spent in preparation for the evening activities.  In this church, the students arrive at 4:15, a few minutes before youth choir and then off to Youth Group Fellowship (AKA: U.M. Youth Fellowship, Youth Group Time, etc.)  By the time that ends, staff members are exhausted and we wonder why on earth we call it “Sabbath.”

Unfortunately, that is not a unique schedule for churches or families today.  Genesis 2:1-3 tells us the story of God resting after six days of laboring over the creation of the world.  God blessed the seventh day and set it apart as a holy day of rest.  It has even been commanded upon us to rest on the seventh day and keep it holy, as God is Holy. (Exodus 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12)  Yet, it has become just another working day for families, churches and communities throughout the Christian faith.

There once was a time when nothing but church was scheduled on Sundays.  Sunday was a sacred day and communities, schools, businesses and people made a covenant to honor this day and allow people time to worship God.  In those days, the church was the biggest gig in town on Sundays, and so, youth groups sprouted up and became the place for teenagers to come and hang out in a safe place, while worshipping and learning about God.  Every youth in town, usually, made it a priority to be at youth group on Sunday nights.  It was fun and fellowship with Jesus!

But, once again, time shifted, the world shifted and priorities shifted and people began opening businesses on Sundays, in order to make a few extra bucks.  Then, in an effort to improve the skills of students playing sports, coaches started scheduling practices on Sunday afternoons to enhance their teams.  Next, community groups got on the band-wagon, and scheduled more and more activities on Sundays, moving the culture away from the sacred Sabbath of Sunday.

Today, youth leaders bemoan a decline in their Sunday evening youth programming.  Students, who work all week in school, spend all day Saturday in sports or other community activities.  They squeeze in a little bit of worship Sunday morning, find themselves by Sunday evening exhausted and overwhelmed by the fact that now homework needs to get done, too.

This isn’t a new question, but I wonder where the church fits into this picture of life.  Do we continue to add to the stress put on families by mandating, encouraging, pressuring, youth to be at youth group on Sunday nights?  After all, we are fighting for their souls to be dedicated to Jesus, right?  Or do we succumb to the pressures of the culture and the world and set aside Sunday nights for families, for rest (or for homework) as a community of faith?  Are Sunday mornings the only sacred space for the church?

As a mother, a youth minister and a community member, I grapple with balance.  If God is supposed to be our #1 priority, I wonder why families don’t emphasize time with God the same way they emphasize time with sports, or friends, or work?  If God is lucky, in most of our busy lives, God will get an hour a week.  Is God satisfied?  Or have we said to God, “I’m going to do the bare minimum to continue this relationship with you, Lord.”  Goodness knows, that’s what our world is telling us to do, and so far, we’re responding really well.  What will it take to change the culture today?  I’m certain, God isn’t satisfied and it’s time for us to shift again.  Prayerfully, we’ll be shifting towards more time with God.

(What are your ministries doing to help youth prioritize God during the week?  What are your communities doing to support the faith community?  If Sundays are no longer sacred in your church community, how are you responding?)

Rev. Amy Valdez Barker
Minister of Families with Youth
Athens First UMC

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Are you taking time to rest? No one needs a burnt out youth pastor.

Self-care is too often neglected in professional youth ministry. I know in my case, I love what I do and I hate to miss what’s going on. That works until something adds stress to the schedule and adequate rest time hasn’t been put in.

The baby step I’ve taken is to figure out the number of days I should get off each month to make up for working on the weekends…I block off a minimum of that many days for the month on my calendar with stickers & I spend those days not working. Rest and family time is so important!