Stillness – An Advent Devotional


“Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken.”
Psalm 62:5-6

On Sunday mornings starting about an hour before the first worship service, the sanctuary space is already busy with preparations. There are candles to be lit, fonts to fill, bread and juice to set up. Sound checks, lighting checks and slide reviews. Furniture moved into place. People busily preparing for the congregation to arrive. Throughout the morning the space resonates with people greeting one another, songs are sung, words spoken, prayers uttered aloud. Children play, wiggling and chattering as their adults try to hush and still them. It’s beautiful and it is holy.

The stillness of a quiet sanctuary is not something that everyone gets to see or experience. 

After the crowds leave, or on just about any day during the week, the space sits in stillness. It’s a place of refuge, a place of quiet. Ideal for prayer and thought. It’s still open then, perhaps it’s a place you will come visit during that time.

During this season of Advent, I pray that you will find a space for stillness. Be still and know that you are loved by God. Sit quietly and listen for the Spirit to prompt you. May you be blessed with moments of stillness.


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

3 Important Reasons to Smile Today

I just watched this interesting TED Talk about the superpower of smiling, and I thought you’d enjoy it too:

(If the video doesn’t work, click here:
Here are the three most important things I took away from the video:

1. The span of your smile determines the span of your life.  Research backs up the fact that people who smile more often live longer, healthier lives.  Smilers have less stress and more positive feedback.  I, for one, want to live a long, healthy life and would like to spend that time smiling, how about you?  Just think, if you can impress this idea on young people and change their behavior, you can actually make them live longer.

2. Smile + Frown = Smile.  Smiles are contagious.  If you see someone who is smiling, it is difficult to not smile back.  What a great ministry tool it is to know that you possess the power to make sad people feel better just by giving them a smile!  In the youth ministry world, this power is valuable for encouraging teens who are feeling down on themselves…and at some point that may be all teens.  How can you use this power today?

3. Smiles bring more pleasure than up to 2,000 bars of chocolate.  Want to feel good without high caloric intake?  Smile.  You feel better, the pleasure part of your brain is activated, life is good.  I still like chocolate a good bit, but it’s nice to know that I can smile thinking about chocolate without eating it all and still feel good.

That’s all today – 3 valuable reasons to smile.  I hope this post makes you live longer, happier and healthier.



4 Critical Signs of Youth Ministry Burnout

Is it burnout or just a funk?

In direct sales, you know right away if you’re succeeding or not – you either have the sale or don’t.  In sports, you know if you scored or not, you can measure your stats to gauge success or failure.  You can measure or see the results of your work in physical labor jobs, even jobs like accounting have an output you can see.

Youth ministry is one of those professions that has a lot of “gray areas.”  You’ve spent the last several months and years pouring your heart into your ministry.  You’ve stayed up all night at lock-ins, retreats.  You’ve worked long hours to be there for your youth ministry.  You’ve done the work.  Have you been successful?

It depends, did someone just schedule a 4 hour meeting on “improving your numbers”?
Did a parent just stop you to say thanks for how much you have impacted their child?
Did a youth just direct every profane word they know at you, because you caught them smoking a joint?
Did more than one youth in your group decide to go to school for seminary?
Did your own child just complain about “you like the youth kids better”?

On any given day, what you do may not directly tie to how you allow yourself to feel at the end of the day. You are in control of what you do but, you are not in control of the results that you may feel on a daily basis.

Here’s the good news: God calls us to youth ministry to be faithful, not impatient for worldly success.  You’ve been faithful.  But maybe you’re working too hard at trying to be seen as successful.  Or maybe you’re just working too hard.

You’ve heard that if you don’t take care of yourself in youth ministry, no one else will. You can get youth ministry burnout.  This time of year, it’s common for youth workers to be tired, discouraged or “in a funk.”  How can you tell the difference between a temporary downturn and serious youth ministry burnout?

If it’s a temporary downturn, give yourself a break.  Return to the basics like prayer, sabbath, rest, personal time, exercise and eating right.  Find friends to talk you through things.  Have fun outside of youth work.  Seek pastoral support – and you might need to look outside of your church for this help.

If you think you might be in burnout mode, seek help.  How to tell the difference?

According to crisis intervention research*, there are 4 main areas that burnout affect: behavior, physical, interpersonal, and attitudinal. The following are the things that can be effected in each category:

– abuse of alcohol/illicit drugs
– difficulty coping with minor problems
– loss of enjoyment
– dread of work
– increased irritability/impatience
– losing things
– suicidal or homicidal ideation/attempts
– reduced work efficiency
– PTSD-like symptoms (post traumatic stress disorder)

– chronic fatigue
– insomnia
– muscle tension
– panic attacks
– weakened immune system
– flare-ups in preexisting medical conditions
– weight gain or loss
– changes in appetite

– withdrawal from family and friends
– difficulty separating professional and personal life
– decreased interest in physical or emotional intimacy
– loss of trust
– loneliness
– allowing clients (pastors/parents/youth?) to abuse your professional boundaries
– ending of long-lasting relationships
– difficulty coping with minor interpersonal problems

– boredom
– guilt
– depression
– pessimism
– helplessness
– survivor guilt
– grandiosity
– sense of meaninglessness
– self-criticism

The world needs good youth workers.  Your role as a youth pastor has the opportunity to transform lives. But the world needs you to be healthy.  Your youth and your family need you to be healthy.  If too many items on the lists above sound familiar, it may be time to take a break, reevaluate and seek help.

Be blessed,

For the veterans, have you gone through times of burnout? What got you through it?  What advice would you give to youth workers who might be experiencing burnout symptoms?

Is there anything you’d add to the list of burnout symptoms?

What do you do to stay healthy in youth ministry?

About Erin Jackson

Erin Jackson is National Director – Community & Care for the Center of Youth Ministry Excellence and the YouthWorker Movement. She is a veteran & certified youthworker as well, and loving her current role as a volunteer Senior High Bible Study teacher. She lives in Arlington, Texas with her husband Dennis, three kids and a dog. She can be found blogging at
Follow @ErinJackso

Originally published for The YouthWorker Movement, 5/8/2012.

*(Source: Cooper, J. (2010). Essential crisis intervention skills. In L. Jackson-Cherry and B. Erford (Eds.), Crisis intervention and prevention (pp. 55-71). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, p. 70.)

Can Youth Ministry really be done in 4 Hours a Week?

In 2010, our youth ministry program offered some sort of youth program (be that Sunday school, youth group, special Bible studies, retreats, trips, etc.) on 205 of the 365 days in the year.  That is just counting the number of days, not the number of programs to account for when we offered 2-3 things in a day like Sunday School in the morning and various Sunday evening programs…it was probably about 255 programs in a year.    Almost all of the programs offered were led by adults – either myself, another staff person or adult volunteers.  We had a fantastic youth leadership team and the students gave input on our plans, but if I’m really honest, most of the planning was done in our offices and most of the details were taken care of by staff.  If I say so myself, it was very professional looking, details got taken care of, we had a cool logo and everything.  I think it was run by adults because that’s what we believed we were expected to do & if it succeeded or failed, we got to hear about that first.

It wasn’t until I read the book “4-Hour Youth Ministry – Escaping the Trap of Full-Time Youth Ministry” by Timothy Eldred that I got the courage to stop the insanity.

Now, for years I’ve been on the bandwagon for having a student led ministry.  As a youth minister, I believe my job is to coach students how to develop their own gifts and to do their own ministry.  The young people I’ve known are talented, gifted, amazing, creative.  We did increase the amount of student leadership in the church, but I am almost embarrassed to admit how much of the ministry work I did when I should have been coaching students to run the show.

Tim’s book reminded me that my calling was not to run a program, essentially being like a wedding planner for youth events.  I knew this in my heart already, but I found myself caught up in working really hard to make sure programs were successful.  Sometimes implied and sometimes clearly stated, my success or failure was measured by how many people showed up, so I wanted everything to be perfect, welcoming, cool, whatever it needed to be so more people would come, and bring friends, too.

Tim points out the obvious – it’s about relationships.  And relationships don’t grow as well when you’re at a desk planning programs.  And the probably best way students can learn ministry is to do ministry first-hand.  So after lots of prayer and discussion as a staff team, we changed our ways of doing things.  We came to our student leaders with a blank summer calendar, talked about our purpose as a youth ministry, and asked the student leaders to prayerfully decide what the summer calendar would look like.  As they selected each event, they decided which students would be leading it, when they would plan the details, how they would promote it.  You could feel the excitement grow as they realized that they were really going to be in charge.

When you’ve got a team of students responsible for greeting new students and making them feel welcome, another team in charge of each aspect of the program…and you can even leave the room with no worries, that’s a beautiful thing.

Did I end up doing youth ministry in 4 hours a week after reading the book?  Maybe not immediately, but things are definitely in a healthier place.

Book review in short: it’s excellent.  It takes about 4 hours to read.  It may change your life in a very healthy way.

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.






Frayer for Youth Ministry

My oldest son just completed the 4th grade.  In his science class, they were required to complete “frayers” in their science journal.  It had been a while since I was in 4th grade, so I admit I didn’t know exactly what a frayer was when it was first assigned.  Basically, you divide your paper into four quadrants and label them – Definition, Properties, Examples, Non-examples.  So, in the case of “rocks,” for example, you have the definition in one quadrant, you can list its properties like “non-living” and “natural” in the second quadrant.  Examples could be sandstone or marble, non-examples could be minerals like quartz or diamond.  You get the idea.

As I’ve entered this phase of discernment – recently laid off from a youth ministry position, now trying to discern where God is leading me next – the idea of a frayer for my own personal role in youth ministry makes sense. 

So, if I labeled my own frayer “My Personal Ministry Passions,” here’s what you might see in the quadrants:

Definition – the areas of ministry where my personal passion and heart’s desire/sense of God’s call on my life most closely align with the work at hand

Properties –
  • these areas of ministry bring me joy
  • I’m excited about them
  • I get pumped when I see it happening
  • brings sense of fulfillment
  • I sense God getting glory through faithfully doing work I was called to do
  • Best uses my strengths/gifts/skills

Examples (things that bring me the most joy) 
  • loving on students and getting them to understand God’s grace and plan for them
  • teaching students to be leaders in ministry
  • mentoring students to find their own spiritual gifts and to discern God’s call on their lives
  • teaching students to be compassionate
  • inspiring others to do something about injustice
  • having a heart for youthworkers who are in desperate need for self-care, mentors and pastoral care to keep from burning out in an often misunderstood profession
  • helping others through mission work (Mission trip, 30 Hour Famine)
  • teaching junior high Bible study
  • inspiring youth to read their own Bible
  • creating spiritual retreats and other moments to bring students closer to Christ
  • trying new adventures
Non-examples (things that do NOT bring me the most joy)
  • Sitting in staff meetings
  • Church politics
  • Paperwork
  • Missing out on personal Sabbath, Bible study, worship, pastoral care
  • Sitting at my computer/desk
  • Counting heads instead of monitoring spiritual growth
  • Leading a group in song (those who’ve heard me sing will attest)
  • Too much time away from family
  • Most technical support things like running the sound board


This frayer concept might be helpful in bringing clarity to other decision making processes – I could see this helping youth to figure out what God might be calling them to do with their lives.  After all, adolescence is a time of figuring out who we are and how we fit in God’s Kingdom – what about a frayer to define who you are/who you desire to be?  


Each of us have been given unique gifts from God to be used in this lifetime – why settle for something that’s just okay when something truly awesome could be an option?


Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts to share/other ideas where this could be used.


Love in Christ,


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.