The Complete How and Why Behind Youth-Ministry Burnout

The Complete How and Why Behind Youth-Ministry Burnout

I started Smarter Youth Ministry more than three years ago…

…specifically so that I could one day write this very article.

I’ve spent countless hours researching ministry burnout, interviewing youth workers, and testing theories and ideas.

Today, I’m rolling back the most significant discovery yet:

exactly how burnout happens, and what you can do to stop it.

We’ve finally identified the precise behaviors and warning signs that will put you on a path to burnout.

You guys, this is a really big deal. For years, burnout was just “something that happened” when youth workers were overworked and unappreciated.

But when I dug into it, I started to realize that all of these stories sounded the same. Burnout victims followed the same patterns time after time…

…until I discovered that I could predict how much longer a given person would stay in ministry before something drastic happened.

It was almost eerie how good I got at this.

Then I realized something else. If we could identify the precursors to burnout in our own lives and do something about them before it was too late, could we stop burnout altogether?

You bet we can.

If you know enough to realize you’re burning out,

you already know enough to stop that from happening.

I started Smarter Youth Ministry with the mission of ending the epidemic of youth-worker burnout. By that gauge, these next paragraphs might be the most important thing I’ve ever written.

Read them a few times. Print them out. Bookmark this page. Definitely share this with a friend.

The totally predictable burnout cycle:

The first precursor to burnout is discouragement.

This surprised me. I thought for sure that overwork would be on this list, but it’s not. I’ve spoken with literally dozens of overworked youth pastors who were doing just fine. It’s the discouraged ones I’m worried about.

I define discouragement as the belief that things cannot or will not get better.

Discouraged youth workers are interested in complaining about problems instead of trying to find solutions. You’ll know if you’re in a conversation with a discouraged youth worker because when you try to offer advice or support for their problems…

…all they do is generate reason after reason after reason why those things won’t work.

And if you’re already a very discouraged youth worker, you’re probably not too far from heading into this next thing.

The second precursor to burnout is increased time-wasting.

Youth workers who are creeping closer and closer to a burnout-related breakdown typically spend more time at the office, but get less work done.

Discouraged youth workers fall into this trap at an alarming rate. Work becomes a chore. Ministry becomes a drag.

And when we’re faced with a job that we don’t feel like doing, we react the same way we reacted when we were faced with a term paper we didn’t feel like doing…

We procrastinate, and if you’ve got a computer in your office, you know how easy it is to fall into a YouTube trail for three hours before you come out.

We all do things like check Twitter and watch the occasional Jimmy Fallon video, but if you are regularly wasting an hour a day or more, you’re speeding down the path toward burnout.

(This is also the stage where people get fired. A pessimistic attitude paired with unproductive work habits doesn’t generally make for a very good employee.)

The final precursor is the development of unhealthy habits.

This one is actually directly related to the second one. Increased time-wasting means that the important stuff gets put off until the last minute.

The next thing you know, you’re at the office late, trying to get all the stuff done that you should have done this morning.

When this happens regularly enough, you’ll begin to develop some truly awful physical habits, usually any or all of the following:

Intake of more caffeine than usual.

Eating fast food more often than usual or at odd hours.

Sleeping too little, or on a very irregular schedule.

Less exercise and/or exposure to sunlight than usual.

These things alone provide the most accurate predictor of ministry burnout. If these warning signs currently describe you, do not ignore them.

In my interviews and conversations with burnout victims, one line that I heard over and over again was that it “just felt like my body was shutting down.” It turns out that, most of the time, it actually was!

The worst part is that these unhealthy habits serve to exacerbate the effects of the first two items. Your attitude becomes worse, your work ethic tanks, you become more lackadaisical and even less energetic…

…all because of the changes wrought to your diet and lifestyle.

Then, burnout happens, totally and explosively.

Given the load of evidence, this isn’t that surprising, is it?

Discouraged youth workers who’ve developed unproductive work habits walking around in bodies with rapidly depleted physical systems?

It’s actually amazing that youth workers in this state can make it through a few days, let alone a few months.

But it’s usually not much more than that. If you’re in this place, and you somehow avoid being fired for it, you’ll probably not last much longer before you quit, resign or just stop showing up.

Continuing to do ministry through a depleted spiritual and physical state is not a workable plan.

If you can understand the symptoms of burnout, then you already know what you need to do to fix them, but here’s the real quick guide to burnout course correction.

How to stop burnout in its tracks:

Get an immediate attitude adjustment.

If you’re a ministry complainer, then do your best to stop that altogether, but more importantly, decide to be the kind of person who tries to solve problems…

…instead of shooting down every new idea without ever giving it a shot.

I can’t promise that every piece of advice you receive will work, but I can tell you that it will work better than merely complaining.

Block all of your distractions.

Use a web extension if you have to, but make certain that YouTube and every other time-wasting website is off-limits. Then, reward yourself for getting everything done that needs to get done, and spend your extra time doing something you really enjoy.

Take care of yourself.

Listen, I’m not a diet guru, and I don’t want to pretend to be. But if you’re treating your body worse than you usually do, don’t be surprised when it responds worse than it usually does. Take a walk, eat a salad, get a good night’s sleep. Do that for three days and see if you don’t start to feel better.

Here’s the most important thing that you’ll do today:

Help out your friends and the whole youth-ministry world by sharing this post. Send emails, schedule tweets, do whatever you can to get this information into the hands and heads of everyone who does ministry.

Seriously, do it right now. I’ll wait.

Did you share it? OK, good.

Then the last thing I want you to do is leave a comment below and tell me ONE STEP that you’re going to take TODAY to make sure that you stay off of that burnout path.

I love you guys. Take care of yourselves, OK?

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Aaron Helman
Aaron Helman is on a mission to help end the epidemic of youth worker burnout. He writes at Smarter Youth Ministry to help youth workers with their biggest frustrations – things like leading volunteers, managing money, and communicating effectively. He is also the youth minister at Firehouse Youth Ministries in South Bend, Indiana.