I wouldn’t have known what to call it then, what questions to ask, or what to say since it wasn’t even a topic on my radar. But looking back at that ministry, I would have framed it around the topic of boundaries and self-care. The only pastoral advice I had been given at the time was “Take a day off if you come back from a retreat or mission trip” (self-care), and “Be careful as a single college director working with female college students” (boundaries). That was it, and unfortunately, I think that too often that is the extent of what most youth pastors will be taught in this area.
It was a lack of self-care and boundaries early on that I think eventually burned me out and left me passionless for a ministry and a group of students I really loved. I began college ministry in 2001 as a single guy, transitioning to marriage in 2005, and to fatherhood in 2007. Those were transitions that were made all the harder because I had not done the work early on of establishing healthy pastoral and ministry boundaries, and when those are weak, one’s self-care is usually left floundering in the wake.
No one had helped guide me in that transition from single pastor to married pastor, and once again, I found myself alone stumbling about trying to figure out how to be a pastor who was now a father. I didn’t know who to talk to, and I watched – feeling almost as an outside observer – as the ministry slowly dwindled. I was incapable of putting forth the energy to carry out what little vision I could muster.
Those who are single in youth ministry are notorious for lacking clear ministry boundaries and not taking care of themselves. And churches are often co-conspirators in the process, taking advantage of those who are not married, expecting them to do twice the work since “no one is at home waiting for them.” I can adamantly say that if one doesn’t establish those boundaries and self-care at the outset of the ministry, they will only be playing catch-up, and the symptoms will only be exacerbated in marriage.
As I write this article almost two years removed, I am beginning to have more clarity on the situation, and my full-time work as a marriage and family therapist and part-time work on a youth staff have helped shed light on some things that went wrong. If I could sit down with a youth staff (and I often do), here are some very elementary things I would say.
First, your identity, in life and pastorally, flows out of your relationship with God, not out of the things you do in ministry or the students you minister to. Too many youth staff receive their sense of self from the events they plan and the number of students they have in their group. And unfortunately, what I see more frequently is youth staff whose identity consists more out of the students they work with (students liking them, affirming them) than having a real sense of their own identity. I would recommend that all youth staff read Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus, and Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor.
Second, establish clear expectations and boundaries with your supervisors and with your students you minister to. If you don’t do this, then you will continue to model bad boundaries to your students. Students need you but not as much as you think. Some youth staff need them more than the other way around. Establish days off and take them. Establish working hours and stick with them. Take personal retreats. Youth ministry has some odd hours, but you need to find a rhythm. You need to take a Sabbath, turn off technology at night and days off. You need to exercise. I would recommend that all youth staff read Anne Jackson’s Mad Church Disease.
Third, establish healthy boundaries with your family (spouse, kids) and friends. Do your family and friends have priority over your ministry? Are you home for dinner most nights of the week? Are you truly present with your family when you are around, or are you always checking e-mail, your phone, and letting work bleed over into your family life? Talk to your spouse about her/his happiness with your job and your marriage. Is he/she satisfied, and what would they suggest you change? Much research shows that spouses have a less favorable few of their marriage than the spouse who is in ministry. Remind your church that they hired you, not your spouse. This is your job, not theirs (sure, they can help and volunteer, but it shouldn’t be an expectation). Keep open communication with your spouse about your marriage, because ministry is one of those vocations where pastors often get into marital trouble when the sense of self they value is the one that is reflected back to them by those they pastor to, rather than radiating from within. This is a blind spot that has set many youth pastors up for affairs. I would recommend that all youth staff read Roberta Gilbert’s Extraordinary Relationships and Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s Boundaries.
Fourth, reach out to others and establish an environment on staff where boundaries and self-care can be openly discussed. There is great fear in many church circles, especially evangelical ministries, about openly admitting to struggle, burnout, and failure. Many fear they will lose their job or will be looked at differently. Reach out to a counselor or spiritual director, someone who was trained to equip people in these areas.
All of this can seem a bit overwhelming, but I will suggest to you that if you don’t get a handle on healthy boundaries and self-care early on in your ministry, you most likely won’t get a handle on them later, and you set yourself up for burnout and deterioration of the ministry and your relationships.