As a thirty-year veteran of DCE ministry, I have to admit that I have continually struggled with the issue of over-commitment and burnout. I have read many articles on the topic and made numerous attempts to create healthy boundaries in my ministry. However, I really hadn’t thought much about which areas were most vital to “survival” in the area of parish education and youth ministry until someone recently asked me to list my top ten ways to avoid burnout. While my list comes from my personal experience as a DCE, it is crucial to remember that those in ministry are role models, not only to the participants of our programs, but also to the many whom volunteer and work along side us. Are we allowing others to risk burnout in their volunteer ministry because we over-commit and can’t say, “No!”?
With that in mind; let’s consider practical ways to avoid burnout in the field of youth ministry. It comes with the prayer that you will intentionally seek to protect yourself, and your volunteers, from permanent burnout.
1. Develop a personal mission statement. If you attended one of the Concordia Universities, chances are you had to write a personal mission statement for one of your classes. So, where is it? Dig it out and read it. If you don’t have one, then sit down after reading the rest of this list and write one. Success in ministry is not granted to the chosen few, but comes from identifying your goals in ministry. It gives you a clearer sense of direction. Certainly it is our goal to serve Christ; but what specifically does that look like? A personal mission statement defines who you are, what you stand for and your ministry goals. Write one and keep it in a place in your office where you can look at it daily. It’s a rudder that keeps you on course.
2. Demand personal excellence. Now don’t misread this to say “Demand perfection.” Ted Engstrom, in his book The Pursuit of Excellence defines excellence in ministry as involving discipline and tenacity. He goes on to say that excellence is based on failure, usually one failure after another. We have all failed in our ministry attempts, some miserably. Yet we learn more from those failures than we do from our successes. Accept those failures as a measurement of growth, not as an example of defeat. Don’t give up; stay put and make those corrections. Each attempt after that will get better and better and you will learn more and more.
3. Plan to stay for the long haul. Why is it that even though we know we are in a relational ministry and that relationships take years to develop, we are always seeing “greener grass” someplace else? In those down times, fight off the urge to leave. Instead, make three and six month goals, as well as one and three year goals. But remember, goals are goals. Not achieving all of your goals doesn’t mean defeat. While you’re setting those professional goals, include some personal ones, too, that involve keeping yourself healthy, both physically and emotionally. While doing that, seek an annual review or evaluation from your congregation. Use this as an opportunity to review your job description and commitments and as a means to help keep you accountable for only those areas you are responsible for.
4. Remember your call. On the heels of point #3, I offer this. While it is sometimes said that youth workers are “Jacks of all trades, and ace of none,” don’t fall into that trap. You can’t, and don’t have to be, all things to all people. God has called you and given you the opportunity to use your gifts to serve His church. Lead to your strengths and staff to your weaknesses. Never doubt the importance of your ministry and don’t become a “numbers person.” Trying to make everyone happy can only create doubt and failure on your end.
5. Set personal time for yourself, your family and God. While you’re setting those goals in #3, remember to keep your day off as “sacred” and use it for non-job related opportunities. Perhaps that means time with your spouse and/or children, time with friends or just time alone. Use it for rest and relaxation; it is a time to keep healthy, both physically and emotionally. Why not set up a “date night” with your spouse or friends or use it to pursue your hobby or avocation. Just don’t go to the office, even for ten minutes. Those minutes become hours, sometimes an entire day. In the same manner, plan a personal devotional/prayer time. Employ the spiritual disciplines of solitude, prayer, meditation, study or fasting to keep you connected and spiritually filled. You can’t keep going and feeding others without making sure you are filled. While that may happen during Sunday worship, the pressures of ministry can be very draining. Pray for yourself and your ministry.
6. Establish networking. Find other church workers in your area and plan to meet with them regularly for study, prayer and support. While most districts provide circuit meetings for pastors, many also have “cluster groups of DCEs and youth workers. Take the time to meet with them and form a covenant or accountability group. This group can also be one that listens to your hurts and joys and encourages you through words and prayers. If one doesnt existstart one!
7. Plan on continuing education. What a difference this can make! While most of us have the “tools of the trade” through our undergraduate degree or experience in the parish, seeking an advanced degree, certification, attending conferences or reading up on the latest trends in ministry can energize us and our ministry. See what is available and approach your congregation about financial support. It can pay off big dividends.
8. Grow a congregation that values ministry. While this one may take some trial, error and prayer, you can help your congregation learn to value ministry. Bill Karpenko used to say that we spend the first year or two of our call in educating the congregation to what a youth worker is and does. Be physically visible and allow the congregation to know your personal needs. If you take your day off and your vacation as provided, it helps the congregation understand the value of that time off. Share your need for time off for family emergencies, deaths in the family and the birth of a new baby. Don’t be afraid to ask for financial support for a home loan, ROTH IRA contributions or adequate salary. Don’t assume that the congregation is insensitive to your needs; perhaps they just haven’t been informed.
9. Maintain support of your team. While team ministry is the goal of all DCE/youth workers, it takes intentionality and time. A team learns to trust through the loyalty of co-workers and positive relationships. Such teaming comes from regular meetings, prayer time and fellowship events where spouses and families are participants. Don’t assume that teaming can only be with called staff. You are a team with your volunteers. Meet with them to develop those trusting and caring relationships that can carry you through those down times.
10. Keep a file of “Thank Yous.” Finally, if you don’t do anything else, incorporate this suggestion. My walls are filled with matchstick crosses, newspaper clippings, plaques, photos and pictures that were given to me as gifts of appreciation. In my desk is a file folder of notes and cards of thanks, many from several years ago. On those “dark days” when I feel very ineffective and overworked, I look at those memories and remember whom I am really serving. God has blessed me by using me in His ministry to those who need to hear His word or feel His touch through my hug or smile. That’s enough to keep me focused and energized once again.