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Friday, August 24, 2012

How to Prevent Burnout in Ministry

I was recently interviewed by CalledToYouthMinistry.com about thinking about and preparing for how to avoid burnout as the school year begins. The roundtable discussion is found here.

But I'll give my full responses below. I pray for any of you who read this and are in youth ministry and say, Slow and steady stays in the race. Give these disciplines a high priority. Just like the safety drill on the airplane tells you to put on your oxygen mask first before helping others, it's crucial to maintain persistent self-care in order to be truly available to others.

Here goes!

"Don't Burnout This Time Around - How to Prepare for a New Year of Ministry."


A new year of ministry is ahead. It's exciting... and intimidating. How do you plan on dealing with burnout this year?

I have practiced 4 things that have sustained me very well. I suffered major burnout in my 3rd year of vocational ministry, nearly crashed out of ministry, and mentors helped learn how to apply these important habits to foster sustainable ministry:

  • consistent (as in weekly) days off; 
  • Sabbath-keeping (learning how the Bible and church history understands it); 
  • scheduled vacations that focused on rest and recreation, not just exhausting adventure.
  • keeping track of how many weekends I am expected or asked to be gone, and saying no to things so that I am not gone more than one weekend per month.

What situations tend to really make you feel burned out? How do you deal with them?

I am burned out mostly by three things:

1. running events, which require the management of loads of details, demand constant flexibility and adaptability, and run the risk of being amazingly successful or dreadfully horrible! I know how to run events rather well, but did not realize that so many plates spinning at once create a great deal of stress for me. If I'm not careful to allow some margin between events, I rapidly lose steam and become short-tempered and quite unpleasant.

2. camp, which is just about the most effective tool we have in youth ministry, but absolutely exhausts me now that I'm older (I'm 51). As I got older, I realized I just needed more boundaries in my work with students. In other words, I needed more personal space to sleep well and recuperate from the never-ending line-up of activities, conversations, lousy food, dirt and dust, and spiritual intensity. After the age of 40 I worked with the camps to allow for me to stay in a room by myself. The leaders, all much younger by and large, were very supportive and understanding. Having a separate room allowed for me to have meetings with leaders and offered a space for them to get some rest as well.

3. crisis and conflict, which are obviously draining. I have found that these events sometimes come in clusters, and cumulatively create a massive need for recovery as I seek to be available to students, families, friends, etc.

To really stay refreshed, our walk with the Lord needs to stay healthy. What advice would you give the youth leader that's dealing with burnout to keep their foundation strong?

I think that my response to the first question mostly addresses this one too. However, I would add that huge chunk of the problem is due to a lack of clarity in regard to job descriptions and time management. Most youth workers lack clear expectations in terms of what there job actually is, and even if they have a realistic job description, this information is not shared with parents, who then place their own uninformed demands on the youth ministry. Furthermore, I have found that the majority of those in vocational ministry (not just youth pastors, but senior pastors are equally guilty) do a terrible job of managing their time well. They are reactive and crisis-orientated, giving in to the "tyranny of the urgent," rather than focusing on healthy, proactive projects and priorities.


  1. yes. yes. and yes. ya know, change a view details details, add in some different culture contexts and it also applies perfectly how to not have missionary burn out. will you email me this link once a year? : )

    1. Ah Michelle... thanks for reading, thanks for doing what you're doing with Gerber. What a blessing! PS My plantain chips came in the mail today.... happy happy.