I will never forget the shocking words my youth pastor shared when I told him excitedly that I was called into ministry: “You will go through stresses that you do not think are even possible, whatever you do, pace yourself and keep God number one.” Okay, so at the time, his response seemed a bit ‘doom and gloom’, I mean I was rearing to go but he cared enough to be honest about one of the greatest challenges we face in ministry – stress and potential burnout.

Burnout: that which must not be named

In my years of youth ministry, I have experienced first-hand and seen with those around me that burnout caused by ministry stress is very real. Unfortunately, it is a topic that many youth pastors do not always want to speak about because it means that they have to be vulnerable. The truth is that many youth pastors will face or come close to burnout at some time in their ministry life. Burnout is traumatic, and the consequences are traumatic and often lived over and over for years, even resulting in the end of a youth pastor’s ministry.

The new ministry normal

As I am writing this, we as a country have just come out of level 2 lockdown, but the stress of doing things differently is still all around us. Schools are still closing sporadically to deep sanitise; parents are still reluctant to let their kids come to church and as youth pastors, we are trying to make the best out of a very difficult situation. However, all this stress we face can lead to ministry burnout quickly.  

For me, I must say that I long for the days of old. Ministry was just so much simpler. We could go into schools, support our young people at sports matches, spend time with them socially. But Covid-19 has stolen all that from us. Schools are no longer as receptive to “outsiders” coming in, sports have been cancelled and there is this new thing called social distancing.

The source of our stress

As a youth pastor, I have placed a great deal of stress on myself. I often compare what I used to be able to do with what I have been able to do with all the restrictions over the last year and half. I seem to be busier now than I ever was before. Often I plan for one thing and then things change. This only adds to the stress that I find myself under.

I think many of us are finding ourselves in this place which leads to stress. Stress because of the change that not only we but our young people face almost daily. Stress because we feel helpless in the face of all this change and feel like we should be doing more. Increased stress because the global pandemic has revealed ‘weaknesses’ in our ministry.

A comforting truth for this unprecedented time

When we read Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, there is a thought that we need to hold onto and grasp at this unprecedented time:

“Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Romans 8:35-39 NLT

In view of this truth, we must realise that often we are the ones putting the pressure on ourselves. We get trapped into thinking: “How are we going to do this? How am I going to do ministry?” Instead, we should be relying on the Holy Spirt to take the little that we can do to grow God’s kingdom (not our own kingdom or ego).

So how do we protect ourselves from this stress? What disciplines can we put into place to protect us?

Be nourished with God’s word daily

We need to be spending time in God’s word daily.

“No Spiritual discipline is more important than the intake of God’s Word. Nothing can substitute for it. There simply is no healthy Christian life apart from a diet of the milk and meat of scripture.”

Donald Whitney

This quote reminds me so much of what 1 Peter 2:2 highlights for us “Like new-born babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment…” (1 Peter 2:2 NLT). God’s word nourishes us and how can we ever share the Gospel with our young people if we are not being nourished with it ourselves? God’s word also does more than just nourish us, it gives us direction: “Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119: 105 NLT).

Spend time with God

We need to spend time in prayer. We see that this was a priority for Jesus, “One day soon afterward Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night” (Luke 6:12 NLT). Jesus knew that he needed to not only read the scriptures but to spend time with the Father. If we are genuine about our relationship with God, we need to be spending intimate time with God in prayer.

Rely on the Holy Spirit

We need to rely on the Holy Spirt. So often we have this thought that I need to do more, and we place a great deal of pressure on ourselves. However, we tend to forget that it is not up to us. We are called to do our part and the Holy Spirit will do what only the Holy Spirit can do.

Paul got this.

“Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. For we are both God’s workers. And you are God’s field. You are God’s building.”

1 Corinthians 3: 5b-9 NLT

If God can speak the sun into existence when He said, “Let there be light”, I am sure that God can and still will do amazing things during this global pandemic. Yes, things change all the time but if we are faithful in doing the small bit that we can then God will do the growing.

Find a mentor

Then finally, we are not called to a faith that is isolated. Even when we look at God, we see that he was in relationship: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Jesus had His disciples. Paul mentored Timothy and Titus.

So often we fall into a place of stress and despair because we are trying to push through by ourselves.

We all know that in youth ministry we need to be discipling our young people, but let me ask the question, “Who is discipling you?”

If we read Paul’s letter to both Timothy (1 Timothy 5:1) and Titus (Titus 2: 1-8) we see the value that Paul places on having a mentor in your life. Someone that you can call upon to tell you when you are dropping the ball, someone that can encourage you and most importantly someone that can ensure that you’re doing your daily disciplines.

The PTSD of youth ministry

To help me during this pandemic and ensure that I do not fall into that place that I once found myself, a place of hurt and stress that almost saw me leaving ministry, I’ve chosen to bring another meaning to the acronym PTSD. As you know, it stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a very real thing and I’m certainly not making lite of it but for me now, I use it to help me remember to:

P – Pray daily

T – Time, spend time in God’s word daily.

S – Spirit, rely on God’s Spirit and cut myself some slack

D – Discipleship, ensure that I have a mentor who speaks truth into my life.

So, if you are in a place of stress, nearing burnout, I would like to encourage you that one of the tools that you can use are these four disciplines to help you not only during this Global pandemic, but with ministry in general.