This young youth worker had been at her church for a couple of years, but this was the first time we were able to carve out time to chat.
Up to that point, we spoke of the usual things: involvement, small group curriculum options, mission and service projects, how excited we were about the Instagram multi-account update. I had just asked her a question, and everything had come to an awkward, grinding halt.
That terrible query? “What do you do for fun? What refills you?”
Among the biggest challenges leaders face is making the intentional time and space for genuine renewal. My theory is this stems as much from feelings of isolation as from any lack of conviction of it being necessary. In fact, we spend considerable time nurturing the growth of relationships for the teenagers we serve. We are fully aware of the need and value of community.
There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence that youth leaders and their families battle loneliness, which leads to burnout, moral failure, weakened marriages, and depressed youth workers. There are plenty of stories; we all know someone. Maybe we are someone.
“No one understands what it is like,” says the isolating lie.
What is missing?
“I don’t really have people for that,” the youth worker across the table from me whispered. “Plus, there’s always work to do.”
Genuine community is essential to the thriving, authentic Christian life—yours and mine included. Eugene Peterson wrote it this way:
I didn’t come to the conviction easily, but finally there was no getting around it: there can be no maturity in the spiritual life, no obedience in following Jesus, no wholeness in the Christian life apart from immersion and embrace of community. I am not myself by myself. Community, not the highly vaunted individualism of our culture, is the setting in which Christ is at play.1
For myriad reasons—internal and external pressures—leaders are urged to find meaningful relationships in our lives. Expectations are high. This risk of authenticity often looms large inside our own churches. (Sheep bite, you know.) Then there are task lists, office hours, lesson plans, volunteers, staff meetings, games and concerts, and that nag in our guts that we really ought to eat dinner at home at least one night this week. These are the destroyers of our margin in addition to being part and parcel of our work. These are the encroaching hordes.
Yet we know better. It’s a substantial part of our vocation to facilitate the development of meaningful community among those we serve: students, parents, families. It has such a high priority that we are frustrated by everything that prevents any particular student on any particular day from being present. That one stings a little.
We strive to develop the kind of community where disciples are encouraged to continue the journey, safe spaces for faith and doubts to be explored, for Jesus to have reign. The temptation is to believe that facilitating those experiences and attending the staff retreat constitutes sufficient effort to meet that need in our own discipleship. It doesn’t.
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ,” we are instructed in Galatians 6:2. We need community, too. Where do we find it?
Suspend the objection that you/I/we don’t have time. We all have the same number of hours in the day, which we apportion according to our chosen priorities. Most of us would say that we prioritize similar to: God first, family second, ministry third. Pause and ask yourself—in fact, go look at yourself in the mirror and ask—if this is actually true. Yes? Sometimes? Not often? Just plain no?
Developing meaningful community for ourselves requires establishing appropriate boundaries for some of these other areas and then being intentional about what we add. Frequently, we will have to say no to good things to make time for the great ones. We have to be intentional and committed to prioritizing our health. No one else can do that for us! (Isn’t that what we teach our students about their discipleship?) I’ll borrow a vintage Michael Hyatt point about priority setting: “Get off your butt.” Identify your own excuses to positive change in order to move past them. It’s worth it.
3 Priorities of Intentional Community
- You and God
Nurture your own relationship with God by engaging in a small group or Bible study that you do not lead. If you are married, maybe that is a couples group. Perhaps it is an accountability group of two or three who study the Bible, pray together and sharpen one another.
For some, it is time with an in-person mentor, counselor or spiritual director in order to ensure the safety some of us don’t experience within our own congregations. These relationships give us space to decompress in confidentiality but also to lean into ways to be emotionally and spiritually healthier without fear. Spiritual directors are especially gifted at helping a person discover (or remember) how you best connect with God.
Everything else we do flows out of this relationship, including our marriages, friendships, with our students and more. It matters.
- You and Friends
Invest in friendships outside of ministry. In my interactions with youth workers across the country, this is the hardest one. Often a person will feel guilty for taking time to do non-spiritual things. Our capacity to befriend, love, to be refreshed by others is highly spiritual.
So, what to do? First, always take someone along! What are your interests and hobbies? Do you hike, hunt, fish, geocache, ride or run? How about cheer for your own kids alongside other parents? Become a part of a neighborhood group such as the PTA, book club or neighborhood association. Woodwork, sew, paint, create, cook. Play or watch sports. Join a self-development club such as Toastmasters or community organization such as or Rotary.
Make your marriage a priority by setting apart regular time to listen, talk, pray, plan and dream together. Invest in your family: play, volunteer, make memories, have adventures. Take vacations! Be disconnected from outside demands for the sake of these people.
- You and Youth Workers
Develop or engage in a professional support network. Who are the people in your community who also invest in students? Connect with them regularly to build relationships with people who get you and have similar joys and challenges.
Take the risk of cooperating together to share the load of some of the larger events you have on your calendars (e.g., retreats, mission trips, service days, camps). There is perspective to be gained in cooperation; it’s also a way to promote unity in your city or town. Oh, and make friends.
My friend from the coffee shop? She took a personal retreat day last month, as well as joined a Bible study. While it was tough to make the time, then took a bit for her to stop feeling as if she had to take the lead (Giftedness and habit are hard to resist.), she is growing in community there. In addition, she joined a running club and is getting faster while making friends. She has attended the local youth worker network and plans to participate in an upcoming event. She’s quick to say it’s still a balancing act, but she’s finding the community life-giving in ways the striving never was. These small changes have given her fresh perspective and more energy to put into her youth ministry.
“Community multiplied me,” she recently texted me.
1 Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), p. 226.
Patti Gibbons is the discipleship coordinator for the National Network of Youth Ministries. She has been a youth leader for more than 25 years…but doesn’t like pizza. She lives in Albany, N.Y., has two amazing young-adult kids and one pretty great husband.