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Soul Care: Is American-Style Youth Ministry Killing Your Soul?

By David Olshine | Director of Youth Ministry, Family and Culture, Columbia International University, S.C.; Co-Founder, Youth Ministry Coaches (YouthMinCoaches). | March 6 2011

These are the words of Ben, a youth worker who spent almost eight years serving one church:

"[Youth ministry] took its toll on me. It wore me out over time. It was slow erosion. I was constantly fatigued; beat up emotionally, spiritually, mentally and physically. My marriage felt like it was on life support at times. I was missing my kids sporting events. I had little to give to our students and families as the ministry continued to drain me. I do not blame the church. I take responsibility for my failures and my poor margins. Three areas nearly cost me my life."

Ben told me the three soul killers in American-style youth ministry had done him in.

1) Youth Pastor as Superstar

"I enjoyed being the star of the show sometimes. I liked being needed. In fact, I am wondering if I went into student ministry because I needed to be needed.

"I hate to admit it, but sometimes I liked being called late at night to be Superman in a crisis. I enjoyed the idea of teens admiring me, parents praising me and my community sending kudos my way. My head got big, way too big. I started believing in a false way that I was Messiah-like and that I could really fix people. It got out of control.

"I became center stage, a ministry addict; and the church was my mistress. I was obsessed with me and doing ministry. I had trouble delegating, and I found myself getting angry all the time. In fact, I began seeing a Christian therapist my last year of church ministry. One day, he asked me a series of questions.

'Why are you so angry?'

'Did you go into ministry angry, or did the ministry create the anger?'

'What are you really angry about?'"

After months of counseling, Ben came to the conclusion that he was tired of being superstar.

"I wanted off the pedestal. One night I fell apart, sobbing on the couch with my wife. She was totally supportive. I decided to put the superstar out of his misery. I buried Superman and put him out of his pathetic misery.

"I told my pastor and elders two days later that I was finished. The ministry needed to go on without me. My soul had nothing more to give. I was dried up and the superstar in me was done."

2) Replacing Parents as the Primary Nurturers

"Our youth ministry started thinking that parents did not care about spiritual nurture for their children, so we took on the baton of leadership and ran with it. It was a huge mistake."

Ben, as do others, interpreted Numbers 6 (the Shema) as a call for professionals to lead children and youth in faith development, not their parents.

"We bought into the lie that as youth workers we were the main spiritual transformers of teenagers. We are not! We are to assist the families, walk alongside them; but never should we take away the authority God gave the family. Parents naturally will abdicate their spiritual role if the church wants to run with it. In the long run, this is what started to burn me out."

3) The Proliferation of Programming

The final back breaker for Ben was the increase of programs.

"We competed with families. We had 52 Sunday School meetings, 48 Sunday nights, 45 Wednesday nights, plus extra-curricular events such as game nights, three retreats a year, plus four different mission trips during the course of a year. One parent figured out that we were offering almost 290 days worth of programs in a year. Fill the calendar with events. Keep adding on stuff. My volunteers were weary, and my well had run dry."

Ben, Revisited

I met with Ben recently to see how he was doing after leaving youth ministry.

"I am recovering. My soul is awakening again. New life has been breathed into our marriage. I have no night meetings; my weekends are freed up; and I am actually reading the Bible for my own growth, not for sermon preparation."

I asked Ben if he thought the three soul killers could be tamed.

"Yes I think it's possible, he said. Break them before they break you."

"So, what can youth workers do about this?" I asked.

"That is what they need to figure out," he said.

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