I started my first job in youth ministry a month after I got married, at a church that was 40-miles from my apartment. The commute made for long days. On Sundays, we left for church at dawn, worshiped, taught Sunday School, and then stayed through the evening for youth group, returning home just in time to collapse into bed, exhausted.
Long days gave my husband and me little time to invest in making new friends. Because we were fresh out of college and had just moved to the Chicago suburbs, for the first time in four years, we were also no longer surrounded by old friends. Essentially, we were friendless.
So we threw ourselves into our work—him into his job as a software engineer and me into my work in youth ministry. Because we loved our work, neither of us minded working long hours. I still remember coming home from a full day in the office only to settle down on the couch, curled up with a youth ministry book, frantically trying to learn how to do youth ministry.
What’s more, my desire to please people made it difficult for me to say no to anyone or anything, including people and things I should have been saying no to, especially things that had nothing to do with my job description. Instead of cautioning me, people in my congregation—including the youth board that was supposed to have my back—praised me for my hard work. The more I did, the more accolades I received. The more accolades I received, the more my Messiah complex grew. I became increasingly convinced that I could do it all and could do it on my own.
Before long, youth ministry became my entire life.
That’s never good.
When ministry becomes your life, everything else—including your family, relationship with God, friendships, passions, interests and hobbies—suffers. When ministry becomes your entire life, you’re on the fast track toward burnout or worse, a deadly fall from the leadership pedestal.
Nevertheless, that danger doesn’t seem to stop us.
We throw ourselves into our all-consuming work, expecting to emerge unscathed because we’re doing God’s work.
Eventually, though, we’re harmed.
We grow weary.
We become emotionally, spiritually and physically exhausted, unsure if ministry is the right fit for us.
However, rest easy. It doesn’t have to be this way.
As youth workers, we need to learn to work more effectively so we not only survive but thrive in ministry, as well as in life. To do so, cultivate the following 12 practices and habits.
1. Pattern your week. While many youth workers I know bristle at the thought of maintaining a schedule, most of us need routine. One of the most effective strategies I’ve developed for weekly productivity is to use broad strokes to pattern my week. When I know that Mondays are for prepping Wednesday nights; Tuesdays are for meetings and administrative tasks; Wednesdays are for finalizing that evening’s program, as well as prepping bigger, upcoming one-time events and leader’s training; and Thursdays are for prepping Sunday programs, I waste a lot less time each day trying to figure out exactly what I should be working on for maximum effectiveness.
2. Harness your creative energy. If you don’t already know when you’re most creative, spend time figuring it out. For a month, chart your time. Instead of just logging what you do, also log when you’re most energetic and when you have the most ideas. After years of paying attention to these things, I’ve learned that I am, without a doubt, most creative in the mornings. I tend to drag right after lunch and into the afternoon, and then I get another burst of energy in the evenings. Because I know this, I use my mornings for my creative work—writing lessons, training, talks, etc.—and my afternoons for meetings with kids and parents, as well as administrative tasks that are necessary but require much less brain power. By harnessing my focus and creativity, I can write a lesson in two to three hours. In contrast, if I use my afternoons—the time when I drag the most—to do these same things it takes me two to three days.
3. Only work two-thirds of each day. Divide each work day into thirds: Morning, afternoon, and evening. Work only two of them. Don’t spend your remaining third feeling guilty about not working. Sure, your church secretary might question why you’re not in the office on Wednesday afternoon, but she’s also probably not there Wednesday night.
4. Do work each day that replenishes you. Within the two-thirds of each day that you work, do something that replenishes you. As an introvert, staff meetings drain me. I also despise finances. Yet, both of those are things I do on Tuesdays. As a result, I also spend Tuesday afternoons mentoring a student, a task that is one of my favorite parts of my job. Looking forward to that one-on-one meeting with my student propels me through the drudgery of administrative tasks and ensures that I’m not completely drained when I get home to my family on Tuesday nights.
5. Turn off social media. None of us are as good at multi-tasking as we think we are. So during your work times, turn off email and social media unless they’re directly involved in the task at hand. Rather than flip back and forth between your work and social media, check and respond to social media during only one or two designated times a day. This streamlines your day and makes you more efficient throughout.
6. Have a clear end time. Ministry is difficult for a hundred reasons. One reason is that it never actually ends. For that reason, as much as possible, establish a clear end time to your work day. Knowing you have a clear end time (or an afternoon off on a day when you’ve got an evening program) increases your productivity during the time you’re working. It motivates you to power through so you truly can relax during your time off. For that to work, though, you actually have to stop working during whatever third of the day you’ve got off. Despite how simple that sounds, it’s not. I still think about all the time off during my rookie year in youth ministry that I spent reading books about youth ministry. Although reading is an activity that recharges me, reading a book about youth ministry inevitably caused me to do other things that didn’t. As I read, I’d get ideas about a teaching topic or an event. Fearing I’d forget those ideas unless I wrote them down, I’d turn on my laptop and start writing. Immediately, my time off would be entirely consumed by ministry-related tasks. Rather than leaving that time refreshed, I’d leave frustrated and stressed. Additionally, when you’re not working, don’t check your work email. (If you use your personal account for work, don’t check email period.) For far too long, I’d check e-mail immediately before I went to bed. The problem is I’d then go to sleep thinking about the next day’s to-do list. Or worse, I’d be unable to sleep because of a nasty or frustrating email I’d just received from a parent or colleague. In reality, there’s nothing in your email that can’t wait until the next time you’re working.
7. Be OK with not finishing everything on your to-do list. As youth workers, our work never ends. No matter how hard we work, there’s always more to do. So prioritize your tasks. Focus first on those things that are most critical to your ministry and that only you can do. If you still have time in your work day, move on to other good but less critical tasks knowing that if you don’t get to them, they can wait.
8. Embrace good enough. I’m a perfectionist who believes nothing is ever good enough. I’ve learned that in ministry, though, perfection and excellence can be our worst nightmares. Obsessing about perfecting a talk or writing the perfect curriculum means there’s something else that’s not getting done. So what if we instead learned to embrace good enough? In doing so, we’d be freer to do other important aspects of ministry such as training leaders or mentoring teens. We’d also learn and model that we cannot earn God’s love or respect; that being a Christian isn’t about how hard we work but about worshiping a God who’s already completed the work.
9. Take comp time. A few years ago, our choir director returned from leading a week-long overseas trip with our high school choir. He then proceeded to take a week-long vacation with his family. Immediately afterward, a parishioner told me, “Must be nice, huh—to travel around Europe and then go on vacation? I wish I could do that.” I wanted to throttle her. Traveling Europe while leading a high school choir is not a vacation. In the same way, neither is leading a mission trip, taking teens to camp, or facilitating a weekend retreat. So after those events, take comp time (not vacation time). Do this guilt-free knowing that you worked hard during those events, pouring yourself into your teens and your ministry. Without time to rest and recharge, you’ll be no good to anyone.
10. Communicate your boundaries. If people know you don’t check email on the weekend, they’re far less likely to get upset when their email goes unreturned until Monday. In the same way, if you regularly communicate that you don’t take ministry calls in the evenings unless it’s an emergency, teens and parents will know not to expect a return call until the next day.
11. Establish daily, weekly and yearly rhythms. Whenever I read Scripture, I’m amazed at the rhythms that are clearly evident throughout. God frequently commands us to rest and take a Sabbath. Doing so refreshes us, reminds us the world (including our ministries) actually can function without us, and teaches us to rely on God. So once a week, take a Sabbath—a 24-hour period in which you do no ministry-related work. (Because you work on Sunday, that can’t be your Sabbath.) Just as soil needs to lie fallow for a while in order to produce fruit, so must we. So in addition to taking a weekly Sabbath, take a longer vacation each year. If you can, take two consecutive weeks. Doing so gives you time to recuperate, rest, breathe and recharge. Make your vacation technology free: no email, church phone calls, or social media. Having actual time and space away from your ministry helps you to see it with new eyes. It also leaves you excited to return to it, bursting with new ideas that you now have energy to actually implement.
12. Find a bigger yes. As a people pleaser, I know how hard it is to say no. Yet, a key to establishing healthy habits and boundaries that allow you to work hard and play hard is to learn to say no. One thing that can be helpful for doing this is finding something bigger and more important to which you are able to say yes. This might be a hobby, a night out with friends, a date with your spouse, an activity with your kids, school or perhaps a second passion or career. When you have something outside of ministry that you want to do, it becomes far easier to say no to the things that potentially could take you away from that bigger yes.
These days, I no longer feel guilty for establishing boundaries and taking time off. I no longer apologize for taking time for my family or for myself. After all, if Jesus, who is Lord of all, unapologetically took time to rest throughout His public ministry, then we should, too.
If that’s not reason enough to do so, establishing the aforementioned boundaries and habits will help you develop a sustainable rhythm that will enable you to last long-term in ministry. Work hard, but then rest and play hard, as well. Doing so will make you a better youth worker… and a better spouse, parent, friend and follower of Christ.
I know because that’s what establishing boundaries and healthy habits has done for me.