I remember my first rollercoaster, the Comet at Hershey Park, Pennsylvania. As we clicked up the first big hill, my grip around the metal bar tightened. We inched slowly over the top and plummeted down the incline. I was sure it dropped straight down! We shot up the next hill, curved around turns, dropped again, and leapt over small hills before arriving at the station. I laughed and cheered; a roller coaster junkie had been born.
That sounds a bit like life in youth ministry, doesn’t it? Ministry sends us on soaring highs (e.g., watching God’s transformational work) and down into deep valleys where sometimes the way out is unclear. One week, we have pinnacle ministry moments, and we soar upward with confidence. The next week, something doesn’t go well; or we are critiqued and we feel bumped, bruised and disoriented. We twist and turn in the give and take of close working relationships, and we corkscrew through private emotions that dizzy and leave us feeling upside down.
Though we may be drawn to ministry, the pressure has risks. Our highs and lows may come at the expense of others. Our euphoria and devastation can affect our families. Consistent pressure can overrun our initial joy in answering God’s call. The speed of ministry can keep us from noticing where our personal, relational and spiritual supports may be weakening. Our joy for our work and purpose can begin to fade.
Ask people involved in youth ministry how they are doing, and you may get a wearied response, something about stress, a story about the week’s pressures…or just a grunt. Youth ministry has unique burdens, some of which are difficult to explain to others. Which of the following have you found to be true?
I feel pressure to:
- be tirelessly consistent in how I treat people.
- maintain an extraordinary level of productivity.
- be knowledgeable and well-read on all topics.
- be well-organized yet immediately available to counsel others.
- endure not having enough money personally or organizationally.
- be confident in my beliefs even when I have questions.1
Here’s what I know from watching my own life and the lives of others: Unrelenting pressure can turn into stress and physical difficulties; and stress-relief done poorly can wreck relationships, ministries and lives.
Pressure is not new. The apostle Paul said that when we accept a life of ministering God’s reconciliation, we also are accepting a life full of pressure. We feel pressure, but we are not crushed (2 Cor. 4:8). Perhaps a clearer understanding is that we are not squeezed into a corner with no way of escape. It’s one thing to feel pressure but another to be in despair at its presence and power.
We’re never going to avoid pressures; sometimes it bubbles up from within. As Paul looked back on his ministry, he noted that he often felt perplexed, but never in despair. The word usage here could be translated, “I feel lost, but not as if I’ve lost out.” Sometimes ministry presents situations in which we don’t know what to do, and we’re in the dark as to what’s ahead. Paul acknowledged this same feeling in his ministry, and we can take heart in his example not to be deterred in our faithfulness.
Pressure in Leadership
I want to share six ways that you can start to get a handle on pressure. None are new, but we too quickly fail to do them. If we can learn them, we can share in Paul’s description of survival in times of ministry-related pressures.
- Label What You Feel: Mark was a successful youth director at a small church, and he seemed to possess an endless capacity for getting things done—and done correctly. Though outwardly he appeared well-adjusted, there was a private emotional struggle churning, a wrestling match that exacerbated other suppressed problems. On most days, Mark was soaring, but it didn’t take much to go wrong for him to feel crushed. I then would get an email in all caps, “I WANT TO QUIT!” This was his default response when his emotional circuits were overloaded.
My first step with Mark was to help him recognize and label his emotions so he could take healthy steps toward maturity. No one previously had helped him to identify honestly what was going on behind the outbursts. He didn’t want to admit any of it, but we slowly worked through it in the span of two years. He found that with God’s help he could have control of his thinking and responses. Sometimes labeling how we’re feeling is the first step in dealing with pressure.
- Develop Resilience: The capacities of bouncing back, flexibility and not over-reacting are developed with time. Though you may not have noticed, it’s likely you’re more resilient than you once were. Take a moment and identify two things you can handle with ease now that five years ago would have crushed you. Remember how those used to short-circuit your emotions? Now, think about two or three current things in your life that regularly overwhelm and make you feel pressured or joyless. In what ways can you begin to develop resilience in those areas? Who might be able to help coach you in developing new consistency despite being pressed, perplexed and knocked down?
- Build Your Strengths; Challenge Your Weaknesses: God-given talents should not be buried, but you cannot excuse or hide behind weaknesses. Sometimes we feel pressure when we’re doing work that we don’t enjoy or do well. That’s just part of ministry work. Learning to identify when your pressure is coming from operating outside of your strengths or preferences helps us understand pressure’s source. One way I’ve learned to overcome this and not let unnecessary pressure endure is to prioritize those tasks instead of letting them persist.
- Grow Your Social Intelligence: This may seem odd to include, but it’s a consistent need when I’m helping someone cope with ministry pressure. Pressure pushes us toward isolation and self-sufficiency. We need the opposite! Leaders with social intelligence develop relationships because they demonstrate care, empathy and a genuine desire to understand before they attempt to be understood. Pressure robs us of our social graces; and in time we can become cold, aloof and abrasive. Too often, these leaders are oblivious to how others react or feel about them, which exacerbates the problem.
- Examine Your Productivity Patterns: We have routines for being productive, and they’re very familiar to us. It’s difficult to recognize pressure’s source sometimes, so I like to take out a legal pad and an old-fashioned pencil and write reflections regarding how I am doing at managing vision, communications, systems and finances. I’ve found that making lists helps me identify the problems, make sure these four areas are healthy, and address and neutralize common pressure points in leadership.
- Watch Your Reactions: If we want to handle pressure, our reactions are telling us a story we need to understand. Reactions are raw; they’re in-the-moment responses that flow unfiltered from deep within our being. Sometimes it’s the raise of an eyebrow, a shoulder flinch, or a scratching of an ear. Sometimes it’s similar to leaking steam, other times a sweet fragrance, and other times it erupts like molten lava. When you notice a reaction, ask yourself why you reacted that way rather than another and explore those reasons. I recently discovered I was feeling undue pressure because I was overthinking about the future. I wasn’t too busy, but I felt as if I was stressing about trying to explore what my schedule meant for my future.
It’s likely that you recently experienced a time of enormous pressure or feelings that gnawed at your well-being. I went through a period of joylessness years ago when the pressures seemed never to diminish. Though I’m not sure anyone around me but my wife, Kelly, could guess what I was experiencing, I spent each workday putting one foot in front of the other and making it through to the next day. I wasn’t depressed or down, the ministry was going and growing well, and people were pleased; I just couldn’t click my heels to get out of it. My spiritual retreats and devotional life did not fix the problem; it was truly a dark night of the soul for me.
After researching the topic and listening to the stories of others who had similar periods, I addressed three things that I still do to help me endure seasons of pressure:
- I persisted in my devotional practices. The purpose was not to better myself, but rather to draw close to God and stay close through the storm. Pressure tempts us to want to take more control and focus on our own lives versus what God may be doing, even when we’re being pushed around.
- I intentionally developed godly friendships. As I said, when life is disrupted we withdraw to avoid embarrassment or evidence of weakness. Just the opposite is needed. True friendships have a Spirit-infused power that eradicates all sorts of protective temptations and allows us to borrow courage from others.
- I kept watch over myself to discern what was really going on and what God had for me. I tell young leaders to “put a sentry at the door” of their hearts and pay close attention. I had to follow that advice, especially in that time of discontent. Sometimes we go through episodes of pressure, emotional flatness, and valleys of despair or discontent; but God asks us to persevere. It’s too easy to give up, and unless we know God is using the discontent to call us to something else, we must hang in there.
I discovered that God had not changed my direction. My emotional response to the pressure was a product of a growth plateau, my artsy personality, and self-centered discontent that I needed to confess. The latter was tied to a creative dissatisfaction with routine, something I still have to deal with weekly. I began to pray a short prayer each day: “Dear God, what I have is enough. Thank You.” I wanted to be joyful for what was rather than what wasn’t.
What makes you have joy in your ministry? Spend some time reviewing the past few months and jot down a list of the moments when you recognized the presence of joy in your life. What was happening? Were you under pressure then, too? How was God working? As you think through the three disciplines, which one might be the most helpful for you in your current situation? May this time of reflection help you rediscover the joy of working with God in His ministry, including when it’s stressful and you’re under pressure.
Terry Linhart is an author, educator and speaker. He teaches at Bethel College (Indiana) and serves as the YSASN director for Youth Specialties. The themes in this article come from his forthcoming book with InterVarsity Press. You can connect with Terry on Twitter @TerryLinhart or TerryLinhart.net.