As I left the store with 500 glow sticks, the pit in my stomach grew.
Though there were still a few hours before the event started, I already was anticipating tomorrow’s conversation with my boss:
“Give me three reasons why this was a bad idea,” she’d say.
“One, it was pitch black. Two, students were running full speed. Three, it was pitch black.”
The conversation would go on as I would try to explain why students playing Ultimate Frisbee in the pitch black of night was a good idea. I would try to explain how the student’s broken leg wasn’t actually my fault, but rather because he chased a Frisbee outside of the clearly marked safety boundary. I would go on to explain how the glow sticks that outlined the field created a visible boundary that separated the safe area from the unsafe wooded hillside.
Thankfully, that conversation never happened, but the event did. Not one student got hurt, and everyone talked about it for the next year. Youth ministry win!
How did 50 high school students run at full speed around a pitch black field next to a steep wooded hillside in the middle of the night for three hours without getting hurt? A light-up Frisbee helped, but more importantly, a clearly defined boundary (marked by glow sticks) made all the difference. Students knew that inside the boundary there was freedom to run, play and enjoy the game! They also knew that outside the boundary was unsafe. They understood that to enjoy the game to its fullest, they’d need to stay within the boundary.
Though students had a great time, what they didn’t know was that this tired, grass-stained, and sweaty youth worker drove home late that night feeling the incredible weight of burnout. Had we just pulled off a successful outreach event? Yes. Did I care? Nope. I was tired of ministry, wondering how it had gone from something I loved so dearly to something I resented so fiercely.
Youth workers everywhere know that we face unique challenges that other areas of the church may not face. While your specific ministry context might be different, I’d bet there are burned out (or burning out) youth workers who know how it feels to have to manage everything from administration to relationships to training to events to crisis situations to facility woes to campus presence to networking to weekly programs. We have what seem to be 200 plates to spin and only two hands.
Youth events had gone from being the highlight of my week to chores I had to endure. Leader trainings seemed to be mere formalities. It was laughable at how disengaged I was when I was engaging students. I was learning that I wasn’t made of steel. I was human. Burnout had set in and threatened to knock me out of ministry right at that dreaded two-year mark at which many youth workers walk away.
It was on this night of Frisbee and in this place of burnout, emptiness and apathy that God met me and began showing me some ugly things that had built up in my heart. He began using my burnout and my heart’s ugliness to show me that (among other things) I needed to establish healthy boundaries in my life and ministry.
In the midst of my burnout, God began to show me that I desperately needed to begin placing limitations around my life and leadership. I couldn’t do it all anymore.
During the next weeks, God began to reveal two major factors that contributed to my burnout. Being the good God that He is, He not only highlighted the issues but also taught me critical boundaries for combating burnout.
Burnout Factor #1: Insecurity
As I began to look at the job that I was doing, I saw an interesting pattern emerge. I led all weekly programs and special events. I spoke weekly. I took leadership training on my shoulders. I hung out with students. Are any of these things bad? Of course not! However, for me, it quickly became apparent that I had this youth ministry built around one person; and that person wasn’t Jesus, but me.
My insecurity said I was not good enough, smart enough, ______ enough to be a good leader. So, to prove my insecurity wrong, I did it all on my own. I unknowingly had made sure that every system, program, meeting, etc. needed me in order to work. My heart’s insecurity said I was not enough, and I believed it.
The result? A schedule that I could not keep up with that led to…you guessed it…deeper insecurity.
Critical Boundary #1: Identity
I had to start back at square one and remember that no matter what the world and my heart said about me, Jesus is the One who gets the final say. He says I am fearfully and wonderfully made. He says He knit me together in my mom’s womb. He says that His thoughts of me outnumber the grains of sand. He proved He meant every word of it when He died on the cross for me.
The boundary God showed me was that I had to acknowledge my own limitation. I needed to acknowledge that on my own; it’s true that I am not enough. I am not worthy of the life God has given me, and none of my efforts ever will change that. In recognizing my limitation, I acknowledge that He, not my ministry performance, is who makes me enough.
I’ll be honest: Living into this boundary requires work every day. I need time in God’s Word to be reminded of who He says I am, but as I live into this boundary, deep security has replaced deep insecurity and made me a healthier leader.
Burnout Factor #2: Reactivity
The tyranny of the urgent is alive and well in youth ministry, and that was true for my ministry, as well. Whatever was pressing that week got my attention. If a retreat was coming up, I’d spend the entire week before the event finalizing everything, only to realize at 6:50 p.m. on Wednesday that our midweek program would start in 10 minutes, and I hadn’t given it a thought. If a parent called to meet, I would meet on his or her schedule. If a student wanted to talk after youth group, I’d stay as late as they needed. Burnout set in when ministry began to feel as if my time was spent reacting to whatever event, student issue, parent conversation or board meeting was urgent.
Critical Boundary #2: Proactivity
At the end of the day, we are the ones who decide how we spend our time. We choose what the priorities are for our weeks. In a nutshell, a boundary of proactive scheduling means placing limitations around how we spend our time. The result? Gaining control of our schedules. Living into this boundary hasn’t been easy, and I am still learning how to do this better.
Maybe you need some ideas on being more proactive, or you just need some simple ways to keep your sanity in your youth ministry. I’ve found these ideas to be incredibly helpful.
I schedule my days in buckets—similar types of work that are grouped together throughout the week. For example, Monday’s bucket contains weekly administrative tasks: email catch-up, planning the upcoming Wednesday and Sunday, data entry, scheduling social media posts, etc. On Monday, I’ll say no to almost anything that doesn’t fall into this bucket, including meeting requests (my meeting bucket is on Tuesdays), special event planning (Wednesdays) and sermon prep (Thursdays). The trick to successful bucketing is being boundaried and firm, but not too firm that you miss out on those random relational moments throughout the week: lunch with a student, pulling a prank on a staff member, etc. The other trick is putting these different buckets on your weekly calendar before your week starts. That way, you not only have an idea of what you’re doing, but also when it will get done.
Automation requires us to spend a little time up front but pays off in the long run. For example, during my social media bucket on Mondays, I’ll schedule all the ministry’s social media posts for the week (Scripture, event updates, etc.); from there, the ministry’s social media is automated and runs itself. What in your ministry can you automate? Can you move your event registrations online? (Try using Google Forms or Planning Center.) Can you automate social media? (Try HootSuite.)
Remember how we’re serving an infinite God with unlimited resources and the power to meet every need of every person around the world at any time? So while we’re busy getting burned out by reacting to every need that crops up, God persistently invites us to place a boundary on reactive ministry by unplugging and checking out for a while. Go ahead, turn off the e-mail. Leave the laptop at the office. Even if Sunday isn’t completely planned by the time you go home on Thursday afternoon, leave it. Part of this tactic is remembering that God is God, and we are not. Unplugging for the weekend so you can get real rest might be scary, but I promise you’ll have a ministry to come back to in two days! Now, go take a nap!
The whole point of the gospel is that despite all our efforts, we aren’t good enough, and we don’t measure up… Yet in Jesus’ death and resurrection, He makes us good enough. We need to take control and quit allowing our schedules to push us around. We need to become more intentional about how we spend our work weeks, and let God guide us with His plans.
On that fateful Frisbee night, not a single student got hurt on the nearby wooded hillside because they trusted that the fullest enjoyment of the game could be found inside the glow stick boundary. In contrast, I had been running through life at full speed with no regard whatsoever for boundaries. It really was only a matter of time before I wound up devastated, running face-first into a tree. God…thank You for the gift of boundaries and for using them to set us free.