Ask Rooted: How Do You Care for Your Soul As A Youth Minister?

Christianity Today recently reported that as many as 38 percent of pastors are considering leaving ministry. The work of youth ministry can be especially exhausting—and not just in a physical sense of too many late-night texts or overnight trips. Theres a spiritual and emotional toll that comes with navigating cultural landmines and walking with teenagers who are often in crisis. Some of the most significant work for youth ministers, then, is to stay close to Jesus so that we can help our students to know him, too. This is perhaps more challenging than ever nearly two years into a global pandemic and amidst a fractured social and political environment.

We asked our Rooted writers to share the practices that help them to stay spiritually healthy, guarding against burnout. While each youth minister must figure out what works best for him or her, we pray these ideas will inspire you to make resting in Jesus a priority this year.

Skyler Flowers, Assistant Pastor to Students at Grace Bible Church in Oxford, MS

Caring for our own souls has to be one of the first tasks in pastoral ministry. Only as we are edified, challenged, and constantly reminded of the graciousness of our Lord to us will we be equipped to edify, challenge, and offer grace to others. Caring for our own souls, however, is not often something at the top of our to-do-lists as youth ministers. There are lunches to set up, texts to send out, meetings to plan, and people to care for. Soul care, while important, can get squeezed into the margins!

So how do we keep a close watch on ourselves and on our teaching and, persisting in this, save ourselves and our hearers (1 Tim. 4:16)? Here are three ways that have been formative to me:

First, build soul care into your schedule. Eugene Peterson’s book The Contemplative Pastor offers a portrait of ministry we should all aspire to. He argues that to fill your schedule in haste or to allow others to fill your schedule for you in sloth are both symptoms of a broader concern to please others. To be a minister as the Bible calls us to, however, we must build into our schedule regular rhythms of prayer, Scripture meditation, and rest. If it is not built into your schedule—literally, on your calendar—you’ll never get to it and your soul will find itself thirsty. Second, in planning with your team, build in care, encouragement, and time to build up one another. Reframe your planning and organization sessions into the spiritual exercises that they are, and you will find yourself “encouraging one another as the day draws near.” Third, worship with God’s people. Sundays are workdays for ministers; however, we must still seek to enjoy Sunday. Although setting up, breaking down, leading prayer, and teaching may be part of your Sunday rhythm, so too should be singing praises, offering up prayers, sitting under the word of God proclaimed, enjoying the sacraments, and fellowshipping with other believers. Do not let responsibility cloud out what God has offered you in the gathered worship of his people.

Liz Edrington, Fellowship Groups and Young Adults Director at North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga, TN

Whenever I speak on this topic, I begin with confession of failures in this area. I do not have this figured out. What I do know is that Im quick to want a list of things to do to prevent me from discomfort and burn out. Im quick to want a shortcut to rest and health. My heart is an idol-hunter, constantly scanning for the next thing to give allegiance to that might make me feel better.

Instead, King Jesus IS rest for my soul. Trusting Him with my time, my body, my emotions, my thoughts, and my ministry takes different forms in different seasons. Self care is primarily about what we worship. When I worship productivity, my idea of perfection, or ministry, even, they lord over me with unmanageable demands and result in constant feelings of inadequacy and failure. Self-care therefore begins with regular opportunity for repentance – to turn back to the one in whom my purpose, my identity, and my hope are secure. Our failures of soul care are opportunities to once again find rest in the finished work of Jesus. This is daily.

So what does it mean for me to trust my self, my soul to Jesus? It always means time receiving His Word. It always means time in prayer. It also means time enjoying Jesus – through creation, food, and however else he’s specifically designed you to enjoy him.

More specifically, for me right now it means tending to chronic pain with regular acupuncture appointments. It means engaging regularly in a small group of peers where I am not the leader. It means battling to really take a Sabbath during the week to trust God with my time. In other seasons, it has meant committing to a book club where we read fiction. Or committing to a group of theology nerds going through a 6th century book on pastoral care, because that is life-giving for me.

There isnt a recipe, but an invitation to repentance. There are new ways to trust Jesus with our time, our rest, our identity, our body, and our ministry. Its always worth pausing to pray Psalm 139:23, Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” He is kind to reveal. And He IS our rest.

Ben Birdsong, Minister of Missions at Christ Church Birmingham in Birmingham, AL

Caring for your soul begins with having a place where you can be real before God and before others. It’s easy for us to get into performance mode in ministry, where we are constantly looked at as the professional Christian.” For the sake of your soul, you need friends outside of your ministry who love you for you and not because of the role you perform in their lives at the church. You need a community of friends with whom you can be real about your own struggles and needs as you continue to grow in grace. Your soul needs a community and the safe place that you seek to provide for others in your ministry. Remember that before you are a leader, you are also Jesus’ beloved child. Like the students you serve, you wrestle to walk faithfully with Him. Be intentional to build your own community for the sake of your own soul—and for those whom God calls you to serve.

Steve Eatmon,  Pastor to High School and Middle School Students, Chinese Bible Church of Maryland

Rather than try to figure out what to do in a crisis, I try to manage life with habits that minimize the amount of situations that create burnout. I have four main pillars that I typically lean on.

First, I try to attend two conferences a year. If your church has any budget for this, I strongly suggest you max it out. Finding other people in the field with similar struggles outside of your area helps with solidarity and support. Second, I always try to read the Scripture devotionally, in such a way that I am allowing it to speak into my life, not just my ministry. Third, I am always trying to grow my theological proficiency. I take intentional time to learn about the ministry and theological concepts even though other items may appear more pressing. Points two and three cause me to place the important above the urgent. Fourth, I try to take breaks when necessary to focus on an activity not related to ministry. This can be spending time with family or engaging in a hobby. These four pillars help keep me sustained when the work of ministry gets difficult.

Matt Brown, Student Pastor, The Gathering Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO

As a young guy, Im blessed to be a part of a great pastoral team at my church. I’ve learned a few essentials through listening, watching, and learning from my coworkers. The first essential, of course, is Scripture and prayer. Somedays I feast on the Word and spend much time in prayer. Other days its a fast-food meal, but there is no spiritual replacement for the Bible and prayerful communion with the Lord.

Another essential is to leave work at work. As youth pastors, and pastors in general, we are well aware that we work 24/7, 365 days a year. People rarely have crises at opportune times. However, if boundaries are not set and sacred time with our families is not protected, burnout will inevitably occur. I do my best to get all of my work done during the day and to not be gone more than 2 nights per week (including youth group nights, events, games etc.). Evenings are my family time and I protect them at all costs. The alternative of having no boundaries will lead to anger, frustration, disappointment, and burnout—not just for me but for my wife and kids. One practical thing that helps with this is to put my phone on airplane mode and plug it into the charger or a time so that Im not tempted to answer texts or phone calls and check emails.

The third essential is accountability. On my staff, we have an agreement that if any of us are showing signs of burnout or need help, we will pitch in and work together. This has saved me throughout the years. We dont operate in silos; we all work together to advance the ministry of the local church.

Chelsea Kingston Erickson, Pastor of Youth and Families, First Congregational Church of Hamilton, MA

Confession: Perhaps more than any other area of ministry, I often feel I am failing at this necessary discipline of caring for my own soul. (Can I get an amen from any other achiever-types out there?)

One thing I have found to be vital is having some slow mornings at home. There are so many evening and weekend demands associated with youth ministry, and if we’re not careful we can get swept up in the go-go-go from sun-up to to sun-down. It feels strange to have office hours that don’t match the typical 9-5 schedule. But I have learned that it’s necessary to prioritize time in the Word, time to workout, and now as a mom, time with my son in the early part of the day. Similarly, leaving the office early in order to grab dinner with your roommates or family (or even just to have a few quiet moments to yourself) before youth group is a healthy practice that can keep ministry from becoming all-consuming.

I have so much still to learn about entrusting my time to Jesus, so much still to learn about looking to his merits not my own for acceptance. Finding ways to put boundaries around the hours I spend physically at the church building is one thing that helps me remember the gospel. My ministry role does not define me—Jesus does.

For more discussion, we host a Facebook Group for youth ministers to communicate over all things youth ministry! Join the conversation here

Advancing Grace-Driven Youth Ministry

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