This is the fifth piece in our ongoing series, “Confessions of a Struggling Youth Minister.” While student ministry is often extremely edifying and even a barrel of laughs, it can also be isolating, discouraging, and totally exhausting. Our hope in this series is to offer comfort to those of us deep in the trenches of ministry, through personal stories of God’s goodness and grace in the midst of struggle. Other articles in this series can be found here.
I recently took our students on a day-trip to Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, the world’s largest underground cave system. One of the highlights of the tour came when they turned off all of the lights and asked everyone in the group to be totally quiet. After a few moments the guide said, “One thing people who have been trapped in the cave have said is that it’s not the darkness that bothered them – single lantern could give them enough light to find their way – nor was it the cold. It was the silence.”
In that dark moment, I realized how deeply I related to this idea. Student ministry can be incredibly rewarding, fast-paced, and a great adventure. But it can also be very lonely.
My wife and I recognized early on just how lonely the journey can be. We were newlyweds settling into a new home, in a new city, where I had just started my first full-time ministry position. Because of some unique demands of my position, we were unable to connect to a small group in our first few months. We spent all of our time investing in middle and high schoolers. But we noticed Sunday after Sunday that we were going home by ourselves to eat lunch. We had a difficult time building relationships – it felt like nobody wanted to get to know us for us, but rather for the role I filled as a youth minister. Few adults ever asked how our new marriage was doing. The only conversation we ever seemed to have with grown ups was about the student ministry calendar.
Combatting the Loneliness Step One: Lean on Your Spouse
Thankfully, through those difficult days my wife and I grew much closer together. During that time, we learned an important lesson of ministry: your spouse, not your ministry, is your first spiritual priority. Combating our loneliness in ministry started at home by cultivating a healthy relationship with each other. We made it a priority to go on date nights, where we turned off our phones and really connected with one another. We made a point to talk about things that weren’t related to our ministry. Ministers need a mental break from the pressures and demands of the field – in my spouse I discovered a safe place to unwind!
Step Two: Have Kids
Easier said than done I know, but we found that having kids was a really easy way to get around other adults our age. We learned that a whole new world existed in the nursery and preschool areas, where we met other parents who were also struggling with things like runny noses, sleep issues, dirty diapers, and the fear that we weren’t living up to the “Pinterest parents.” Having kids to make friends is like buying an airplane for the peanuts, but it is a nice bonus to be able to connect with other couples for encouragement, fellowship, wisdom, and an understanding ear.
Step Three: Find a Small Group of Your Own
We were intentional about connecting with a small group or adult Sunday School class. I walked into my pastor’s office and asked for a month away from student ministry, just on Sunday mornings. My wife and I wanted so badly to be involved with a class of our peers, so we took the effort to be deliberate about “being normal” for a few weeks. We had to plan ahead to get our responsibilities covered. We reached out to an adult Sunday School class and teacher, and found out what was going on so that we weren’t “the new couple” asking a bunch of questions.
Step Four: Take Advantage of the People You Work With
We built a team mindset among our volunteers. Beyond our struggle with connectedness, we realized that our volunteers were in the exact same boat. They were giving up time with other believers their own age, to invest in middle and high schoolers. So we made a commitment to be our own small group. We’ve had families bless us with babysitting, meals when our youngest was born, encouragement notes, and the joy of homemade ice cream and play dates with our volunteer team.
It’s really hard to maintain your perspective in the middle of difficult times. You struggle to understand why things are happening, but God is at work in every circumstance. Looking back on that season in our lives, my wife and I really could claim Philippians 1:3: God had begun a good work in us as a young married couple and He would see it to completion. In our case, God used those early and lonely days in ministry to make us a tighter unit as a family. We were forced to depend more on His grace, every day, to sustain us. So if you find yourself in the same isolated spot as us, wondering if you’re alone, fear not. Ultimately Jesus was with us. He was enough for us; and He is enough for you.