Loving Our Students to Death

“How are you still standing?” Rhetorical or not, this is not the kind of question you want to hear from your psychiatrist. I had come to her office once again exhausted, surviving on caffeine, sugar, and the overwhelming fear that giving up was the only thing worse than collapsing on the job. It was a hard conversation to have, one I’d had a number of times before with counselors, loved ones, mentors, and friends. This time, considering my struggles with anxiety and depression over the years, she expanded my diagnosis – compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue, or its much scarier-sounding academic name, secondary traumatic stress disorder, is a unique form of burnout. More than being burned out through traditional means (overwork, poor self-care, conflict with peers and congregants, etc.), compassion fatigue involves the cumulative effect of feeling with others over time. Psychiatrists note that individuals whose job is to provide care and empathy for those who are suffering can themselves be wounded through relating to the suffering of so many people over time. Symptoms can range from physical and emotional exhaustion to a loss of empathy for others and a sense of work-related hopelessness.

My psychiatrist was surprised that I had never even heard of compassion fatigue, much less did I believe myself to suffer from it after 15 years of ministry. But it was difficult to accept. I’ve been taught that a key part of the Christian life is to ‘weep with those who weep(Rom. 12:15) and to ‘bear one anothers burdens(Gal. 6:2). Christianity itself involves great suffering (Rom. 5:3, 8:17-18), to the point that we emulate the sacrificial and selfless character of our King Jesus as we ‘take up our cross(Matt. 16:24) and ‘carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body(2 Cor. 4:10). Arent these good things?

Yes they are! But many youth workers, influenced in their formative years by late twentieth century Christian subculture, can interpret these passages through the lens of missionary martyrdom – that our job is to burn as brightly as we can for Jesus in as many studentslives as we can, instead of fading away into irrelevance and uselessness (Ive expressed that very sentiment in the past, and I am now horrified to know Kurt Cobain wrote something similar in his suicide note.) Medical professionals have observed that this devotion to caring for others can create a culture of silence, in which practitioners arent allowed to process traumatic events for fear of seeming ineffective, weak, or simply because they need to move on quickly to the next hurting person.

Theologically, we need to reconcile the culture of sacrificial suffering we see in our faith with another element of Scripture – a culture of Sabbath, rest, grace, and weakness. Jesus, the “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3) also spent many moments resting and recharging for his difficult task. Spiritual disciplines like prayer and solitude were not monastic, Herculean efforts for him, meant to stretch spiritual muscles. Instead they offered moments of sanctuary and communion with his Father. For us, this means that neither hurting teenagers nor crisis situations can justify neglecting our need to restfully commune with God. Our regular need for sleep and renewal reminds us we are finite and not the Messiah our students need.

Any youth worker who has answered text messages at 2:00 a.m. knows the difficulty in this conundrum. Wed rather hurt and burn out than see our students do so. But maybe this is a problem we bring upon ourselves. We create systems in ministry where we are the hero-leaders, the only ones who know enough to care for students through their pain. We establish ourselves as indispensable, and baptize the unconscious arrogance of this position as simply loving our students well.

It is right for us to want our students to be cared for, regardless of the inconvenient timing and severity of their pain. God has called and equipped us to step into that pain, a journey which often requires sacrifice. Still, our goal should be to remove ourselves from any sort of hero position, from the notion that we are the only ones who can make such a sacrifice. In doing so, we to put to death our desires to seek affirmation in our calling by always having to be in the thick of the hardest problems, and instead point our students to the true Hero—Jesus.

I wish I could tell you I was better at maintaining these boundaries. But Im still looking at ministry patterns I take for granted, like my always needing to deal with the list of students going through the hardest things because I feel Im more qualified to do so, leaving the “easier” students to lay leaders. I still think I need to be the first one in and the last one out to justify my existence, proving to others that being a youth pastor isnt just about pizza and silly games. Thankfully, my performance as a minister isn’t why God loves me. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1) – including self-condemnation! Because of Jesus’ grace, I do reflect God’s glory with every broken breath I take. And there is great hope – 2 Corinthians 3:18 tells me that even as I reflect his glory no matter my failures, the Holy Spirit is progressively working to grow me more and more into the image of Jesus! Becoming like Jesus is not only the calling of the Christian life, but its destiny.

So, in light of that certainty, take care of yourself! As I told a friend considering leaving the ministry recently, “part of this job needs to be keeping each other alive.” Consider personal steps like going to counseling, talking with a doctor about medication, nutrition, and exercise. Be honest about how much rest you really need, and get those closest to you to help you defend that Sabbath rest. Like Jesus, reframe spiritual disciplines as times of refreshment instead of spiritual training. Look at systematic issues as well – help volunteers get training in ministering to students in pain as well so you are not the only one shouldering the heaviest burdens. Engage church leaders in conversations about who else can be available to care for families on off days. Make key information available to others, and empower them to answer questions as well so you aren’t the only point person for major events.

“How are you still standing?” Because of Jesus. Let’s rest in his grace, and wisely follow in his steps as we minister to ourselves as passionately as we minister to others.

Stephen serves as an Assistant Pastor to Students at Intown Community Church in Atlanta, GA, and is a visiting instructor at his alma mater, Covenant Theological Seminary, and the PCA’s NEXT Institute. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Educational Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The best moments of his live involve playing board games with his wife, Krissi, and children Julianna and Judah.

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