I took three of my students to the beach this past week. My youth ministry summer, like everyone’s, is very different than what I’d planned for it to be. I have spent lots of hours crying over months and months of planning that were washed down the drain when COVID-19 ruined our plans. I’ve been a Youth Pastor for thirteen years and never once have I had a summer where I didn’t host dozens of pool parties, bowling nights, and game days. For more than thirteen years, I have led summer camps and retreats during the summer, being gone for weeks at a time. Usually summer is prime time for youth ministries.
This summer has been tragically different, slow and sad. Our zoom meetings have been good and our bible studies have been ok. I talk to and FaceTime my students and parents all the time. And yet, it is not the same as being together. When I thought of the idea to take a small group of students on an hour-long road trip to the beach, I had lots to consider. 1. These three students represented two families at our church. 2. These two families fell into the category of my “quaran-team,” meaning each family, including mine, have been mostly quarantined except for seeing each other face to face and with no known COVID exposures or symptoms. Furthermore, the parents of the students both have offices where I work.
There was a time in youth ministry, when I was in my early 20s, that I thought my career as a Youth Pastor would probably be a phase. It was something young adults did, I thought. But today, as a 36-year old mother of 3 young children myself, I still love it. I love youth ministry for many reasons. On the evening we got back from the beach trip, around midnight (when many text conversations happen with teens!), one of the students texted me and said “Thank you. I had so much fun today. It was just what I needed.” I smiled sleepily at my phone and quickly texted back, “Loved every minute of it.” Then I put my phone face down, turned on the sleep setting and prepared to fall asleep myself.
As I closed my eyes and my body got real still, these words kept ringing in my head. “Loved every minute of it,” I had said. In those still and quiet moments, I realized something profound. I really meant what I had said. I really and truly and most authentically loved every minute of being with my three students at the beach all day. I loved our conversations. I loved the laughs. I loved our singing “Hamilton” at the top of our lungs in the car on the way home. I loved watching them interact with each other as we discussed theology, politics, and our dreams about the future. I loved it more than any other time in my youth ministry career that I could remember.
The truth is, ministry has not always been this way for me. There was a time, not long ago, where I would never have said (and really meant) that I loved every minute of a ministry opportunity. There was a time in ministry where I was just surviving, barely getting by. I remember being away from my own family so many times on really fun trips doing really amazing things leading teenagers and counting down the days, minutes, meals and seconds until I would get to go home. I was tired, weary, depleted before the day even began. I used to dread one particular weekly program, finding that when the day arrived I would wake up in a fog. It wasn’t that I loved my students any less (or that we never went to the beach), it was just that I was in a different place.
I spent years ministering out of an empty tank. As a car can only coast on fumes for so long, I was puttering out. And this puttering took years. In this season of “puttering”, I embraced a “fake it until you make it” philosophy in the name of being “faithful” to the calling on my life. But the truth was, it no longer felt like a calling. It felt like a burden. I know now that I was suffering from pastoral burnout.
Consider these signs of pastoral burnout. (Adapted from Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership and used originally by Founder and Director, Rhesa Higgins, from Eleven:28 ministries (https://eleven28ministries.org/)
On a scale of 1-10, 1 being not at all and 10 being all the time, rate yourself on these behaviors.
Irritability or hypersensitivity: things that normally wouldn’t bother you put you over the edge. You may or may not express your rage outwardly, but inwardly you are aware of reactions that are out of proportion to the event itself.
Restlessness: when awake, you might be aware of a vague feeling that something is not quite right and when attempting to sleep, you might find yourself unable to calm and fall asleep.
Compulsive overworking: you might find that you are unable to stop, even when what that would be appropriate—after dinner, on days off, or on vacations.
Emotional numbness: you notice that you don’t feel much of anything or that when emotion comes, it is overwhelming.
Escapist behaviors: you choose life draining activity to relax over life giving activity.
Disconnected from our identity and calling: you find yourself at the mercy of other people’s expectations or your own inner compulsions as the true sense of yourself drains away.
Not able to attend to human needs: you don’t have time to take care of yourself in basic ways—sleeping, eating, going to the doctor, exercising.
Hoarding energy: you find yourself becoming over-protective of your time and energy for what you feel is actually important. Engaging in life changing relationships with people takes a lot of energy.
Slippage in our spiritual practices: practices that were at one time life giving begin to feel burdensome and the time in them unproductive.
It wasn’t long ago that I would have rated myself a 10 in each of these areas. To be clear, ministry is not always fun or worthy of “loving every minute of it,” but if you are experiencing any or all of these symptoms most of the time in your ministry or career, it is likely that you are burned out. And burn out is serious. It is not something to power through or fake it through. It is not “no big deal.” It matters. Your soul matters. Your heart matters. Your joy matters. If the people that you are serving don’t continually remind you of this fact, it may be time to set your own reminder. You can give your phone alarm this title, “No ministry is worth the price of your soul.” If you are burned out, you don’t need (just) a vacation. You need an intervention.
It was during my own season of pastoral burnout that I began seeing a Spiritual Director. This was my great intervention. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that this was God’s great intervention in my life.
In spiritual direction, I learned about pastoral burnout. I learned about how it is normal, even expected. I learned that the health of my soul is more important that my productivity in ministry. I learned new rhythms that led to new patterns of behavior that led to new boundaries both internally and externally. In spiritual direction, I learned that it is ok to not be ok.
Last week, when I texted my student right back, “Loved every minute of it,” and really meant it, I remembered my own season of burnout. I smiled realizing that today, I have more joy and life and energy in ministry than I have ever had before. Even during COVID-19. Even as a 36-year old Youth Pastor. I really meant it because through the on-going practice of Spiritual Direction, I am not burned out any more.
If you want to learn more about Spiritual Direction, I’ll leave a few resources here.