Why youth ministry is (extra) stressful

In the previous post on The Stress that is Youth Ministry, we saw some shocking statistics about pastors and stress. But let’s face it: even though the scope of responsibility may differ, being a youth pastor isn’t that different from being a pastor. Especially in bigger churches, leading the youth ministry can be a lot like leading a church. Which means that those statistics may very well be or become a reality for youth pastors as well.

Why youth ministry is extra stressful

That being said, youth ministry comes with its own unique challenges and may even be extra stressful. Youth workers are especially at risk when it comes to stress and burnout for many reasons, states for instance youth ministry veteran Richard Parker:[1]

  • Youth ministry tends to be cyclical with few definable end points
  • Dealing with problems in the lives of students can seem like a never-ending job
  • The hard work of getting parents and volunteers to help share the load in student ministry can lead to frustration and overwork
  • Youth ministry tends to be a job with high expectations, low pay, and a low position on the church personnel flow chart
  • Youth ministers and leaders tend to be “people pleasers” who over-commit and have a hard time saying “no”

Matt Murphy, another youth ministry veteran who is also well trained and experienced in counseling and trauma, offers another list of reasons why so many youth workers experience what he calls ‘compassion fatigue’.[2] I’ve chosen those that I think are relevant:

  • Unchallenging work
  • Monotonous routines
  • One-Way Relationship
  • Perfectionism
  • Need for Approval
  • Lack of Feedback
  • Low Salary
  • Difficult Populations
  • Unrealistic Expectations
  • Need to Control Others
  • Overworked
  • Poor Boundaries
  • Pressure from Supervisors
  • Personal Problems

Do you recognize these? I sure cringed at a few of them.

My thoughts on stress in youth ministry

I’d like to add my personal observations and thought to these. I think personality plays a big part. Like many other youth pastors who struggle with stress, I’m a type A personality with a great drive to succeed, who is prone to perfectionism and always willing to help others. That doesn’t help obviously.

Yet I never faced quite the same stress issues when I was still working as a manager in a hospital (I was a youth ministry volunteer at that time), despite that being an awfully stressful job as well. I can think of a few reasons why working in the church makes you more susceptible to burnout.

1. No boundaries between work and private

The first is that there’s hardly any boundary between work and private. You can’t ‘switch off’ work the way you can with a ‘normal’ job, because you constantly take the job home with you. Even when you have an office in the church, you will work partly from home, get called at home, host events like small groups at home, etc. Work and private, work and home are completely intertwined.

2. Spiritual pressure

A second reason is the spiritual pressure that can get so out of hand, it can even be labeled spiritual blackmail. Let me give you a taste of what that argument looks like. You see, when you work ‘for the Lord’, nothing is ever good enough, is it? The Lord deserves our best so everything we do needs to be perfect. You can’t really say no if someone asks you to do something, because how can you say no to Jesus and to those students who need you?

Sure, I’m overstating it, but doesn’t this sound familiar? I’ve heard many, many variations on this throughout the years. It’s not just a matter of saying no, it’s also about getting people to accept you saying no. Even then, many youth pastors make similar arguments to themselves. Can they really say no when a student calls who needs them urgently, even when it’s date night or family time? How can you defend giving priority to your family or yourself instead of to God’s work?

3. No clear end goal

A third reason is that the work is never done. There is no clear end goal, it never stops. There’s always room for improvement, always opportunity for growth, for more, for better. It’s hard to determine when it’s good enough, or just enough in general.

4. High stakes

And lastly: there’s so much at stake. Most of us really love our students and their eternal destination can weigh heavy on our minds and hearts, driving us to go an extra mile, and another one. The statistics about college students losing their faith makes us want to try even harder to equip them for life…and we just don’t want to lose them forever.

Sound familiar?

In the next post, we’ll look at some healthy ways of dealing with this stress, but for now I’d love to hear how you feel about this. Do you recognize these reasons why youth ministry is so stressful? Do you have other reasons to add?


[1] Richard Parker, Stressed out? Or Burned out? The hard work of youth ministry, on: https://youthministry360.com/training/stressed-out-or-burned-out-the-hard-work-of-youth-ministry Viewed November 2012

[2] Matt Murphy, Preventing compassion fatigue, on: http://engagingtheshadowsofyouthministry.com/?p=1782 Viewed November 2012

Comments

  1. Nathánaël says

    Maybe the deepest reason for stress is that we ‘work’ hard for God, but ‘forget’ to seek His loving friendship.

    This analogy might make it clear what happens: Imagine a husband and wife, the husband works many hours and gets stressed form work, comes home, reads paper, does his own things, and doesn’t invest much time in relating to his wife. That’s often what we do when ‘working for God’.

    But imagine a romantic marriage, time is invested in each other as couple, continues conversation, friendship, doing activities together. Totally in love, a love that raises the spirits, and is joyful. It gives both partners enormous joy and strength to ‘work’. To do things joyously and out of love. Such a romance is parallel to our relation with Jesus, the Bible speaks about a Bride and Groom, a marriage, a joyous relationship. Young believers often feel like ‘butterflies’ or ‘in love’ with Jesus. Jesus speaks himself in Revelation that the church should remember it’s ‘First Love’. The happy love for our Saviour.

    Should we not relate more to Jesus, be his friend, ask His plans, and let go of our own? He really wants to talk to us very personally, everyday. I can feel free of any stress when I am close to Him. I am solely responsible for loving him, then everything else i can let go.

  2. Paula says

    You put in words what I have been feeling and could not articulate. Thank you for the realization that I am not the only youth director feeling this way.

    • says

      There’s encouragement in numbers, isn’t there? No, you’re definitely not the only one and tomorrow we’ll look at some remedies so stay tuned!

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