If you’re in youth ministry, you know counseling is a significant part of the job description and can be one of the most rewarding things you do. All too often, however, it can feel like a huge black hole…a total waste of time due to the lack of results. But it doesn’t have to be that way!
While one of my college degrees was in counseling, allow me to share with you 12 things they never taught to me in the classroom. The wisdom I’ve gained through my ministry run will not only help you crawl out of the black hole and get some decent results, it will also save you time…something there never seems to be enough of.
I did an entire Youth Leader’s Coach on this subject. You’ll find it in the Youth Leader’s Coach PLAYBOOK.
This blog entry is probably destined to be one of your favorites. Let me share candidly with you on burnout. After 40+ years in full-time youth ministry, I’ve obviously experienced my share of this. So, I wanted to share with you some of the pragmatic and medical things I have learned through the journey that can help you in this crucial area.
Let’s define BURNOUT. It’s an emotional response we can all feel when we are carrying a large amount of weight. It’s like the more we GIVE, the less fulfilled we FEEL. I would say the key word that explains burnout is demoralizing. You are just worn out. You don’t want to give another ounce of yourself.
So what the ROOT CAUSE here? I think it comes down to one thing. We are trying to be EVERYTHING to EVERYONE. This is the fast track to burnout. We have to come to the point where we realize we can’t do it all. So here are my simple thoughts to manage burnout in youth ministry.
According to surveys done by the Fuller Institute of Church Growth, 70% of pastors have no one they consider to be a close friend and 50% have considered leaving the ministry in the last 3 months. Those are staggering statistics and I suspect that the numbers aren’t too different for youth pastors and leaders. Youth ministry can be agonizingly lonely. Without someone to turn to, to share honest feelings with, we can all become victims of burnout.
Burnout can creep into the heart that holds resentment. Without honestly confronting emotional issues with someone, you can be weighed down with bitterness, hurt, pain and resentment. I often say, “Unforgiveness is allowing a person to live rent-free in your mind.” We must all handle our unfinished emotional business with care.
I won’t say much about this one, but I will add a word of encouragement. Do this one GUILT FREE, which can be especially hard if you have the disease to please like I do. However, I have to tell myself, no one can put me on a trip, unless I’m willing to buy the ticket.
Most of all, I wanted you to realize that when you feel pretty seriously stressed and even burned out, you are understood and not crazy! We all walk through seasons like this. My prayer is that these simple thoughts will help you the next time life feels like it’s closing in on you.
I love you, my friends.
I’ve recently been studying promotion and how some people reach their goals in the church world. For all of us, promotion looks a little different. Some of us in the Kingdom of God leadership, can let our hearts go bad. So let me ask a rare question, “How do you let yourself be promoted without sacrificing your heart?”
The right kind of leadership walks in humility. All of God’s greats understood that He wanted to be their PRESS AGENT. For me, people always asks me what I did that gave me a little bit of acclaim and credibility. I think it was that I chose not to believe my own PRESS RELEASE. Instead, I just trusted the Lord that He knew the right moves for me.
You never outgrow the small moments of cleaning bathrooms, wiping down toilets and picking up after people. Leadership in the Kingdom will require simple acts of service and servant-hood. Remember, “he who is trusted with little, can be trusted with much.”
When I feel in my own heart that my attitude goes south in the small things, then I realize that the issue is not with the THING, the issue is with me. Many people think leadership is talking. Leadership is not talking. Leadership is example. It’s not about holding a microphone, but being faithful in the small things.
Choose to have a regular Arabia: your own time with the Lord. This is what keeps you grounded and centered the higher up the leadership ladder you go. Let the Lord anoint you for what He has called you to, and in DUE SEASON, He will exalt you.
My phone just rang again with another agonizing report of a leader who’s out of the game due to some agonizing personal choices. My mind races with other names who’ve joined that sad list—people who could’ve given so much to kids. Allow me to briefly “preach to the choir” with the reminder that it’s far too easy for our charisma to outstrip our character.
Oswald Chambers said, “The future is with the disciplined. And without discipline, the gifts of a leader, no matter how great, will never reach their maximum potential.” Let’s take his wise advice one step further. Without discipline, the gifts of a leader can become highly dangerous. We can become so verbal that we begin talking rings around the people we should be listening to. We can become so influential that our influence slowly erodes into manipulation. We can become so much a public representative of God that our private relationship with Him becomes past tense.
Some simple warning signs let me know when I’m getting out of touch with Christ in my personal life. See if any resonate with you:
• I speak often from my head but rarely from my heart.
• I speak about yesterday and have nothing fresh from today.
• I speak about what I’ve learned rather than what I’m learning.
• I cease to answer my own altar calls.
• I long more for the approval of people than of God.
• I internally resent those around me who question my decisions or authority.
The ultimate bottom line for me is the stark realization that it’s much easier to get followers than it is to be worthy of being followed. Our talent can become deadly—kind of like an octopus on roller skates. From the outside, we produce plenty of movement but never know which direction we’re really going.
Recently, I received a sincere compliment. “Jeanne, your character is so consistent that predicting you is a little boring,” someone said laughingly. I paused and then said thanks. I’m not sure I’ve ever been called boring before, but in that context, I celebrated. By God’s grace, I’m determined to be better at leading myself than at leading others.
So here’s a new goal: Aspire to be consistent enough in your character that people will someday call you a little boring. While they may be yawning, Jesus will be smiling.
One night, I found myself at a dinner with a ministry VIP. My personal assistant later said, “That guy was a jerk to me. But he sure seemed to like you!”
I smiled and answered, “That’s because I kept asking him questions about himself and listening while he talked.” A lot of people talk about IQ, but I want to be known for my “LQ” (Listening Quotient).
Let me ask you a really important question in youth ministry: How good of a listener are you…really? We in church circles often seem to be lots better at talking than we are at listening. That’s a pretty tragic statement, but an agonizingly true one. And after lots of years in youth ministry trenches, I promise you that intentional listening is a really, really big deal.
Years ago, Voltaire gave great counsel to those of us in youth ministry: “The ears are the highway to the heart.” James echoed that same wisdom in the New Testament when he said, “Be slow to speak but swift to listen.” So let me give you a few simple suggestions to help your “LQ” start climbing higher.
1) Realize that listening takes effort on your part. It’s far from being passive. It’s easy to “space out” when a teenager is talking with you, but it’s only when you deeply listen that you can really hear beyond their words to their heart. That kind of listening takes a choice on your part and focused intentionality. It doesn’t “just happen.” Listening is hard work.
2) Learn to “say it back.” I’m not suggesting you become a shrink or a parrot, but to help teenagers know that you’re really hearing them, occasionally re-word what they’re saying and repeat it back to them. Just yesterday, a teenage guy was telling me some of the rough times he faced with his dad growing up. Mid-stream into the conversation, I said, “If I’m hearing you right, your dad was a pretty tough guy to be around, especially when you were a young kid. I’m super sorry. Talk to me more about that.” I wanted the teenager to know I was hearing what he was so awkwardly trying to say. Then I went even further by saying, “Talk to me more about that.” Over 30 minutes later, he stopped talking and said, “Thanks, Jeanne. I didn’t know all that junk was in there.” My ministry to him? I had said almost nothing. I just shut up and really listened.
3) Fight to keep your eyes from wandering. We’ve all experienced times when someone let their eyes roam the room as we’re talking to them. If you’re like me, I’m usually through talking about the time their eyes start roaming. That’s why I remind myself often, “Wherever you are, be all the way there.”
So if you want to be effective in youth ministry, try these three simple reminders to up your “LQ.” I can guarantee you one thing: The more wholeheartedly you listen, the more wholeheartedly they will talk.
Confrontation, though we may not like it, is unavoidable. It’s everywhere! From ministry to family, to the workplace, to sport games, to whatever… we all have to deal with confrontation at some point. So how do we correct in a biblical manner? Here’s some of my thoughts:
1. We correct to make people self-aware. It’s easy for people to miss their blind spots. This is why confrontation is a must in some avenues. We must be courageous enough to challenge people to be the best that they can be.
2. We correct to help point people in what is best for them. Sometimes confrontation is necessary to challenge people out of areas that are not good for them. To confront is to care.
3. Unless confrontation brings you pain, you shouldn’t do it. This is the star, underline! Haven’t you met people who enjoy correcting people just a little too much? The truth is, if it’s too easy for you to correct people, then you aren’t ready to correct.
4. People are messed up. There is always a story behind the habit, the actions and attitudes. Take time to listen deeply to people. When you take the time to listen to people, you gain a new understanding and fresh eyes to why people do what they do.
5. Watch how you treat people after the confrontation. Always love on them afterwards to guard awkwardness from the previous correction.
6. Don’t just state facts, ask questions. Asking things such as, “Where do you think that comes from?” or “Help me to understand why that happens?” are incredible questions to get people really thinking about why they do what they do. Remember, the goal of confrontation is restoration, not condemnation.
7. Praise in public, but correct in private. Confidence in correction is a big deal. If people feel like you air their dirty laundry, then trust is broken.
8. Biblical correction should always up your level of compassion. Here’s the rule to biblical confrontation: treat others the way you desire to be treated. Your biggest goal is to be an authentic encourager, then as time progresses you have the right to make other people better. Remember, “The goodness of God leads to repentance.”
Let me start by asking a question, “When you are feeding a precious new baby, who controls the speed of that feeding, do you control it, or does that baby control it?” The answer, of course, is the baby. You cannot make a child feed any faster than he wants to. Once the child says, “I’m done,” you can keep feeding it, but he’ll just spit the milk back out.
So, as you are “feeding” students God’s truths, let me give just 10 simple thoughts about how to help students embrace spiritual truths on a personal basis.
1. Just like newborn babies will feed and grow differently and at different times, so will your students. Everyone learns differently. Many of us are visual learners, others are audio learners. Some students may come back to you with instant feedback while others will be silent for a while on their growth. You will be working with different types of students, so you will have to adjust for that.
2. Make the THREE LEGGED STOOL and the 10 AND 10 your personal mantra and be intentional about creating ways to mention these often. The three legged stool is prayer, time in the Word, and Christian friends. I say to my students that if you don’t have one of these, or if you shorten one of these, then your walk with Christ can become unstable. The 10 AND 10 is 10 minutes in the Word and 10 minutes in prayer. The Dare: 30 Days Will Change Everything by Josh Mayo, the Pursue Bible And Journal, and Life Journal are great spiritual growth resources.
3. Positive INTENTIONS without positive FRIENDSHIPS usually result in spiritual disaster in a teenager’s life. A quote I say often is, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.” Make sure you stay aggressive in the “friendship cultivation business” in your youth group.
4. Communicate biblical truth outside of the CHURCH WALLS. Field trips are a great tool to further explain a concept. Also, retreats are great or taking someone out and talking to them one on one during a lunch or car ride. Getting people out of their natural environment to teach them is a very powerful thing.
5. Make sure to tell students that FAILURE isn’t FATAL. Make one-liners from upfront on stage and in personal conversation to defang any negative thoughts that may be birthed from spiritual mess-ups. Be tremendously honest and create an atmosphere where spiritual truth can be integrated.
6. Youth ministry was created for HEROISM, not just PLEASURE. So give them reasonable hills to charge along the journey. If you give students hills to charge, then as they’re charging the hill, spiritual truth can come alive.
7. When speaking, make sure you ask, “So What?” This is the question that every student is quietly asking as they listen to one of your talks. This helps the students say to themselves, “What does this have to do with me and what do I have to do with it?” You need to be a person that is easy to listen to that connects to their life.
8. Obsessively ENCOURAGE and REWARD the smallest RIGHT CHOICES in a student’s spiritual growth. “Whatever gets REWARDED, gets REPEATED.”
9. Remember spiritual formation always happens best when you get them in the game rather than just on the bench. Small groups are a key element for getting your students into relationships with other Christ-followers. Also, get them serving. This will give them ownership of the ministry.
10. Always direct the majority of your attention and time to potential leaders because they will multiply themselves into others. If you are not intentional with who you give your personal time away to, your EGRs (EXTRA GRACE REQUIRED) will always take it from you.
While services are obviously a huge part of a successful youth ministry, I think it’s invaluable for you to take your youth gang outside of the four walls of the church. The truth is that the youth group or life group that PRAYS together and PLAYS together, STAYS together! That’s why I request my leadership team to host at least one “outside activity” a month beyond our usual youth services and small groups. You can choose whether those are fun or serious.
Here are just 4 quick thoughts to host a successful event to create some family fun:
Nobody ever told me in youth ministry that I would face many times when I was trying to bring the teenagers closer to Christ while I felt a million miles away from Him myself. Early in my ministry, I felt like a phony and a con artist during those non-feeling times. Though I was far from perfect, those silent seasons didn’t come because of the typical pitfalls (i.e. lack of personal devotion time, willful sin, or blatant disobedience). The old time preachers used to refer to these times as “when the heavens are brass.” It’s tough to tell your students, “Let’s all pray together, but I’m honestly not very sure myself that God is listening to me right now. So good luck on your end!”
Then one unforgettable day, I read Isaiah 50:10 and the lights came on. (Drum roll, please.)
“Who among you fears the Lord and obeys His servant? Let the man who walks in the dark and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.”
Let me break down this awesome verse for you. Maybe it will help you (both as a Christ follower and as a youth leader) when you hit these dark times in your own ministry and walk with Christ:
1. “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys His servant?”
The Lord used these words to clearly show me that God was talking to “His kids” in this verse, not nonbelievers. So I saw that even conscientious Christians sometimes walk through these dark, unfeeling times.
2. “Who walks in the dark…”
What are we supposed to do when the spiritual blackout comes? Keep walking! Keep doing the things you did before the lights went out. Don’t let yourself sit down on the inside, no matter how tempting it is to get spiritually lazy or quit.
3. “Trust in the name of the Lord…”
In the Old Testament, a person’s name reflected their character. So the Lord is telling us, “Trust My character as revealed through My Word.” God’s character can always be trusted when your feelings cannot.
4. “And rely on his God.”
In Hebrew, the word “rely” translates, “to lean heavily upon.” He’s saying, “Lean heavily upon My Word. You don’t have to worry. I’m steadfast and I won’t be moving! Lean heavily upon Me and you’ll still keep your balance.”
So the next time you face one of those “darkness of God” times (that’s what the early church fathers called it), be encouraged that it is all part of our growth and maturity in Him. You’re far from a phony. And remember Corrie ten Boom’s profound advice; “When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets really dark, don’t panic and jump off! Just sit still and trust the conductor.”
In the few short years we have to impact their lives, we need to be giving our students two things – ROOTS and WINGS. One of the biggest ways that you give kids roots is by making memories together, both fun and spiritual. Many families today aren’t very good at doing this (or even if they are good at it), it has to become something that we become great at in our youth ministries. To many of us, this could feel like more of a “female” thing, but to all of my male youth pastor friends, it is essential that you become good at this too.
The issue is, sometimes we make this way too hard for ourselves. So let me share with you 7 simple pragmatic ways that I’ve used to make memories with my youth groups over the years.
(1) Remember that food is magic in creating memory moments.
I always joke by saying, “where two or more are gathered together in His name…there is food.” Food has an incredible way of bringing people together. Even Jesus knew this. Jesus, when He was with His disciples, didn’t give a last “lecture.” Instead, they shared a last “supper” together. You don’t have to make it difficult to be memorable. Just some snacks and drinks from Walmart or a dollar store can be as effective as serving a full course meal.
(2) Make INDIVIDUAL memories, not just CORPORATE ones.
Nothing says, “I care about you,” to a kid, like doing something special for them. It’s great to do something special for the whole group, but it’s even more meaningful to do something one on one with a student. It doesn’t have to be profound. I remember giving a girl in our Atlanta Leadership College a necklace and told her to wear it and remember how valuable she is. Just know, when you’re making memories, they may not feel like a big deal at the time, but when you look back on them they really were.
(3) Host the usual ordinances, like communions and baptisms at unusual places or times.
This one is huge! This helps your student’s relationship really become tangible and reachable. We do this at our annual spring retreat. The day that we are leaving the retreat center, we have baptisms in the lake for anyone who gave their life to Jesus, and I have my captains baptize the students of their own small group. It becomes one of the most memorable images of the entire retreat.
(4) Give simple tokens away.
To put something in the hands of your students to help them remember your sharing, will be so beneficial. You have no idea the countless texts and emails I get of someone saying that they looked at a token from years ago, and it reminded them to keep fighting.
Be careful however, not to go over the top with this. Average no more than one token a month to create a spiritual memory or milestone.
(5) Create holiday memories.
The youth ministry that plays together (and prays together), stays together. Do something fun with your youth group. It’s easy to either to do all fun stuff or all serious stuff with your group. However, you can use some leisure time to really be a tipping point in your relationship with your students. This doesn’t have to be a sport or athletics, just something fun that gets your students involved.
(6) Capitalize on retreats and trips to create memories and traditions.
There is something really magical about the ability to get away and eliminate distractions. We do this twice a year with our gang for our fall and spring retreats. While you are gone, do a couple of things that can become traditions for you. One of the things we do with our group, we call a Silence Covenant. It’s just a simple 15 minutes that we individually take to be alone with the Lord to ask ourselves some key questions about where are at in life. Again, I know it sounds really basic, but it has become a staple of our youth ministry during retreats.
(7) Lastly, be sure to share each others’ SORROWS as well as JOYS.
Deeply listen to your students when times are tough. Don’t try to fix everything, just listen. A lot of times, the most memorable moment for your students is when you took time to feel with them, cry with them, and help them turn their pain into purpose. It’s those moments you get to be Jesus with skin on.