I wouldn’t have known what to call it then, what questions to ask, nor what to say since it wasn’t even a topic on my radar. But looking back at that ministry I would have framed it around the topic of boundaries and self-care. The only pastoral advice I had been given at the time were “Take a day off if you come back from a retreat or mission trip” (self care), and “Be careful as a single college director working with female college students” (boundaries). That was it, and unfortunately I think that too often that is the extent of what most youth pastors will be taught in this area.
It was a lack of self-care and boundaries early on that I think eventually burned me out and left me passionless for a ministry and a group of students I really loved. I began college ministry in 2001 as a single guy, transitioning to marriage in 2005, and to fatherhood in 2007. Those were transitions that were made all the harder because I had not done the work early on of establishing healthy pastoral and ministry boundaries, and when those are weak, one’s self-care is usually left floundering in the wake.
No one had helped guide me in that transition from single pastor to married pastor, and once again I found myself alone stumbling about trying to figure out how to be a pastor who was now a father. I didn’t know who to talk to, and I watched – feeling almost as an outside observer – as the ministry slowly dwindled. I was incapable of putting forth the energy to carry out what little vision I could muster.
Those who are single in youth ministry are notorious for often lacking clear ministry boundaries and not taking care of themselves. And churches are often co-conspirators in the process, taking advantage of those who are not married, expecting them to do twice the work since “no one is at home waiting for them.” I can adamantly say that if one doesn’t establish those boundaries and self-care at the outset of the ministry, they will only be playing catch up, and the symptoms will only be exacerbated in marriage.
As I write this article almost two years removed I am beginning to have more clarity on the situation, and my full-time work as a marriage and family therapist, and part-time work on a youth staff has helped shed light on some things that went wrong. If I could sit down a youth staff (and I often do), here are some very elementary things I would say.
First, your identity in life and pastorally, flows out of your relationship with God, not out of the things you do in ministry, nor the students you minister to. Too many youth staff receive their sense of self from the events they plan and the number of students they have in their group. And unfortunately, what I see more frequently is youth staff whose identity consists more out of the students they work with (students liking them, affirming them), then really having a real sense of their own identity. I would recommend that all youth staff read Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus, and Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor.
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