The following is a story from Diane, a youth worker who took her first youth ministry job at the same time I did. Do you see yourself in her story?
In September 2004, three big things happened in my life. I started my junior year of college, I moved into my first apartment, and I accepted my first paid youth ministry position. I’ve never been more excited for anything as I was to start doing youth ministry.
It was a 15-hour a week youth ministry job paying $14 an hour, which was more money than I’d ever been paid to do anything. I’d heard from a mentor once that youth ministers always worked overtime, and so I planned on working at least 25-hours each week. I knew I wouldn’t get paid for it, but I was convinced that youth ministry was that important.
In October, I did my first retreat with the students. I planned the whole thing, and it was a lot of work, but on the second night of the retreat, I had eight students decide to make a commitment to Christ. It was a rush.
Through that first semester, I was managing pretty well. My grades were good, my bills were paid, and my youth group was growing. I had a good rhythm about my life.
There was just this little thing that was bugging me. My church was situated in the middle of the city, but was doing nothing to reach an urban population. I decided that I wanted to change that so I started a program called UNO – Urban Night of Outreach.
I had the blessing of my pastor, but they wouldn’t give me a budget to run the program. That was my first real frustration and led to my second real frustration – fundraising. I think I hated fundraising as much as I loved leading students to Christ at that retreat.
Within a few months, I started to feel like I was spread too thin. I worked hard to maintain balance in the fall, then I added this weekly outreach program and the monthly fundraisers to support it. I was toying with the idea of making UNO a monthly thing instead of a weekly thing. It wasn’t ideal, but it would save time and money, at least until the church was equipped to support the idea.
Then I went to a large youth ministry event with a group of my students. The speaker was convincing and painted an ugly picture about how we were losing a generation of students. He explained that right now was a crucial time in the course of human history and said that if we failed to reach students now then Christianity might be eradicated in America.
I was no less tired, but was more motivated than ever before. The speaker said something about how if we weren’t exhausted than that meant we weren’t doing enough of God’s work. He said we’d have time to sleep when we were dead.
I was convinced. I left that conference ready to do more than I’d been doing before and I started my first UNO small group. I was running programs four nights a week and was working at least 30 hours. My programs were growing. I was still keeping the bills paid.
But now I was failing two classes and receiving D’s in two more. Those were letters I’d never seen on a report card before. I was devastated and I didn’t know what to do except to go to my professors and ask for extra credit projects. They all accommodated me, and they gave me a ton of extra work to rescue my grades.
I was very much aware that things were spiraling out of control, but there was nothing I could do. I had to pay the bills. I had to save my grades. Each of my four programs represented a promise I’d made to groups of people. I couldn’t break those promises.
It was late in March when it finally happened. I stayed up too late on Saturday night doing homework, and when my alarm clock went off on Sunday morning, I turned it off. When my phone rang, I unplugged it. I didn’t get out of bed until two.
I’d missed my first program in seven months, but I knew I wasn’t going back there.
I felt like a failure, even though by every metric I’d been successful.
I felt like I let the church down, even though I’d done twice as much as they’d asked.
I felt like God abandoned me, even though I’m the one who ignored his command for Sabbath and became too busy to invest in my own relationship with him.
It was months before I told my parents and because I’d lived in an apartment and hadn’t had any time for my friends, they didn’t have to know either. I didn’t even officially resign until I hadn’t shown up for three weeks and that was because they were holding my paycheck.
I avoided downtown for fear that I might run into anyone I knew. I felt too embarrassed to attend a church – any church – and so I didn’t. It was five years before I worshiped in a church setting, and even now it still feels uncomfortable.
I tried to switch majors during my senior year. Youth ministry wasn’t going to do anything for me anymore. When I found out that it was going to take me an extra three semesters to graduate, I dropped out and started working at a bookstore.
When I think about my very brief youth ministry career, I can’t help but think that I was good at it. That’s what makes me so sad. I was good at it. I believed I was called to it. I still didn’t make it.
Burnout sucks. For me it was seven years ago, and I still feel like I haven’t gotten back on my feet yet. I have no idea what happened to the ministries at my old church. Most of all, I still haven’t found a passion that captured me like ministry, but I’ve been too disconnected from the Church to go back and lead it now.
Closing Thoughts With Aaron:
Do you make your day off an uncompromising priority? Or do you cheat too often, resting only when you “can”? Most youth workers report that they fail to take a regular weekly Sabbath.
And all of the time, they fail to understand the consequences that stem from that decision. There’s a reason God commands us to rest. He knows we can’t function without it. You know why I don’t work on Saturday? For the same reason that I don’t kill people or provide false witness. This is too often lost on church professionals, but the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, and God was as serious about this one as he was about the others. Remember this. Skipping your Sabbath is absolutely Biblically disobedient.
People who rest are more effective workers. Try this article or a dozen others just like it. People who take time to rest and recharge simply get more done. That means there’s an excellent chance you’ll actually get more done in a fully-charged 40-hour week than if you run yourself ragged.
Sabbath-skipping is the best way to ensure you burn out of the ministry. In my interviews with former youth workers, 80% report that they didn’t take a regular Sabbath.
I’m sure there are important things that are keeping you away from your day off, but I promise you they are not more important than your career and your ministry.
Your body-clock is going to take a break anyway. Maybe you won’t take a day off, but you’ll almost certainly make it up in other ways. You might take a nap during the week or spend a few hours zoned-out and cruising YouTube.
Whatever you do, remember that the Sabbath isn’t just some suggestion from a blogger; it’s a commandment from God, for your protection and benefit.
What are things that keep you from taking a Sabbath? What do YOU need to do to make keeping this commandment a priority?