I am relatively young (twenty-seven as of my writing this), but a few years of youth ministry can go a long way toward making you feel old. The elder statesmen of youth ministry in our movement both inspire and perplex me. As with most statistics, there is a wide range of “average youth pastor tenure,” but it’s safe to assume it’s rarely longer than a couple of years. My own church has not been immune; I think am the fifth leader to fill this role in less than ten years.

Sadly, all this instability creates cracks that students fall through. Waves of kids come and go, classified by who was the adult leader in charge when they were around. “Oh, that kid’s from so-and-so’s era.” It’s like dating a tree by its rings. “Oh neat, there must have been a drought that year!”

It’s easy for a church to shrug its figurative shoulders and accept this undesirable but unavoidable fact of ministry. Is it because youth pastors aren’t paid enough? The case could be made (I hope it is made), but that’s not always something that a youth pastor can control. Is it because youth ministry is seen as an entry point for paid ministry, left behind when bigger, better opportunities come along? This is often true (which is a bummer), but I’ll leave that to be addressed another day.

What I want to talk about is burnout.

Have you seen the movie Black Hawk Down? In one scene, a soldier is shot while firing of a fifty-caliber machine gun. As his body drops down in front of his squad mates, they are immediately ordered to replace him on the now unmanned gun. That’s a bit how I felt when my current ministry position opened up. I watched my mentor work so hard for so long in the face of so many challenges; he just couldn’t do it any longer. POP! SOMEBODY GET ON THAT FIFTY! So you can imagine that I took the grips with some trepidation.

I don’t want to flame out, like the phosphorous on a matchstick, bright but brief. I don’t want to be another ring in the tree. So I have steeled myself against it. I have resolved to do whatever it takes, even if feels like a loss. And I have decided to start with a lesson I learned from cross-country runners.

Good pacing always beats hard running. What that means is that saying “no” to one thing today might mean being able to say “yes” to many things over a decade. When a parent or my supervisor has a wonderful new thing for me to take on, I no longer only ask, “Is this a good thing?” I also ask, “Will taking on this assignment push me beyond a pace that I can keep for the next ten years?” If I can’t answer both questions in a way that is good for my soul, my family, and my ministry responsibilities, I must be willing to decline. And you must do the same. And everyone involved must accept that, because the ultimate benefit of all the programs, activities, and retreats are overshadowed by the loss of the most important thing in your youth ministry – you.

 

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