Dealing with Difficult Students and Avoiding Burnout in Ministry

For youth workers (paid or volunteer), there can be nothing more frightening than the belief that something terrible might happen to a student that you have invested so much time and energy into. As a substance abuse counselor, I struggle with the reality that one day someone could overdose and die regardless of how much I try to help. I live with the often frantic sense that there had to be something I could have done! Never knowing when crisis or tragedy might happen, we learn to be hyper-vigilant…always on our guard. Is today the day I get the call? Will it be a car accident? A school shooting? Suicide?

Sometimes we feel as though we’re in a lethal game of chess with our kids, always trying to be two moves ahead and aware of the possible counter-moves. This type of hyper-vigilance can be exhausting.

As a youth worker of at-risk youth, you may find yourself on a constant emotional rollercoaster with no scheduled stops. In times of crisis we often set aside our own needs entirely, and as a result, we risk burnout and compassion fatigue. Be reassured that the time for balance will come if you’re intentional, but there are some things you can do now.

1. Seek supportive relationships

This will be essential in avoiding burnout. Build a network of friends, family, and peers who are kind and encouraging. Don’t isolate yourself in fear or shame. Seek respite in these relationships from the intensity of the situations your kids are facing.

2. Develop health-conscious behaviors

This is three-fold as I see it; rest, exercise, nutrition. Get adequate sleep, avoid snack foods, take a brisk walk daily. All three are essential for emotional stability and combating low levels of energy.

3. Have fun

A life overrun with doom and gloom and that is absent of joy is not one worth having. We need recreation. It brings balance. Laughter releases endorphins which cause us to feel pleasure in our brain. Often, when working with at-risk youth, we lose our ability to laugh. The best cure for a “lost laugh” is a “Three Stooges-I Love Lucy-Gilligan’s Island” marathon.

4. Spiritual retreat

It is essential that we create time for solitude. We should develop the discipline, schedule in our calendars, add to our budgets, the practice of seeking spiritual direction. There’s something magical and refreshing about pulling away from the insanity and pursuing Abba’s face in solitude or with a spiritual companion. Jesus would often pull away after a busy day of ministry to connect with his Father. He would travel across the lake, go up the mountain, or into the garden to pray. This simple act breaks us of our dependency on ourselves. It causes us to reflect on whether or not we are growing a savior complex. Have I, with the best intentions, placed myself in the position of God? I have found that when my levels are the lowest, it’s because I have been the one trying to “save” and “fix” kids myself. Being God is hard work, and I’m just not cut out for it.

If we expect to be in this for the long haul, we must pace ourselves. It is an intentional discipline that we need help in cultivating.

I am thankful for the other youth workers God has placed in my life that help me find balance. They constantly remind me I am not God. And, we laugh a lot. As a result, we have a better chance of loving and ministering to the kids in our community out of an overflow instead of a deficiency.