I was on a collision course with burnout that was inevitable. Those close to me would have seen it coming. I didn’t.
I knew I was skirting dangerously close to an unhealthily load and pace, but I just kept telling myself I could handle it all. I kept saying that is was only for a little while and then things would slow down. They didn’t.
For years I served as a bi-vocational youth pastor while working 3 or 4 part time jobs. We had carried a busy load before. Why couldn’t we handle it again. It was after all just for a season.
Things however just seemed to escalate and speed up. And honestly, it came really close to all crashing down.
If you’ll allow me to be honest and transparent I’ll explain, tell you what woke me up, what I’m learning, and where I am now in the journey back.
A few years ago I went back to school to finish up a degree. I started slow at first taking a class a time. It became pretty apparent that at the rate I was going it would take forever to finish.
So, my wife and I weighed the options and felt like given my responsibilities and demands at my church the best option for our family long term would be to buckle down and do what it took to finish as quickly as possible.
So I doubled down on school waking up early in the mornings, staying up late at night, and using any free time I had to do schoolwork all while still attempting to be faithful as a husband, dad to 4 kiddos, serving as a student pastor at a fairly large church, and of course keep up with the blog and podcast here at the TheLongerHaul.com. It has been every bit as exhausting as it sounds. Both for me and for my wife.
Then 2 years ago, my role at the church expanded to overseeing all of our student ministries Middle School through College and a couple of associate staff members were brought on to help. This has proved to be much more time consuming than I would have ever thought.
The pace continued to quicken and has continued to be relentless. It was honestly unmanageable from the start. Plenty of people close to me were telling me I was taking on too much.
Stubborn as ever and terrified of failing, I pressed on taking on more and more as I went.
Before long, the effects of all of this began to take their toll. They came slowly and steadily, but they came nonetheless. I found myself always tired–exhausted really–yet unable to sleep. Constant headaches from constantly clenching my jaw as a result of the never-ending stress I was under.
I was having heart palpitations regularly, and found myself in a constant state of frustration. I became discouraged over everything and found myself fighting for any motivation at all to do ministry outside of sheer obligation. Any semblance of joy was long gone. Burnout was not just on the horizon, it was here.
I found myself short with my kids, quickly losing my temper and snapping at them over small trivial things. I wasn’t listening to or really helping my wife like I should have been.
Still the responsibilities of all that I had taken on were piling up and smothering me. The load of walking through serious situations with families and students in the ministry became almost too much to bear, and boy did they come.
In the past several months it seems that we have faced and dealt with some of the most serious situations we have ever had to deal with in 17+ years of student ministry. And they just keep coming. The saying goes, “when it rains, it pours,” and we’ve been in a monsoon the last 2 years.
My fear of failure overshadowed any sense of reality of the load I was attempting to carry. And as a result, I found that I felt I was failing at just about everything.
From the outside looking in, most wouldn’t even know anything was wrong. I mean, most weren’t privy to the wide array of responsibilities and activities I was attempting to juggle. From the vantage point of their little piece of the pie, all was being managed. Inside though, I was dying with no help or end in sight.
My final semester of school has had me taking 14 hours of class to finally finish before the craziness of summer in student ministry hits. I could feel myself beginning to be washed over being completely overwhelmed. This happened in such as way as to literally take my breath and sending me on the verge of a panic attack on at least one occasion late one night.
I had come to a place where I couldn’t find anything that I enjoyed. Everything just seemed like a grind—one more thing until I got to the next thing, and I felt trapped in this never-ending cycle.
It was clear. I wasn’t in a healthy place, and something needed to give.
Then a couple months ago I was at a campus ministry meeting one night and the speaker quoted William Carey. Now, I’ve studied William Carey plenty.
Regarded by most to be the father of modern missions, he was a focus of much of the study for my minor in Great Commission Studies. But I had never ever heard this quote before, and it hit me square in the mouth.
“I’m not afraid of failure; I’m afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.”
Wow. I sat there stunned, humbled, and deeply convicted.
Without question my greatest fear in life has always been failure. Failure at anything. I’m afraid that as a result of this fear, I’ve been successful at a lot of things that don’t matter.
I knew walking back to my car that night praying earnestly for clarity and relief from the Lord, that I needed to reevaluate what it was that I was really wanting and needing to succeed at. I would have to make some difficult cuts to ensure that the things I succeeded at were the things that were of most importance then. Some things I enjoyed and felt were important would have to go so other things that legitimately could not fail could be successful.
In the end, the podcast among other things had to take a break for a while. Since then, my school load has lighted during the back half of the semester, and the spring semester with ministry has been slower than the fall.
To be honest, I’m not out of the woods just yet, but I definitely know I’m on my way back to a healthy place. I’m starting to feel like I can breathe again. Just this week, I had the best nights rest I’ve had in over 6 months.
I’ve learned a lot over the past few years, much more even in the last few months.
Here’s some of what I’ve been learning…
I’ve been learning again to say no, turning down things from speaking opportunities to serving on the board of a mission organization. These and others were great opportunities and under different circumstances I would have been honored to do so, but I realize that saying yes to anything requires me saying no to something else.
I’m learning the importance of rest. When I’m not rested I open myself up to easier discouragement and lack of passion for what I do. I cannot fully devote myself to anything if I’m tired and weary from unrest.
I’m learning again to slow down and take notice of what and who is around me. Maybe it is a sunset on my way home. Maybe its rush hour traffic (or in the case here in Atlanta…just traffic) that is forcing me to slow down during my day. Maybe it is taking the time to play with my kids or really listen and talk with my wife. I’m working hard at being present where I am. I’m not great at this yet, but I’m learning to do it better.
I’m learning the value of greater discipline in my life. If I am undisciplined, I cannot accomplish all of the things that reasonably do demand my time and attention. If I am undisciplined I will make poor use of my time and rob myself of rest and recharging.
I have seen once again the power of longevity in one place. I honestly believe in any other situation I wouldn’t have been able to make it this far.
There are so many ways longevity has shown itself to be a lifesaver the past few months that I could write an entire post just on how this has helped me—and perhaps at some point I will. For now let me just say to you that it is worth it.
I’m also extremely grateful for the team of volunteers I have in place. Even with me struggling personally so much, our volunteer teams have continued to carry the ministry effectively.
Recruiting and building an all star team has proved once again to be a life saver for me. I cannot imagine where I would be right now without the rock star group I have in place.
Both my volunteer youth leaders and my parent leadership team have been amazing. They have filled the gap where needed as well as been an incredible source of encouragement.
If you don’t have a team like this in place, I cannot encourage you enough to build one. There are few things in your life and ministry that have the ability to enable you to have greater effectiveness than a great team around you. I’ve written about this several times before and offer a course a couple time a year on putting this in place. It is so very important if you intend on being successful.
God has shown Himself to be so faithful even in the midst of all of this. He has never wavered, never failed, and continued to show patience and mercy toward me. His love has been constant even though at times I have struggled to feel it or grasp it.
I am so incredibly grateful for His goodness and for the gospel. Overwhelmed by His faithfulness in my life, in my family, and in my ministry.
This crazy calling we call youth ministry can be quite a ride. It can bring the greatest joys and the deepest sorrows. It requires of us to be diligent in guarding ourselves and our hearts. It demands of us to remain disciplined and rested. It allows us to draw close to His side and find the relief we long for in a Savior who is able.
After 17+ years of this, I’m still learning each day. I hope I’m always learning and wanting to learn. I hope the same for you.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”