Staying Healthy in Youth Ministry: Work for a good boss

Rule 1: Run a ministry that fires you up rather than wears you out

Rule 2: God is in control—don’t be a control freak

Rule 3: Work for a good boss

Each of us must work either under, or alongside, a senior minister or group of elders (your church or denominational structure decides what type of structure works best for them.) One of more of these people has the power to make your working life a joy where you are encouraged and fired up, or, a burden where you may end up exhausted and in a state of ‘unhealth’. It is important for you and your ministry that you work with someone who promotes your professional (and personal) wellbeing and not your career destruction. In my experience, it is a necessity that you ensure that your boss is healthy. If they aren’t, chances are you won’t be either.  As we reflect on what it means to work for a good senior minister, there are two things that must guide your thinking here.

Avoid working for a workaholic senior minister!

Ministry tends to attract highly driven types, and that is a good thing. This world needs Jesus and we need men and women who are passionately committed to helping people follow him. The problem is, some of these church leaders simply don’t know when to take off their shoes, grab the remote and kick back for a spell. These are the dreaded “workaholic senior ministers” (and my guess is, you know one!)

Now there are two types of workaholic ministers: those who know they are nuts (and don’t expect you to follow suit) and … those who don’t know they are nuts (and expect everyone else to work seven days and seven nights a week). I worked for one of the latter. When I took the job he told me that this was “church life in the fast lane—we work six days and six nights.” (While he took one day per week off, he believed that every one of the other 144 hours must be given over to ministry.) To be honest, it wasn’t the six days so much as the “six nights” that killed me.

I have talked to countless youth leaders who work for a workaholic. The vast majority of these youth leaders have the same message, “he just doesn’t get it and I’m slowly dying.” So, the question is, what do we do about it?

The first thing is of course, … don’t work for a workaholic. This would be a question I would ask in the interview process. I would also ask around (other staff, elders, the previous youth leader etc.) and if you get a whiff of stressed out, overworked staff, run to the hills. I have said this before but it bears repeating, it is better to work for Starbucks than for a toxic church situation—Starbucks tends to look after its staff.

If you are working for a workaholic. This is difficult, and there are no simple, magic cures that I can offer here. The first thing I would do is to try my best for a series of conversations where you explain to your boss that you struggle with his work ethic. In fact, try to convince him that God wants us to rest (I think it is written in stone somewhere…). At the very least, will your senior minister agree that, “what works for them must not be expected of you?” You may find that they simply do not understand where you are coming from. This is where some solid elders or key parents may need to come in as support.

I would also try to show him through various ways that you are working very hard and not slacking off. This could come through giving him weekly reports and keeping him updated with everything that is going on in the youth ministry. While this is a good strategy, keep in mind that workaholics are rarely satisfied; either with themselves or with those who work for them. In the end, like all difficult bosses, you will have to learn to work with them and, in many cases, around them.

Is there an elder that you can speak with? The workaholic senior minister will probably not listen to you (you are, after all, merely junior staff). However, he may listen to a peer.

For those of you working in this situation, the bottom line may simply be to make sure your next gig is different.

Make sure your boss is not on the verge of burnout

This is a very difficult skill to cultivate but I need to post a warning for all of you in youth ministry. Be careful, you do not want to work in a church where the senior minister is about to blow a gasket.

Many ministers are great at covering up the lurking burnout that is just below the surface. They appear to be fine until wham-o, they fall in an exhausted heap. Before taking a job at a church I would seek out some information: Has this person ever taken time off in the past for exhaustion? Are there some informed people who are worried about his/her health? Does the minister have trouble making decisions (about issues in the church)? Do the decisions that get made never become realities? Does the minister get teary at the drop of a hat? These are some of the signs that I have learned to recognize.  Be warned, a boss on the edge has the serious ability to make your life a living hell … that is because their life is a living hell and they just aren’t thinking straight.

Again, it is better to skip a potential ‘sweet gig’ than to work in a life-sucking furnace. If you have any hint that the senior minister is on the edge … look for a temporary job where the toughest thing is learning to say “tall, grande or vente?”

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