New to Youth Ministry: Self Care & Boundaries

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What’s that? You’re new to youth ministry, you say? Well praise Jesus: welcome to one of the most beautiful, challenging, and glorious calls someone can receive.

Here, you’ll find endless ministry opportunities. Endless opportunities for contact work – those hours we spend at our students’ basketball games, gymnastics competitions, concerts, recitals, and musicals. Endless opportunities for events to coordinate with groups of students (such as small groups, mission trips, service days, and retreats). Endless podcasts and studies to engage in on theology, adolescent development, and youth culture. And endless opportunities to rely on Jesus as you face the ever-growing, dynamic set of needs presented by working with teenagers and their families.

If you’re not exhausted already, you will be at some point. And if you’re like me, you read the paragraph above as a list of ‘to-do’s which never ends. Yes, even trusting Jesus becomes another ‘to-do,’ which is an indicator of something gone awry.

When the way we relate to ourselves and to God is as a human doing instead of a human being, it’s time to pause, repent, and come back to the truths our faith is built on and – most important – to the Person our faith is built on, who embodies those truths. This is a daily activity for some of us, and a more-seasonal one for others. But either way, it will take the Spirit, our attention, and the support of trusted friends or staff around us, because we live and breathe in a consumer/productivity/merit-based culture that pushes us to relate to ourselves every day as doers. And it serves us well to spend a moment reflecting on how much we relate to ourselves this way, because the way we actually relate to God and ourselves will play out in our ministries.

Some of the questions we might want to ask ourselves here are: Where am I currently delighting in who Jesus is, and in who He’s made me to be apart from ministry? Where am I being fed as a follower of Jesus, made for community and to be invested in by others? Who are the people I can ask for emotional, spiritual, and even practical life-help? How aware of my own spiritual, emotional, and physical needs am I?

One example of this, for me, would be the running-reading-friending triad of questions. In my life, I have a couple of close friends who I can ask to check in with me to help me “take my temperature.” Am I making time to run or play soccer? Am I reading something enjoyable that’s not solely for ministry or counseling? Am I getting enough time with the friends with whom I have a more mutual relationship, friends who will ask me about how my relationship with Jesus is going?

These are questions best asked by trusted, safe people who can help us navigate the answers, and who can be potential advocates for us in prayer. We were never intended to operate as rogue, independently-functioning, autonomous parts of the body – especially as ministers in the church. Can you imagine seeing an arm run by itself down the street? We’d be perplexed and alarmed (and potentially entertained?). How often do we operate this way – independent from the body – in our ministries?

Humans were created with finiteness. This is a part of God’s good design. And it’s something we should seek to honor to His glory, and for our ministry’s good. God put skin on and submitted Himself to the limits of being fully human, which is an enormous gift for those of us who struggle to operate as beings who are limited by time, energy, resources, and emotional capacity. He, Himself, drew away from His friends and from others to pray (Matt. 14:23, Luke 6:12). And He, Himself, honored His needs for food, fellowship, and for rest.

He didn’t invite His followers to live superhuman lives, which implies a disdain for humanity’s limits; He invited them to follow Him (Mark 1:17), abide in Him (John 15:4), and rest in Him (Matthew 11:28). He invited them into union with Himself through the Spirit as new creations, not super powered beings with less need for sleep, prayer, nourishment, and boundaries. If anything, we are becoming more human by, in, and through Jesus. His grace is rehumanizing us, as the world and satan seek to dehumanize us as data consumers and as purchasers to manipulate (two small examples).

In a talk given at Covenant College recently, professor and author Kelly Kapic says, “[W]hen we discover our limits, our dependence, our reliance on the grace of God and how it works into worship, you and I can discover the joy of being a creature.” May that be so.

A last reality to hit on in this brief article is the consideration of the requirements of your actual ministry position, as they will play into your ability to incorporate Jesus-honoring self-care and boundaries into your life. We can talk all day about ideal ways to glorify God through saying “no” to certain things that exceed your capacity, but we also need to understand what is clearly being asked of you in your position (clear boundaries offered by your job description should help you to live out clearer boundaries outside your position, even though ministry is perhaps more of a posture than a position).

Some of the questions we might want to ask ourselves here are: How reasonable are the expectations of the position I’ve been given? Do I need clarity on the expectations? Do I need more accountability or perhaps less pressure from whoever I report to? In which expectations/roles will I need more support? What are the priorities of this position? How much flexibility does the role offer in relation to my personal health/growth/soul care?

My prayer is that the Lord would continue to make us more into the humans He’s designed us to be, and set us freer and freer in Himself to do the work He’s called us to do. Work is good; we are made to work! But we are made to work within the limits of being creatures who are dependent on Jesus and mutually dependent with one another. And this requires rest, also. May we rely more and more on Jesus, daily, as we navigate the tensions of being finite creatures who are invited to love far beyond our capacity.

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