Working with young people is stressful – its just part of the job.

Ive got to admit, in my ‘professional’ time involved in working with young people, the stereoptypical 60 hours a week, mega stressed out youth minister role has passed me by. Its role i have seen at close hand, but it isnt a role I have done. Within this kind of role, i can only imagine, trying to stay sane might be needed at a number of pinch points… just after the deacons meeting, or indeed, that stressful 60 hour week that accompanies another. 

It might be the way that I am wired, but its not been the busy times for me that challenge the most. Its the long drawn out summers with no activities, the future uncertainties of funding, when you feel like you’re on your own – either physically in an office, or having to pretend to be agreeing with people when deep inside you think ‘its not going to work’ or ‘thats just missing the point, by a long way’ , and having to think this when its the organisation you work for, or your line manager that could be a cause of stress, as they change from strategy to strategy. Then theres emails, pressure to ‘grow’ groups, pressure to succeed and ‘have good stories’, a different kind of stress.

There are pinch points within every job, im sure, but im not a teacher, an office worker or police officer, and so have only the experience of being involved in working with young people. And it is a tough gig. High expectations from a number of avenues, though not always from young people (who might not care that you exist). High level of expertise needed in the role – but not always actually listened to when its needed, high levels of short term contracts, and also hugely seasonal and unpredictable work.  It isnt a blueprint for calm and tranquility. Less ‘lead me by the still still water’ (that other people seem to have) and more ‘Help Jesus Im drowning’.

I have no way of knowing the ways in which you react to situations in your youth ministry. All i will share with you are a few pointers that ive learned over the last few years. The first is that our emotions are linked to our motivations. Its obvious on one hand, but we’re more likely to be emotional about things that we care about, or that we have invested in because it gives us identity, a goal or meaning. If you want to read more – see Jocelyn Bryans book ‘The Human Being’ , i think this is important, as we not only start to realise the things we care about and how we care about them, but recognise this by our emotional reactions. We also do this with others. So when we start to get emotional, and that can be anger, upset,withdrawal and on a repeated basis then we might need to ask whether we might be investing too much into the ministry. It happens. Or even into ‘our calling’ (the goal) – and ‘this job’ might affect it – which it could. But holding on to that goal in such a tight way, might be damaging. Things that threaten the things we care about – might increase stress levels.

The few things:

It helps to get organised! This is not rocket science. And i have tried many many formats for this, the best way of being organised for you is to do the system that you can trust and that also causes less stress in itself. My filofax is 24 years old. I have tried every electronic diary in the world, but the note starts on paper. For those under 25 in youth ministry a filofax is a leather bound diary that has refillable pages, that cost alot… For its more helpful to physically write stuff down, and also with the pages write notes during the day at other things. Either way, being organised is helpful. However, spaces in the diary get filled up. So fill up the blank spaces with DAY OFF, or STUDY DAY, or TIME WITH FAMILY, – again i am the worst of sinners- but on paper it is easier i think to section out these things. Also as you are writing in it,other people might also see that and feel bad that your day off is being interrrupted by their ‘often trivial’ meeting. (its not always..) . However its more important, i find to have a system that you trust, rather than the best system. There is nothing worse than starting to forget meetings, or trying to juggle being in three places at once ( or this might just be a comedy routine in movies) .

Do stuff challenging, creative or physical in your time off.  If like me, you find that the banal conversations about aspects of work are well, banal and demotivating, then use this as a springboard to read further. Honestly in the last 5 years my library has increased significantly, though starting an MA helped. Do things in your time off that cause you to switch off, and that probably doesnt include going to the movies just for youth group illustrations.. but escape, and explore. Find hobbies, or if you have family, which i have had during all my youth ministry life, then you might be ‘doing stuff with the kids’ but it is what you need to be doing. Family is important, and is easily neglected. You might need to be sharpened emotionally and family are needed in this.

Conflict. It is messy. Its is sometimes needed (to get things done), but it is still messy. And all the advice in the world about dealing with it well, often it is your job to help others in churches do this. Its also linked to the fact that as i said above people are invested in the way things are, so change is difficult. By even being a youthworker in the space disrupts the status quo. Conflict is almost an inevitavility. And if there isnt conflict, then unless you have a brand new role that needs shaping (and that is possible) – or that the role has been deisgnated for a while and you’re just the same as the person before, then dealing with and also personally dealing with conflict is part and parcel of the role. Dealing with conflict in a culture of passive-aggressiveness, now theres a book about churches waiting to be written.

Get Support! Said it before, ill say it again. Being and feeling alone is the pits. Coping alone is criminal. It will be unlikely that they wont be anyone you can talk to about stuff. A previous colleague at college, a youthworker locally, former minister. If you need to pay someone and get ‘professional’ support from a youth worker locally, then arrange it. Someone who you can be honest with, but also who might be able to listen and offer guidance.

Recognise your own strengths and weaknesses, but also your limitations. Even more importantly communicate these so that people know that you arent a superhero. If you know that you cant function the day after a busy one, then make sure theres some time off booked. If you’re rubbish at admin and keep putting it off (but it is important- schedule it in, and dont leave it in a blank space hoping it gets filled up) . Try and use the ‘quieter’ times in the year to plan ahead, it is not always easy, but at least then there might be space for the emergency crisis at that busy time too. Only you can work out what you need to be able to function and flourish in the role that you are in. You are not the same person as the previous person. remind yourself, and remind others, your pinch points/stress points, work patterns , skills and personality dictate that you work differently, so you need to manage how you work and function within the role. Different activities may require different planning time – for you- sermons for a vicar might need 2 hours prep, for you it 5. If large groups, small groups, one to ones, conferences give you different fears or worries, and need extra preparation or recovery then assign this and also communicate this with your line manager. Part of their role is to understand and shield you.

Cultivate Dreams Spend part of your working with young people cultivating theirs or your own dreams. It might be that you do this on a daily basis. But in the nitty gritty of the week and even the yearly schedule in most churches, look at the bigger picture. What if you spend the next year helping a young person start a social enterprise? what if you began a piece of work cleaning up a local litter hazard? what about a new project, something to work to. Often dreams get lost in the daily church – but having seen a few dream cultivators follow their dream, especially for local good, it can be hugely rewarding. Armed with responsibility for your own diary usually, you might have this kind of space.

Sabbaticals, Study, Learning  Its not only that by doing ongoing learning it models this with young people. But it expands our brains, and resources and helps us look at things differently. You might even be able to arrange for the church to contribute to the costs or time. Oh and if you can arrange study days, or a sabbatical to give yourself time. You dont have to learn anything about youth work or ministry – it might be theology ( hahaha) or psychology, or art, or computing, it needn’t matter, but continuing to grow is. and its possibly a good distraction and something to ‘fill your time’. Keep reading, and pursue thinking and ideas. Read someones complete works!

Recognising the signs is important. How you start to react to things, that are the same as normal but your reaction isnt, or that you’re skipping doing things you like. I know when i havent been out on my bike for a while. Or when im not eating in a disciplined way ( too much ‘quick’ food like bought sandwiches, or snacks/cakes) are all signs or indicators of not just being busy, but also potentially not coping. Though quitting the mars bars is going to help anyway…Image result for afloat

This is one of those ‘im no expert’ articles, it is also a ‘everyone is different’ type pieces too, staying sane in youth ministry shouldnt even be an issue, it should be a space of developing faith in young people, of the challenges in mission, of listening and spending time with young people. Often its sold as ‘exciting’ – when its more dramatic than that, and drama means complexity, ups and downs, busy and quiet. Staying sane might be a battle at times, especially when on the face of it for others it can seem a breeze. There are no easy settings to work with young people. Youth ministry is a tough gig. Do more than stay sane, but in the tough times, do what you can to keep afloat. The answer isnt just ‘trust in Jesus’ though some of it also might be, especially if trust in Jesus also causes you to stop, pray and reflect, walk and breathe, and take time away.

Alternatively maybe it is better to recognise that imagination is required in the drama of youth ministry and insanity or delirium it provides is part of that process of genius… Image result for sanity

Normality is a pipe dream, so why not just let your imagination and creativity take over – just hone the craft of youth ministry instead!

There are a few other tips on dealing with Stress here: a post by Alan Bartlett, on Clergy Stress.

Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust ( and Communities Together Durham ( and am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

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