Setting Up for the Long Haul: Establishing Boundaries and Self-Care

By Rhett Smith Posted on October 19 2010


I wouldn't have known what to call it then, what questions to ask, nor what to say since it wasn't even a topic on my radar.  But looking back at that ministry I would have framed it around the topic of boundaries and self-care.  The only pastoral advice I had been given at the time were "Take a day off if you come back from a retreat or mission trip" (self care), and "Be careful as a single college director working with female college students" (boundaries).  That was it, and unfortunately I think that too often that is the extent of what most youth pastors will be taught in this area.
It was a lack of self-care and boundaries early on that I think eventually burned me out and left me passionless for a ministry and a group of students I really loved.  I began college ministry in 2001 as a single guy, transitioning to marriage in 2005, and to fatherhood in 2007.  Those were transitions that were made all the harder because I had not done the work early on of establishing healthy pastoral and ministry boundaries, and when those are weak, one’s self-care is usually left floundering in the wake.
No one had helped guide me in that transition from single pastor to married pastor, and once again I found myself alone stumbling about trying to figure out how to be a pastor who was now a father.  I didn't know who to talk to, and I watched - feeling almost as an outside observer - as the ministry slowly dwindled. I was incapable of putting forth the energy to carry out what little vision I could muster. 
Those who are single in youth ministry are notorious for often lacking clear ministry boundaries and not taking care of themselves.  And churches are often co-conspirators in the process, taking advantage of those who are not married, expecting them to do twice the work since “no one is at home waiting for them.”   I can adamantly say that if one doesn’t establish those boundaries and self-care at the outset of the ministry, they will only be playing catch up, and the symptoms will only be exacerbated in marriage.
As I write this article almost two years removed I am beginning to have more clarity on the situation, and my full-time work as a marriage and family therapist, and part-time work on a youth staff has helped shed light on some things that went wrong. If I could sit down a youth staff (and I often do), here are some very elementary things I would say.
First, your identity in life and pastorally, flows out of your relationship with God, not out of the things you do in ministry, nor the students you minister to.  Too many youth staff receive their sense of self from the events they plan and the number of students they have in their group.  And unfortunately, what I see more frequently is youth staff whose identity consists more out of the students they work with (students liking them, affirming them), then really having a real sense of their own identity.  I would recommend that all youth staff read Henri Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus, and Eugene Peterson's The Contemplative Pastor
Second, establish clear expectations and boundaries with your supervisors, and with your students you minister to.  If you don't do this, then you will continue to model bad boundaries to your students.  Students need you, but not as much as you think.  Some youth staff need them more than the other way around. Establish days off and take them.  Establish working hours and stick with them.  Take personal retreats. Youth ministry has some odd hours, but you need to find a rhythm.  You need to take a Sabbath, turn off technology at night and days off.  You need to exercise.  I would recommend that all youth staff read Anne Jackson's Mad Church Disease.
Third, establish healthy boundaries with your family (spouse, kids) and friends.  Does your family and friends have priority over your ministry?  Are you home for dinner most nights of the week?  Are you truly present with your family when you are around, or are you always checking email, your phone and letting work bleed over into your family life?  Talk to your spouse about her/his happiness with your job and your marriage.  Is he/she satisfied, and what would they suggest you change?  Much research shows that spouses have a less favorable few of their marriage than the spouse who is in ministry.  Remind your church that they hired you, not your spouse.  This is your job, not theirs (sure they can help and volunteer), but it shouldn't be an expectation. Keep open communication with your spouse about your marriage, because ministry is one of those vocations where pastors often get into marital trouble when the sense of self they value is the one that is reflected back to them by those they pastor to, rather than radiating from within.  This is a blind spot that has set many youth pastors up for affairs.  I would recommend that all youth staff read Roberta Gilbert's Extraordinary Relationships and Henry Cloud and John Townsend's Boundaries.
Fourth, reach out to others and establish an environment on staff where boundaries and self-care can be openly discussed. There is great fear in many church circles, especially evangelical ministries, about openly admitting to struggle, burnout and failure.  Many fear they will lose their job or will be looked at differently.  Reach out to a counselor or spiritual director, someone who was trained to equip people in these areas. 
All of this can seem a bit overwhelming, but I will suggest to you that if you don't get a handle on healthy boundaries and self-care early on in your ministry, you most likely won't get a handle on them later, and you set yourself up for burnout, and deterioration of the ministry and your relationships.


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From Dj on October 19, 2010

This is my story!  I started at a church right out of college and single.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was working 70+ hour weeks.  When I got married, I realized I was no longer able to keep up that kind of schedule.  I quickly burned myself out and I was completely useless.  I now take these things very seriously and I’m blessed with a church that is sensitive to these things.

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From Trevor on October 25, 2010

Thanks for putting this in words.
Very insightful and helpful!

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From A on October 26, 2010

I could hae written this. Except I’m still in my position and female. Feeling useless

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From wesley on November 07, 2010

This is me as well. Im going in my 10th year in youth ministry and now have three kids of my own. Even though the ministry is strong, the church where im currently employed wanted to let me go and hire a younger single person who could commit more to the job. I love Christ, I just get tired of some “Christians”.

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From A Burnout Youth Leader on December 15, 2010

This is a helpful article.  I’m no longer working with my church’s youth ministry because I became so sick of what members and parents put me through to get things done.  I found that many times if I didn’t go the extra mile, things wouldn’t get done.  Now, I am so turned off, I would rather move my membership so I can breathe and think better. Any recommendations on what to do when one reaches their threshold?

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From Youth Pastor on January 23, 2011

This is a good conversation.  I’m 10 years into youth ministry and 33 years old.  I’m going to chime in here.  If you’re feeling like you’ve hit the limit of what you can do yourself I have a solution.  Do much less.  Remember you’re a pastor not an event coordinator.  Do less for more results.  I have parents and youth workers always saying we need to do more.  I take it as a compliment and prayerfully consider what is vital.  Basically, I focus on our youth worship night, sunday Bible study, and small groups.  I plan 3 overnight events a year and about 4-5 other outings.  I encourage each small group leader to do something with their small group once a semester.  I only have kids in my house for my wife’s small group on Sunday nights.  I work very hard and this might even be too much now that I’m typing it.  I have a Student Leadership team and an Adult leadership team that works hard to spread the load.  I see pastors out every night with kids and constantly gone.  We need to work hard but not get carried away.  We’re supposed to be making disciples not church addicts.  It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes isn’t it?  I’m thankful for all of you serving and reaching kids.  God all our hope is in You.  We are weak and so very human.

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From Karen Van Riesen on February 11, 2011

As a Christian life coach, I specialize in coaching Christians establish good boundaries and self care.  As Christians we mistakenly believe we have to say yes to everything - with disastrous results.  In the end we can lose our identity, our mission and focus.
The more I learn, the more I realize it’s ALL about boundaries - with self, others and God.
Why can’t we set boundaries with ourselves?  Why can’t we say ‘no’ to ourselves?  It’s not that easy and as Drs Cloud and Townsend say, it’s not about willpower, it’s about getting to the root and not just treating the symptom.  What impacted me most about their teaching was that we cannot set boundaries alone.  We need to loving support of a small group of believers who also understand boundaries. We need the body of Christ, yet I don’t think we realize or believe that we do.  Our healing is in loving relationships inside the body of Christ. Without boundaries, though, we can withdraw mistakenly from those we need most.  That’s what burnout will do.  Others aren’t the problem - we are.
We need to take responsibility for our boundaryless behavior and not blame others.

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From ex-youth pastor on March 16, 2011

I needed to hear this.  It’s been 2 yrs since I’ve pastored youths and at 27 aftr having married for 4.5 yrs, I’m just now beginning to get a grasp of who I am, what I wanna do, and what I didn’t do (build boundaries).  I’ve had many offers to youth pastor and Ive had to turn them all down because I know I’m not ready.  Since I didn’t create the right boundaries when I was in ministry, I’ve come to see that I’m more disconnected with myself and God.  No, I didnt cheat or anything, just didnt have a vision and didnt have any friends.  So, my youths became my friends.  Not good.  I’ve taught, discipled, lead worship bands, and ran events like how i was expected to, but no one really cared about how I was doing.  Anyway, that’s just how churches are.  All I know is that when God calls me back into ministry, things will be different.  I appreciate the article.

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From JOHN on March 30, 2011

I am a married youth pastor with two small children and I can’t say I’m having fun. I constantly feel guilty about the way my family is expected to attended / do everything at the church and the harm this brings to my family. At the same time I feel guilty if I’m away from the church attending one of my children’s school functions. It’s a massive Catch-22 situation. I find myself resenting the expectations of the church. My colleague pastor has a driven perfectionist type personality and has set the tone for the expectations of the church. He often works on off days. His teenager kids are in my youth group and they secretly hate the church and resent Christianity. They dare not say anything to their parents. I don’t want this to be the case of my family. I don’t want this to be my life story. I often consider resigning from the ministry for the sake of my family.

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From Youth Pastor on March 30, 2011

I know what you mean about your family.  I don’t have children yet and I already fear for them.  My wife is frustrated at my schedule as well.  It’s tough.  Suicidal kids, constant texts from hurting kids, high expectations from students and parents, and a never ending pile of stuff to do can be overwhelming.  I often take my ministry too seriously and forget to minister to my wife by just being home sometimes.  She knows the work is important but hate having to “understand’ every single day.  It’s hard.  I’m constantly pulling away from ministry…but it keeps dominating my life.  We just have to keep learning as we go and keep our families first.  It’s not easy.  Most of the time I’ve done better than the last few months.  The environments we work in are dynamic and always changing.  We have to always be building boundaries and always be saying no.  I need to take some of my own advice here!  One day it will all make sense…let’s just not lose our families in the process.

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From Naung Taw Lay on August 16, 2011

I like it, I am searching advice for YOUTH.

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