How to Deal with Discouragement in Youth Ministry

Posted on Posted in Personal Development

“‘I am not made for perilous quests,’ cried Frodo.
‘I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?’
‘Such questions cannot be answered,’ said Gandolf. ‘You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess; not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have'”
(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 70).

A Short Story

A Youth Pastor named Brandon shows up at a new church with high hopes. He says to himself, “This church understands. This church is growing. This church has plenty of money in the budget! This church is so much better than the last church I was at.”

He’d left his last church because he’d gotten discouraged. He felt like no one there really cared. They were just going through the motions. That church was losing members. How could he be expected to grow the youth ministry when the students’ parents didn’t even want to show up? As people left, the budget went from small to smaller.

Brandon went from discouraged to disillusioned and eventually started looking for another church to work at.

Now he’d found one!

Three months go by. He hasn’t made any changes because one of the longtime members told him that he’d better not change anything. He let Brandon know that the last youth pastor was loved by the kids and the congregation. The only reason he’d left was to take a real job as a Senior Pastor somewhere.

Brandon takes the old man’s advice; he didn’t change anything. But he feels disconnected from what he’s doing. The Sunday morning program isn’t as good as he thinks it can be. Wednesday nights are supposed to be the time when new students show up, but he hasn’t seen a new student in 6 weeks. There were a few new students who came when the church announced they’d hired a new Youth Pastor, but none of them came back after that.

Brandon decides to make some changes.

Immediately the emails arrive in his inbox:
He gets emails from parents who second-guess his plan. He gets emails from volunteers who balk at the increased demand the changes will require of them. He gets an email from the Senior Pastor that says, “I support you, Brandon, but you’re on your own with these changes.”

So much for the support he’d hoped for.

More time passes. Fewer students are showing up.

Brandon begins to feel the dreaded feeling that he felt at his last church:

Chronic Discouragement

Brandon is not alone. Discouragement seems to be a constant battle in youth ministry. Doug Fields says, “When you say yes to ministry, you say yes to periods of discouragement. Anyone who doesn’t admit to occasional seasons of discouragement owns a timeshare on Fantasy Island” (Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry, 45).

Discouragement is what you feel when your expectations don’t match reality.

Maybe it’s because so many of us are energetic, passionate, and a bit idealistic. Maybe it’s because we really believe that God has gifted us to do something great.

And then, when we bring that passionate, energetic idealism into a local church, we find out that the last 3 Youth Pastors were also energetic, passionate, and a bit idealistic!

During your interview they told you that those guys had outlandish ideas. They said those guys just didn’t understand how to do ministry in that setting. And you believed them.

You don’t have outlandish ideas. You would figure out how to do ministry in that setting. So you assumed you’d be a great fit. You took the job.

And now here you are: Discouraged. It could be 6 months or 6 years into the job. Either way, discouragement has landed on your doorstep.

So, how do you deal with discouragement in Youth Ministry?

Here are 8 ways:

1. Take a Personal Day

First of all, you have vacation days for a reason. According to a recent study, U.S. workers only use 77% of their paid time off. Use of vacation days is at the lowest point in 40 years. Don’t feel like you can only use your vacation days to go to the beach or to Disney World; use them for personal days off too.

Just like your cell phone loses its charge, you might just need to recharge for a day. What do you enjoy doing? Go out and spend a day doing that. It won’t change anything about your ministry situation, but it will help you get to a more balanced place to think about what’s really going on there.

2. Confide in Someone You Trust

Being silent about your discouragement is the worst thing you can do with it. Your feelings won’t go away when you suppress them; they’ll get more intense. That’s what living in denial does. Denial is when you refuse to acknowledge reality. Opening up with someone is the antidote to denial. And when you get your feelings out on the table, you can actually deal with them.

Don’t broadcast your feelings across Facebook or Twitter. That won’t help. Instead, find someone you trust and talk to them. Through the years, I’ve been able to share my discouragement with guys who are successful in both business and church realms. My discouragement usually stems from lack of results, so they understand where I’m coming from.

Right now, I have a friend who works at a church that is 2 hours north of me. He’s the kind of guy who always helps me gain perspective and clarity on situations. He cautions me from moving too fast, and prods me when I’m moving too slow. His voice in my life is invaluable. You need someone like that.

Be very careful about confiding in someone who currently attends your church. I’ve heard more than one story of that backfiring. Things went public that were meant to be kept private. Whoever you confide in, make sure they’re trustworthy.

3. Reconnect with God

Discouragement is often a symptom of being out of sync with God. That’s not always the case, but it is the case often enough with the guys I talk with that I wanted to include it in this list.

Ruth Haley Barton points out:
“Many of us us are choosing to live lives that do not set us up to pay attention, to notice those places where God is at work… We slide inexorably into a way of life that offers little or no opportunity for paying attention and then wonder why we are not hearing from God when we need God most” (Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, 62).

When was the last time you read the Bible just to read the Bible?
How often do you spend time in communion with God, enjoying his fellowship and presence?

When you become disconnected from the source of ministry, don’t be surprised if seasons of discouragement follow. Again, I understand that the discouragement might in fact come as a result of being close to God and sensing that He wants to do more in your ministry than you see happening in the present moment, but oftentimes it’s the other way around.

When you’re discouraged, it’s time to lean on God.

4. Rediscover Your Calling

Frederick Buechner says, “Your calling is where your greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.”

There was a time when you were convinced that you were called to youth ministry. And not only did you sense a call to youth ministry, you sensed a call to the church where you’re currently serving. It’s easy to leave. Maybe you should leave. But don’t rush to that decision, especially when you’re discouraged.

Like Brandon in the story above, you might leave one discouraging situation only to find yourself in a new one. That’s because people are still people no matter where you go. A guy told me one time that large churches and small churches both have problems; they just look different. I’ve worked at both small and large churches, and I can tell you that he was right.

To rediscover your calling, you need to think about the things you’ve accomplished so far in your ministry. I’m not talking about a vague thought that you’ve impacted several students. I want you to name them:
Kara became a Christian because of this ministry.
Sean invited a friend to church for the first time.
Samantha prayed out loud in a group for the first time.
Derek was baptized because of this ministry.

Os Guiness says, “Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion, dynamism, and direction lived out as response to his summons and service” (The Call, 29).

When it comes to your calling, there will always be good times and struggle. They go together. That’s how it is. You have to remember that seasons of discouragement don’t take away from your seasons of success. When you’re tempted to leave, you should consider that perhaps your work isn’t done yet. You might be on the brink of breakthrough.

5. Rethink Your Expectations

It’s possible that you need to rethink your expectations. You might have had dreams of growing your ministry so large that you need to build a new student building. But that might not be the situation you’re in.

Instead of complaining to the 9 students who consistently come about the 19 who don’t, what if you changed the scoreboard? What if you took the long view instead of the short view?

Instead of making weekly attendance your key metric, what if you measured the number of community service hours your students perform instead? Or what if your goal was that every student in your ministry serves in another ministry in your church? Or maybe your goal could be that every middle school student reads through the whole New Testament before high school. And then every high school student reads through the whole Bible before they graduate.

If discouragement comes from expectations that don’t match reality, then why not change your expectations?

Don’t let me or anyone else tell you what success should look like in your ministry. Your church hired you because they believe that you know what it takes to get the job done in your specific setting. Don’t play the comparison game. Different churches have church cultures, and you have to make the most of the ministry you have.

If growth isn’t a reasonable expectation, then change it to something that is reasonable and your discouragement will go away.

6. Uncover Your Strengths

Marcus Buckingham makes a distinction between strengths and things you’re good at. This was counterintuitive to me when I first heard it, but now it makes good sense.

According to Buckingham, “Your strengths are those activities that make you feel strong. (The flip side is also true: ‘An activity that makes you feel weak’ is the best definition of a weakness.)” (Go Put Your Strengths to Work, 85).

To be sure, your strengths are connected to your talents, skills, and knowledge, but the most important gauge is whether or not an activity makes you feel strong or not. You need to focus on your strengths and try to hand off everything else. It won’t happen overnight, but with some concentrated effort, you can overhaul your week to focus on the things that energize you rather than deplete you.

I have experienced the greatest discouragement in youth ministry when I allow my days to get filled up with tasks that fall outside of my strengths zone. When that happens, I know it’s time to recalibrate my calendar to focus on my strengths.

You need to focus on the areas where you’re strongest if you want to overcome discouragement and make the biggest impact in your ministry.

7. Create an Encouragement File

Every time a parent, volunteer, or students sends me an encouraging note or text message, I save it in an Encouragement File. For me, that file is just a note in my iPhone. I keep copying and pasting those messages into that note.

The latest entry is a note from a student’s mom. Here’s what she said:
“Ben told me that he ate lunch with you today. I know you didn’t have to go eat lunch with him, but I believe God used you to brighten his day. He really thinks a lot of you and the first thing he told me after school was that he ate lunch with you. Thank you for all you do to make a difference!”

It’s hard to look through a long list of notes like that and stay discouraged. Start keeping those encouraging notes and look back at them when you’re feeling discouraged. They’ll help you turn things around.

8. Get Back to Work

I think the worst thing you can do when you’re discouraged is sit and stew about it. It’s not healthy. Besides that, it’s not productive.

Can you imagine one of your volunteers moping around at their job because someone hurt their feelings or because they just don’t feel passionate about it anymore? Of course not. Neither should you! You’re a pastor, but you’re also a professional. You’re an employee of the church.

In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield contrasts the professional and the amateur. In essence, the amateur shows up when it’s fun and convenient. The professional shows up when it’s neither fun nor convenient.

I’ll be honest. I think we have a lot of amateurs in youth ministry. They’re the guys who get into this work because they thought it was going to be like a permanent summer camp. They’re the ones who get discouraged and quit when they find out that it’s not like that at all.

But I know that’s not you.
You’re a pro. You’re in for the long haul.

So work these steps and get back to the office.
You’ve got a job to do!

Your Move

We’ve covered quite a bit of ground in this post. I want to summarize it for you as we wrap up. When you find yourself discouraged, start at Step 1 and move through the list.

Step 1: Take a personal day.
Step 2: Confide in someone you trust.
Step 3: Reconnect with God.
Step 4: Rediscover your calling.
Step 5: Rethink your expectations.
Step 6: Uncover your strengths.
Step 7: Create an encouragement file.
Step 8: Get back to work.

Which of these do you think is most helpful for a discouraged youth pastor?
Is there anything you’ve done to deal with discouragement that I haven’t included in this list?

I’d love hear about it. Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Books Mentioned in This Post:

Lord of the Rings Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership The Call by Os Guiness Go Put Your Strengths to Work The War of Art

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Trevor Hamaker (DMin, McAfee School of Theology) is an author, adjunct professor, and youth ministry coach. He helps youth pastors see their potential, develop their skills, and reach their goals.

Latest posts by Trevor Hamaker (see all)

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2 thoughts on “How to Deal with Discouragement in Youth Ministry

  1. Hey Trevor. My name is Randy. I am a youth pastor at my church. I am somewhat discouraged at this time. I read your 8 ways to deal with discouragement and it hit home! Big time! I am 56, but still have a passion for youth. We just about 6 to 8 teens, with about only 3 of them being consistent. I have a wonderful volunteer youth staff which are 2 ladies, and a guy. They are all adults, probably in their 30’s. I would like to continue to ask advice from you if I can. It’s been up and down like a roller coaster ride. Any ideas? Thanks.

    1. Randy,
      I’m glad to hear that the post resonated with you. I’m even more glad that you still have a passion for youth.

      With less than 10 students in your church, I would lead the ministry like I would lead a small group. That means planning an outing every month or so just to hang out. Maybe host a board game night at someone’s house on a Saturday night. The board game night gives your students an easy opportunity to invite their friends to something that is non-threatening on neutral ground. When they see how much fun you guys are to be around, they’ll want to come back for more!

      If you’d like to chat about more ideas, feel free to send me an email and we can discuss it further.

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