What I Learned from My Bout with Burnout

What I Learned from My Bout with Burnout

I was overwhelmed with discouragement, negativity, and a loss of passion.

Those feelings were new to me.

I felt nauseous everyday.

Eventually I showed up at the doctor’s office to find out what was wrong.

Everything was wrong.

I had burned out.

I was diagnosed with depression and the doctor recommended I leave youth ministry and find something else to do.

Ben Crawshaw and Kevin Ragsdale from North Point were calling me out when they said, “If you have one dynamic communicator or visionary with huge ideas and the resources to pull them off, you can build a big student ministry. But without multiple, healthy leaders, burnout is likely” (Make Believe, 55).

The problem wasn’t with youth ministry. The problem was with me. I had created a pace that wasn’t sustainable because I was trying to do ministry alone.

Doug Fields is right when he says, “Most discouraged and fatigued youth workers are usually ministering all by themselves. Doing everything alone is draining” (Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry, 174).

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How did I burn out?

I learned about leading volunteers when I was in seminary. It was part of the few classes that were designed to provide some practical nuts and bolts advice for when I graduated and started serving in a local church.

Unfortunately, it was like so many other things that students learn: after the required presentation is over, after the test is taken, you move on to the next thing. You leave those lessons and insights behind.

When I was hired to be a youth pastor, I went in with solutions. Not only did I think I had the answers to their problems; I believed I was the answer.

I had become a Christian through the ministry of Young Life, a non-denominational ministry that exists to reach unchurched students by building relationships with them and introducing them to Christ.

The key to Young Life’s success is what they call “Contact Work.” Basically, there are 3 steps to contact work:
1) Visibility: become a familiar face on the campus.
2) Conversation: eventually you’re able to talk with some students.
3) Invitation: invite them to something you’re doing.

I tell you all of that because Young Life’s approach became my approach for reaching new students. And it was really successful.

My first student ministry grew from 30 students to 90 students, largely because of the work I was doing on school campuses. I showed up at everything, all the time.

I paid lip service to the value of volunteers, but the ministry was really built around me.

• I called the students.
• I showed up at the games.
• I hung out at Dairy Queen.
• I hosted video game tournaments at my house.

It was easier that way. I didn’t think I had time to find and train volunteers. And besides, I thought, “Isn’t that why they hired me?”

The ministry had tripled in attendance, the pastor was pleased, and people liked me.


I had created a pace that I couldn’t sustain.

I couldn’t sustain that pace for 3 reasons:

1. My marriage wasn’t healthy.

I had been married for less than a year. Even though my wife enjoys ministering to high school girls, she didn’t enjoy eating dinner alone and going to bed alone every night while I was hanging out with students. I stayed up late to catch up on work, so I wasn’t able to get up in the morning when she did. I slept in and missed valuable time for conversation and catching up with her.

My marriage wasn’t healthy.

2. My body wasn’t healthy.

I was a baseball player in college. It was no big deal to finish practice, eat some pizza, play video games, do homework, eventually go to sleep at 2 or 3 a.m., and get up for 8 o’clock class the next morning. But I had gotten older. I wasn’t getting enough sleep and my body couldn’t bounce back like it did before. I was gaining weight because I ate out too much and didn’t work out enough.

My body wasn’t healthy.

3. My ministry wasn’t healthy.

I was doing all of the ministry. Sure, I had a few volunteers, but I didn’t ask them to do anything significant. They would come and go. It was my ministry and my show, and I was the main attraction.

I knew the students.
I planned the events.
I ran our band rehearsal.
I created the games.
I was the large group speaker and the small group leader.
And even though we had grown, I was the lid that was keeping the ministry from growing even more.

My ministry wasn’t healthy.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when almost a year and a half later I was burned out.

The Value of Volunteers

I tell you all of this because I don’t want you to add “Get volunteers” to your list of good ideas that you might get around to doing when you have time. You’ll never have the time unless you see it as essential and make it a priority.

The only reason I’m still in ministry today is because I was able to change my approach to ministry.

What I learned from my bout with burnout is this:
I couldn’t and shouldn’t do it all by myself.
I needed to do what only I could do.
I began to make volunteers a priority.
I looked for things to hand off to other people.

Because of that, I’ve been able to surround myself with the multiple, healthy leaders that Ben and Kevin talked about. My marriage, my body, and my ministry are all stronger today because I have amazing volunteers. I want you to experience the same thing.

Recruiting, training, and retaining volunteers needs to move to the top of your priority list, because here’s the bottom line: If you do it all, your ministry will stall.

It’s just that simple. You have a lot at stake when it comes to getting volunteers.

Your marriage is on the line.
Your health is on the line.
Your ministry is on the line.

Get the bonus content: What Volunteers Want (audio training)

Your Move

You can keep doing it all by yourself and watch everything come to a grinding halt. Or you can surround yourself with volunteers who will help you keep things moving forward at a sustainable pace. The choice is yours.

Have you been on the brink of burnout?
How did you bounce back?

Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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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.

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