Youth Ministry for the Tired

This month I wanted to address the issue of doing youth ministry when you are just plain tired. I’m not talking about burn-out, which is another thing altogether. I’m just talking about those nights when you are not in the mood.

It doesn’t matter if you are paid or volunteer. It doesn’t matter if you like the kids or not. It doesn’t matter how much planning or creativity you have put into your class or meeting. Sometimes we feel we just don’t have the energy, physically or emotionally, to show up.

Maybe the weather makes us want to stay cozy at home, or we think no one’s going to be there (except maybe those crazy kids who drive us crazy), or we’re sick of spending Saturday night with a group of 14 year olds instead of friends or family, or we feel underprepared and are sure that it’s going to be terrible. Believe me, after 30 years of youth ministry I could write a book of those “I don’t want to go” thoughts.

And so you’re tempted to call in sick…until you realize that you’re the only person who’s going to lead the group. And you’re tempted to cancel the group since it’s only a couple of kids anyway…until you realize that in doing so you’d be saying those kids aren’t important.

And so you get yourself out to buy the snacks and open the church and be ready to go. But how do you take care of yourself so that you can be present for the kids who show up?

Feel it: The first thing to do is to acknowledge how you’re really feeling. Just to yourself, first of all, and then to part of your support network – and if you don’t have a support network, you need one! You need close friends and colleagues you can lean on for support so that when these feelings happen – AS THEY WILL – you have somewhere to take them so they don’t leak out sideways.

Positive self-talk: When I’m getting down about going to youth group, I give myself this little pep talk: “Go Kellor! Get your butt in gear! Whether you believe it or not, they will be disappointed if there’s no youth group. It is for two hours, and you can do anything for two hours. Remember that you are often refreshed from spending time with the youth. I am a better person for hanging out with them…even the crazy ones.” What words of encouragement will get you through the immediate task in front of you?

Plan ahead for a rest: Even before the program year starts, set aside some weeks when you don’t have youth group and can give yourself a break to get refreshed. Of course, your youth group schedule is probably already set by this time, so if you’re tired and need some incentive to get through the next bit, take a look at your calendar and mark out a window of time equal to the time you’re spending on youth group to give yourself a break. Literally mark it out so that when the person calls to say “Can you meet at X time?” you will look at your calendar and say, “I’m sorry; I already have an appointment then.” Because you do – an appointment to take a break!

Go to your fallback activities: It’s a good idea to have a few fun pull-it-out-of-your-hat events or topics that won’t take a lot of energy from us for just these days and times. For some people just playing games all night is fun and easy, but not me. I’ve asked all the kids to break into group to create skits on peer pressure or mean kids, which is always easy and fun, and great conversation starters too. YouTube clips or other videos are good because they let the group relax and view it together, then open things up for conversation. What has worked well in the past that you can modify or draw on for a quick change of plans?

Remember, they’re not all going to be a home run: They’re just not. But you being there and making the effort to be there is going to mean something in the long haul, even if it seems pretty sad in the moment.

Here’s my story about the last time I didn’t want to lead youth group. The topic was going to be stress and I was so stressed. My own daughter was not even going. I thought, “What am I going to do here? How am I supposed to lead this group on stress when I can barely keep myself together?”

So I stopped at a store and bought a couple of bags of ice.

When youth group started, I realized a couple of kids were only there to see each other, a couple were there because their parents made them, and one youth had brought a friend who was wondering why he had come. I was wondering why I came too. Were they picking up on my fake “I want to be here!” vibes? We needed a unifying event.

I realized it was time to throw the ice.

We stood outside on a porch. I told them that every time they threw some ice, they had to scream or say what pisses them off. They were timid to start, but not for long! All of us were slamming the ice into the walls – me included! We ended up talking about all the things we said as we threw ice. I introduced them to the primal scream. THEY LOVED IT! We do it all the time now. I don’t know what the neighbors think…but the kids now know just as I do that we all have to do things we don’t want to do or be places we don’t want to be. But we have responsibilities. How we handle them is the key. And that’s a lesson we need to learn if we want to be able to pass that on to the youth we work with.

When you’re working with youth, whether it’s 3 kids or 33, they have made the effort to be there. They really need this time at youth group or CnC. For many, it’s the only no stress time they have all week, where they won’t be graded or scored or judged or evaluated. Kids need adults in their lives who don’t need or want something from them. You can be that person. No wonder the work is tiring! But just remember that what you do is important and that showing up is the first and most important step.

editor's note: There will be a Celebration of Youth Ministry with a reception honoring Kellor Smith at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, CA on Saturday, April 13! Prior to the reception, the Rev. Andrew Zirschky will present a workshop on Engaging Doubt with Youth. Registration for the workshop is $10. Please come -- and spread the word!