Youth & Campus Ministry Burnout with Charlie Conder | Podcast Season 05, Episode 02
Charlie led a large youth ministry; in fact, her middle school participants grew to be half the size of the entire church. She discusses the challenges she faced as her ministry grew, leading to significant stress and physical and mental burnout.
Charlie emphasizes the importance of recognizing signs of burnout, understanding the manifestation of stress in one’s body, and the need for a more holistic approach to leadership. She also shares more about her decision to step away from ministry, the grieving process involved, and the guilt associated with prioritizing personal well-being. The conversation touches on the role of leaders in creating a culture that values self-care, open communication, and supporting one another.
About our guest:
Charlie Conder grew up in rural Illinois but has been living in metro Atlanta, GA for the past 19 years. She has two grown daughters who stop by to shop in the pantry from time to time. Before being called into ministry, Charlie taught Middle School for 6 years. For the last 18 years, Charlie has been serving in the local Methodist Church. She currently works for Orange as an XP3 student specialist and is the Lead Coach for The Youth Cartel. Charlie has never passed a dog that she didn’t want to pet and her most favorite thing in the world is a Swedish Fish. But only the OG red ones. You can find her at charlieconder.com and on Instagram at @charlieconder.
In each episode, we ask our guests to highlight an organization that is doing work. Charlie wanted to shout out Terre Haute Friendship House, which offers an inclusive and affordable housing model that brings individuals with and without disabilities together in community to reach their full potential in Terre Haute, Indiana.
- If you are a Christian leader or pastor seeking a space for support, growth, and transformation for yourself or for your team, we invite you to participate in one of our cohort programs, called a Circle. To learn more and to get on the waitlist to be notified when our next Circle is offered, click here.
- NEW: Get our latest free resource, Disillusionment with Ministry: 4 ways to renew your purpose in the midst of disappointment.
- Download the free Clergy Burnout Report
- Don’t miss an episode: Subscribe to Transforming Engagement, The Podcast on Apple, Spotify, or Amazon Music (Audible)
Rose: Today we’re very grateful to have Charlie Conder with us. Charlie grew up in rural Illinois, but has been living in metro Atlanta, Georgia for the past 19 years. She has two grown daughters who stopped by to shop in the pantry from time to time. Before being called into ministry, Charlie taught middle school for six years. For the last 18 years, Charlie’s been serving in the local Methodist church. She currently works for Orange as an XP3 student specialist, and she’s the lead coach for The Youth Cartel. Charlie has never passed a dog that she didn’t want a pet, and her most favorite thing in the world is Swedish Fish, but only the OG red ones. Hi Charlie. Welcome to Transforming Engagement: The Podcast.
Charlie: Oh, Rose, thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited.
Rose: Yay. Well, listen, let’s just get right into it. Can you tell us a bit about your own story? How did you begin working with youth? How has that evolved and what are you doing now?
Charlie: Yeah, I was a deaf- and hard-of-hearing teacher for middle school students, and I always felt like I was in the right neighborhood but had never found the right house. And when I discovered ministry at my church, and you all know how that starts, right? It’s can you volunteer? And then all of a sudden they don’t have a youth pastor anymore, and then the next thing you know, you’re in the senior pastor’s office going: Hey, would you be interested? And so that’s kind of how being in ministry evolved for me. And so I’ve always loved students and when I finally found student ministry, I knew I was at the right house in the right neighborhood doing what God had equipped me to do.
Rose: Wow, that’s awesome. This whole season is about youth and campus ministry burnout, and I mean, I’m just hearing stories from all over the place about burnout, not only in clergy lead pastors, staff pastors, but in the whole youth ministry as well. And so can you tell us your experience with burnout, your own, if you could tell us what led up to it. How did you manage?
Charlie: Yeah. I worked in the local United Methodist Church. I started at that church when my daughter was in kindergarten and we had five, maybe 10 students coming. And then over the years we grew to 50 to 100 to 200 to 250, and it was in a church that maybe worship 400-500 in a week. And so our middle school ministry was over half the size of our entire church. And I don’t know if you heard the size of my church, but because of that, we didn’t have a ton of paid staff. And so I was it. And so there was a time when I couldn’t make it to my car after youth one night and my coworker put me in my desk chair and was wheeling me out to my car after youth and something was wrong in my body. The stress and the burnout had manifested itself in my body, but I wasn’t wise enough to pay attention to that. This ministry was amazing, right. I mean, who has that many middle schoolers and a small church? I mean, we didn’t even have space in our church for these kids. I mean, it was beautiful, but at the same time it was ugly. And so being pushed out to my car every night– one day, I just couldn’t go back. I had to have a pretty extensive kidney surgery and I was out of work for almost six weeks, and that was a big wake up call for me. It was a time for me to say, I probably should slow down. After that, I thought I knew how to listen to my body, and I thought, okay, Charlie, you’re going to be so much better. You’re going to listen and be in-tuned. And in 2016, I had my first lumpectomy, and that lumpectomy happened on December 23rd. And on December 24th, the youth pastor had been asked to preach all of the modern Christmas Eve services. Now, Rose, I dunno about you, but when the youth pastor gets invited to preach the Christmas Eve service, that’s being invited to the Super Bowl, who gets asked to do that? Unfortunately, I had a reaction to the lidocaine from the lumpectomy the day before. So here I am on stage sweating, just pouring down my face like I was actually playing a Super Bowl and not just preaching a sermon, and it was due to the lidocaine reaction. And it was in that moment that I thought, what am I doing? Ministry is great, ministry is beautiful. I’m where God called me to be. And yet I feel like I was giving more of myself to the church than I was to my family. I don’t remember much of third and fourth grade for my daughter because it was when we were going from 50 to 200 to 250 and I had to be there. I was the person in charge. And even though I feel really good at delegating: I’m an eight on the Enneagram. And so I feel pretty confident in my leadership and my delegation. There was still this responsibility, and I don’t even know if senior leadership put it on me. I’ll be honest. I think I put it on myself. I had to be here to make sure it was happening. A lot of my students didn’t look like my church. And so there was some big tension in that, that all of these community kids were coming and then how do we deal with behaviors and behavior management? So I felt like I had to be there and at the same time I was sacrificing myself and it caused me to leave ministry. I couldn’t hack it anymore, for lack of a better word. I physically could no longer do the job. And I’ve wondered over the years, truly wondered, if I would’ve had stopped earlier and cared for myself, would I still be able to lead in the capacity that I love to lead in?
Rose: Wow. Wow. Wow. Charlie, what a story. Do you mind sharing just a little bit of when you think back about leading up to the total collapse, what were some of the signs in your body? If you had to go back and think about if I would’ve been listening to my body, what were some of the signs that you were heading into burnout?
Charlie: I had pain, physical level-eight pain happening in my body and my abdomen. Wasn’t able to do trips. I used to be able to do trips, and I’m 45 now. This was in my early thirties, twenties where your body should be able to do these things. But it was the pace in which I was going that I couldn’t sustain it anymore, but it’s not even, again, it wasn’t stress or anxiety that I felt– it was true physical pain in my body, and that stress was manifesting in such a different way. As a ministry coach, I hear leaders talk all the time while I’m stressed out, I feel anxiety. It was not those things for me. I could handle all of that. It was manifesting in a way that I couldn’t walk from here to the door without hurting.
Rose: Wow. Wow. So you ended up leaving the ministry?
Charlie: I did. I went back to school and got a coaching degree several years before stepping out of ministry because youth workers showed up on my couch all the time and they wanted me to talk to them. And how do you, again, the Church of five students, and as it grew, everyone was always wanting know, how did I grow a ministry? And I didn’t grow a ministry, God did. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and had the right skillset. And so my husband was like, why are you not investing in youth workers more often? And so I wanted to coach. And so when I left the church, I decided that I would coach full time because again, that’s a ministry. I wasn’t able to volunteer right away, to be honest. I had to take about a three year gap because my body still hadn’t recovered and probably my heart, my heart hadn’t recovered. And so being able to step away altogether was really hard for me because I love students and I am good with students, and it was just a really hard time, but coaching and leaning into youth workers is a passion of mine, and I love that I get to do that. And I’m thankful that there were doors opened for me to get to do that. And so those relationships have been really beautiful and life-giving over the years.
Rose: There’s so much in this that I want to ask you about your story. I mean, so many things, honestly. It’s an inspirational story and it’s a tragic story really, of what happens when we burn out in ministry. And so tell us a little bit about what your recovery was like. So when you say you had to step away, that is to me, that would be this passionate thing that you were doing, this work that you felt like God called you to, but you had to step away. That is a very, very deep surrender and probably a very deep sorrow. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but tell us a little bit about what that was like.
Charlie: Yeah, it was like grieving a death. Truly. It was grieving the loss of a family, of a passion. And I think people think I’m being dramatic when I say that, but truly, I went away for discernment time. I spent three days with no wifi, no TV at a cabin in the woods, and just being in prayer and listening because I wanted God say: Now I’ve got you. You’ll be fine. That’s what I wanted God to say. And that is not what I left hearing. I left hearing: It’s time for you to move on, and it’s time for you to care about you. And it makes me a little emotional still because it is such a calling on my life. But I’m also called to be a mom, and I have beautiful kids. And if you were to invite my daughters to this conversation, you would hear the hurt in their voices about how many times I chose somebody else’s kids over my own.
Rose: Oh, Charlie. Charlie. I think this is so many ministers’ stories, whether you’re a staff pastor, a youth campus ministry, there’s something where I am not sure where, I mean it comes from that we’re sold this bill of goods to we’re all-in for God to just what you’re saying. So when people hear you say, God said, it’s time for you to care about you. I mean, I just know so many people that would hear that as being selfish. Like, no, we’re called to this self-sacrifice because the kingdom of God, getting people into it is the most important thing, especially young people. So did that ever feel that way to you? Did you have to overcome any kind of guilt or shame? Tell us about that.
Charlie: The shame has been hard. I think that’s the hardest piece of all of this is that there’s shame a lot because of how I’m wired.To me vulnerability is one of the hardest places to go to, and I give vulnerability hangovers, I’ll be honest. I get those. Walking away from something really emotional is very draining to me. But because I feel so much of that is why I think God was like, it’s time. I can’t imagine where I’d be physically today. Because there was a point in my life that I didn’t know if I was going to be able to walk when I was 45 because of the stress that had been on my body. And I can’t imagine that life, right?
Rose: No, no, no. Okay. A couple of things. Like I said, there’s so much in what you’ve already said, but one of the things, and I met with someone recently that knows you, and she said she will not talk about this. But what I know about Charlie is she invests in young leaders and not in order to grab them and keep them, but to try to give them everything she can out of her own wisdom, and then she sends them to the place the spirit is inviting them to, maybe even. Are you a doctoral advisor or masters? Do you help with integration project? I mean, tell us about that.
Charlie: I don’t. I just get to be a coach and just get to be, I’m honored that people allow me into their space and allow me to have a voice and to coach them and activate them. I see so many 24, 25 year-old leaders who have so much passion. Rose, these people are on fire, and that’s what gets you so excited. And at the same time, they don’t have any systems. They don’t have any structures in place. They’re not caring for themselves. And immediately, it’s like all the red flags are going off, and I’m like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s step back from that passion just a little bit. Right. And let’s talk about some ways that you can still be here when you’re 45, 55, and 65 years old.
Rose: Yeah. Such important work, Charlie, as we well know, many streams of the church, it’s not up until just recently that we even think about our bodies. Everything is more spiritual and it’s about the ministry. But I mean, it’s just in the recent years that in certain traditions, people are starting to go, oh wait, these bodies are a gift. And we have been abusing our bodies in the name of Jesus.
Charlie: And I hope this generation, the 24 year olds that are leading right now, they care so much for their mental health. They care for their bodies, their communities, their people. That this stigma of shame and guilt is, I hope, is on its way out. These are some of the most self-aware leaders that I know, are this younger generation, the Gen Z-ers that are leading people are like, oh, the millennial leaders. No, it’s Gen Z. I work with a bunch of Gen Z leaders. And the self-awareness is what makes you a great leader. And sometimes when I coach people who are my age 45 or older, they lack self-awareness because I think of what the church has taught us that the church is first, the ministry is first. It’s the lack of self-awareness is what’s going to sink you.
Rose: Yes. Oh, that’s so good, Charlie. So good. And so very true. What can those leading, supervising youth leaders learn and campus ministers learn about the cause of burnout, the signs, the symptoms, and what kind of care do those on the brink of burnout need?
Charlie: Well, I’ll answer the first part first with the amount of care. I, leaders who are leading right now need to keep lines of communication open. There should be none of this. I remember a lot of times that I was told, well, Charlie, you made your own calendar. Well, Charlie, you built this ministry, so you need to be there. Well, Charlie, and you know what? Charlie didn’t need to be there. Charlie didn’t just make the calendar. She felt pressure. Right?
Charlie: That pressure from the church, the community, the leader, I once said that I was a concierge youth pastor, that I lived in a community where everyone had my phone number. And at any hour of any day, someone would contact me. And now I coach youth workers who are like, I don’t give them my personal number. I have a Zoom number that I give them. So that when they leave the church, they can be done with that and have a clean break. I’m like, where was that wisdom? I needed that. 20 years ago, I didn’t even think about giving an alternative phone number. And of course I always answered my phone because that’s what I was taught. So I think it is leaders keeping the door open, changing the conversation, and then learning themselves. There’s so much research that’s coming out about mental health and the health of leaders and how unhealthy we as a group has been. And I’m going to put myself in that, how unhealthy we have been. I caught myself a month ago chasing my tail again because I said yes to too many summer camps. I said yes to too many speaking engagements because I love students and I want to be there with the students. And I was like, oh, it’s the old Charlie. Old Charlie is back. And so I had to break away and take a few days of silence. And so one of the big ways I think that you recover is with renewal, finding meaningful pursuits that are going to provide some recalibration, some refreshment, and then eventually renewal. You can binge-watch the Real Housewives. You can go sit at the pool with sun on your face. I love to read a really great fiction book. There’s so many ways that you can do that. Sleep. To me, sleep is like money. When deficits become a debt, they need to be paid off. And so I think I need to sleep. Healthy rhythms, healthy rhythms instead of a schedule that’s huge. And reflect. There’s a lot of times that I worked for God and I didn’t spend time with God, and seeing, working for God is what killed me honest. And I don’t say that lightly. It hurt me, the working for God. And so part of that reflection is just the discipline of slowing down. Full transparency: it makes me feel weak. I’m a high capacity leader. I’m an eight on the Enneagram, and it truly makes me feel weak, but I’ve had to learn to push that down. Because when I work for God, every area of my life suffers.
Rose: Yes. Wow. I mean, what I hear you saying is just like you had to learn to integrate your whole being into wellness. It’s not just keeping this pace, but it’s mental, it’s spiritual, it is physical, emotional, relational, all those fears, spheres that it sounds like you are continuing to integrate and you catch yourself. Yes.
Charlie: It’s so much more holistic. It’s such a holistic kind of leadership versus what I think the kind of leader I was in my twenties and the leader that I was in my thirties. I was really not a holistic leader at that time in caring about my whole self. But now, and even though, and I’m not going to lie Rose, I have guilt when I say, Hey, I got to take 48 hours to step away. I have so much, and gosh darn it, I wish Brene Brown would give me a one-on-one coaching session because I know that’s not the right emotion. It’s not the right emotion, but that’s what I feel. And I think being self-aware, it’s okay to name it so that I know that it’s happening and then still step into that renewal process.
Rose: Yes. So good. And I think what you just said is so important as we talk about burnout, brink of burnout, the causes of burnout. So many times as leaders we’re afraid to name what is real for us. We sometimes won’t even let our own selves acknowledge it because it will feel like weakness. We will feel like we’ll be disqualified. We’ve got to keep the pace. And so important, what you’ve just said, and especially if there are youth ministers, youth pastors, campus ministry leaders listening to us, I’m hoping they hear that and can do just maybe an even inventory of all those sort of spaces of how we are a being to say, how am I doing? We actually have a course at The Seattle School that’s an online course called The Way of Life that covers this very thing. You can do an inventory in sort of these different spaces. How am I doing in just everyday life? And what happens to me under stress in these spaces? It’s something to reflect on. So I think the other thing that I’m hoping is if there are folks listening to us that supervise youth pastors, youth leaders and campus ministers, that this is sort of a new way of thinking about, oh, the whole being, we have to care for the whole being of the people that we supervise, the people that we lead. I really hope that they will take that to heart if this is news to them.
Charlie: But I think even hearing leadership say, we value learning. So take 10 hours of your week to learn something. I find value that at the nonprofit that I work for, if you begin to feel overwhelmed and stressed, take a couple of comp days. We want you to step away so that when you’re here, you’re your best self. And hearing that from leadership has really removed some of my self shame and guilt. So if I was someone who’s leading leaders right now, I would make sure that I’m saying that out loud. You may think it: Oh, why wouldn’t they know to take care of themselves? Well, because you haven’t said it. And a lot of times leaders need to hear the inside voice of the words that you think you’re saying they need to know. They can’t assume. So be clear. Be so clear on: it’s okay to step away because we care about you first.
Rose: Right. So valuable. What other words of wisdom would you like to say today? What do you want to tell us about? Youth pastors are listening, campus ministry leaders are listening, and maybe those that supervise.Give us more words of wisdom.
Charlie: Yeah. I think a piece of finding a healthy rhythmic life has to be understanding that there’s risk. There’s no growth without risk. And risk means stretching yourself, making yourself uncomfortable. It’s okay to fail, and that means that you have to release control in your duties. You have to be okay with things that are being done, but maybe not being done the way you would have done them and have to say that’s okay that it’s done differently. And maybe someone doesn’t teach the students the way you would teach them. It’s okay. And then I think we need to celebrate. We need to celebrate when you take time to love yourself. You need to celebrate when you take time to love your family,. Celebrate the small things. Take time to understand how God has wired you, and then celebrate that. Celebrate that wiring. My daughters have walked through a lot of mental health issues, one more extreme than the other, and removing the stigma around mental health. And I know everyone is talking about it these days, but I still feel like I’ve coached people in the last year who went to their senior pastor or their senior leadership and said, I am really struggling with anxiety. I’ve met with my therapist. I’m going to be taking this medication. I’m going to be okay. And then that same knowledge that they shared with their senior leadership was used against them. That’s the risk. And the risk doesn’t always pan out, but to me, I’d rather be upfront and open with my senior leadership and let them know where I’m at. Where’s my head this week? Where’s my heart this week? And I do think, Rose, it’s what you’re saying. It’s the people leading those leaders who need to really check into this and really maybe this course that you’re talking about, but there’s also so much available to read on how to better care for the people that you’re leading. We have a responsibility, truly. Us older generation who are leading younger generation, we have a responsibility to make sure that they’re healthier so that they can fight for the faith and future of the next generation. And they’re not going to be able to fight for that, and it’s a fight right now, right? Everything was, yeah, there’s so much in the world–for them to do that they have to be their best self. And that’s holistic best self.
Rose: And being a holistic best self. We talk about resilience at The Seattle School and did some research on some streams of resilience working with clergy. And what we’ve discovered is three Ps, people, practices, and purpose. So for youth workers, youth leaders, campus ministry leaders, you are a coach. So that’s part of the people process when we say, who are the people that support you? And not just experts, but also so friends, peers, but who are the people a coach, a spiritual director, a therapist? Will you speak to that? Who are the people? And for those listening, who should they be surrounding themselves with?
Charlie: Well, you said spiritual director, and I just don’t think there’s enough leaders out there using a spiritual director. I have found so much value in the work that they do. I lead cohorts for women in ministry, and in that cohort you have a coach and you have a spiritual director because of the importance of it. And there was a time that we’re like, I don’t know if it’s that valuable, but I find so much valuable in that time because again, it’s understanding the spiritual piece of who you are, so I think a coach. I loved having a ministry coach. My ministry coach was great. I still have a coach. I love being coached. And I don’t think that if you’ve never been coached, you should come and get a coach somewhere and then a spiritual director, and then who’s your people? Who’s your inner circle that you can lean on? And I’m not talking about the people on the outer rings of that, but who is this tight little circle in the middle that you need to do life with, whether it’s a group of pastors you meet with once a month? Because what I know is that my friends that are not in ministry, they don’t quite understand the stress of ministry. Well, what do you mean you’re going to the beach for a week with kids? That sounds like a vacation. Well, no, it’s not. It’s the farthest thing from a vacation. But if you have a group of leaders that you trust, hang onto them. Try to schedule once a month regular meetings with them because they’re really some of the only people who really understand what you’re going through.
Rose: Right, Charlie, so good. And so rich, I cannot even tell you how much I appreciate having this conversation with you from your own experience in wisdom and the work that you do, which is such important work. Gen Z. I mean such an important generation right now with all of the stuff going on in communities and then out into the world facing such wicked problems. And so just having so much support for these young people that are passionate about wanting to serve God and God’s purposes on this earth. So we’re so grateful for the time you’re spending with us. I want to end by giving you space to shout out to an organization that you see doing good work. We’ll make a donation to them and encourage our listeners to donate as well.
Charlie: Can I give some closing words really quick before we–
Rose: Yes, absolutely. Yes.
Charlie: Friends who are listening, I just need you to know that a life of ministry can be fulfilling without all consuming. I don’t believe that God intended for you to sacrifice yourself and your family so that you could do kingdom work. I know that God has given you gifts and desires to lead, but God didn’t mean for those to be a burden to you. So if you’re going to experience life in ministry to the full, you need to keep in mind what matters most, and that’s you. I hope that you get the right people in life and the right folks around you to keep you healthy so that you can fight for the faith and future of the next generation.
Rose: So good, Charlie. So very good. Thank you so, so much for being with us.
Charlie: Thank you so much.
Rose: So good to meet you.
Charlie: It was great meeting you too. I love this.
Rose: Okay, be well my friend.