Transforming Engagement: the Podcast

Youth & Campus Ministry Burnout Season Epilogue | Podcast Season 05, Episode 08

As we close this season on Youth & Campus Ministry Burnout, host Rose Madrid Swetman is joined by Kate Rae Davis to engage in a reflective conversation, highlighting key insights and common themes discussed throughout the season.

The season has unfolded a spectrum of challenges faced by those in youth and campus ministry, ranging from the struggles of maintaining work-life balance to the emotional toll of guiding young individuals through pivotal life stages. The discussions also presented the unique challenges presented by the post-2020 landscape, adding an extra layer of complexity to the already demanding roles of ministry leaders.

We encourage you to revisit each episode from this series, sharing the wealth of knowledge not only with fellow youth ministers but also with decision-makers such as elder boards, pastors, and denominational leaders. By doing so, we aim to foster a collective effort in reshaping our approach and creating a renewed vision for supporting youth and campus ministry leaders in their crucial work with young people. 

We hope this season has not only shed light on the challenges but has also provided hopeful paths forward, and we invite you to continue to be part of this transformative dialogue.

Listener Resources: 

Episode Transcript

Rose: Today, I’m so grateful to have Kate Rae Davis, who’s the director for the Center for Transforming Engagement as my guest to finish out season five on youth and campus ministry burnout. Kate, welcome to the podcast.

Kate: Thanks. It’s good to be back. Always good to see you. I’m excited to learn about all you’ve learned this season.

Rose: It was quite this season! Had tremendous guests, so much insight. It really was wonderful. So yeah, I’m excited to share with you some of the things that I’ve learned. We had a great lineup of guests and I think our audience, because all of our guests shared personal stories, they either currently are youth pastors, campus ministers, or they had been for years, went through their own burnout story and now they either coach or they lead ministries to help with youth and campus ministers. So I think there’ll be something that different learner or different hearers would learn from the different stories resonate with them.

Kate: I love that personal story take, especially when we’re talking about something like burnout. It’s one of those topics that you can’t just teach people about if you haven’t had some felt sense of it. It’s really hard to journey with someone and have some idea of what they’re going through. And truthfully, I know it’s hard to burn out and then go back to a field you’ve burnt out from. And I’m so grateful for these ministry leaders who are modeling that and modeling that learning’s actually beneficial to a ministry and shapes the way that they can then shape the youth that they’re working with. There’s such a positive ripple effect from people who are able to stay in ministry.

Rose: Yes, absolutely. And that’s why I was very happy with our lineup of guests because they all brought a story, and I just think different folks and different parts of their journey in those ministries might hear something that they’ll resonate with and then actually go, oh, maybe have an imagination for how to do it differently or how to get help and support. Yeah, it’s good. 

Kate: So much of story sharing is exactly that. It’s, “oh, maybe I’m burnt out.” Sometimes we don’t know until we hear someone start to describe their experience and that resonates with us. Well, we’ve dived into the burnout conversation. I want to backup and actually say first, what did you learn about youth and campus ministries from these conversations? 

Rose: Yeah, I think the first thing I learned in speaking with all of them that were either currently in ministry or had been in ministry and like I said, are now pouring back into what they’ve learned from the years of being in ministry, what an amazing passion and love they have for the work that they feel that they’ve been sent to do. I mean, it’s not easy work unless you are graced and feel the invitation to do this work because, so I learned a.) they have such a passion, such a love for the youth and young adults, and b.) it’s really hard. And unlike our clergy burnout conversations, one thing I really learned that just really stood out from all of them almost was when you are a youth pastor, a youth leader, a campus minister, it is a very different role than being a lead pastor. So yes, clergy, when we did the burnout, we heard story after story and very real with this side of the coin, very, very real, but not in the power position. And so often, and actually some of them offline did not want to say it in my interviews, that part of the power differential was why they were heading for burnout because they could not get the leadership team of their church to hear what kind of support they really needed.

Kate: Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting both the echo because I’m thinking about lead pastors who are trying to help their elder boards or sessions or vestries to understand the stresses they’re under and they feel that constraint. But here, there’s that added layer of constraint to manage of sometimes not being able to shift expectations or cancel a ministry. And a lot of youth ministry is very high energy, very intensive. I’m thinking about my own experience with youth ministry retreats. It is long hours, late nights, and all of those hours are just going, going, going. 

Rose: And unless you’re in a large church on staff, a lot of them are just, they’re not paid or they’re stipend, and so they have to work another job as well as do the intense work. And so it’s a really big deal. And I think also here was an interesting thing I learned, just the discrepancy in pay between female and male youth pastors and Mark O, who has the Youth Cartel every year puts out, and it’ll be in the episode notes, a youth pastor compensation report, and it really shows up in there. It’s getting better, but there still is a very high discrepancy between male and female youth pastors in their compensation. So that was interesting. Sort of ripples through everything, doesn’t it? It does. 

Kate: Yeah, It does. I wish I could say that was surprising. And even just noticing the number of churches who will do the director versus pastor as another way to keep women out of a title bump, which would be career beneficial. It has a soft revenue there. 

Rose: Yes.

Kate: Yeah. I can imagine the multiple ways that women are at disadvantage both in the role and then in advancing either with youth ministry or beyond that role in some way.

Rose: One of the things that also resonated from our Clergy Burnout podcast with this group of folks was that things were already hard and then 2020, and it just exacerbated it all and having to go online and how do you keep up that energy on Zoom calls and keep youth engaged when you have to, because a lot of youth ministry is in person doing the stuff, like you said, having fun, small group work, all of that. So having to transition all of that to online. And of course we’ve heard coming out of 2020 with all the stuff that went on the mental health crisis that now and youth workers are on the front lines, they’re like frontline responders to that crisis in many ways. And so one of the things we learned about that with our guests, Dr. Elizabeth Waters, who is a mental health professional for families and also works a lot around church systems, and Amanda Rigby, who has been a youth pastor and the two of them are joining to do some more work, and you’ll hear that in the episode, but that’s one of the things she said that we hear about this mental health crisis and that youth are on the front lines like first responders, she said, but then their families are also in crisis. So it’s not just the youth that they’re working with, they’re also responding to what’s going on in the family. And when you listen to that episode, I think it’s so educational around the work of systems with mental health, not just, I think we’ve heard that, right? The identified patient is the person acting out, but what’s behind all of that? So in the youth, in their home, in churches. So that was very eye opening.

Kate: And for both working with the presenting patient, the person who’s having the most explicit issues, which often is a child in a family system, knowing how to work with that person and knowing how to work through that into the larger system. Those are highly skilled tasks that often people have a master’s degree or higher for doing in a counseling profession. And unless you went to the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, you probably don’t have a whole lot of training in knowing even when to refer, much less how to, if you’re the only person in that youth’s life who is a listening, caring, therapeutic presence, I’d imagine that there’s a wide lack of training for that in this field.

Rose: I would imagine that too. And I didn’t hear a lot of training, which was why it was really good to have Dr. Elizabeth Watters with us because she’s really advocating for that and that there has to be some training. And again, when we think about the average church size in America is now under a hundred adults, and so you have these volunteer youth staff that aren’t getting a lot of support because the church doesn’t have the resources. And many times churches don’t even know where to go to ask for that kind of help.

Kate: Or if they’re not outright suspicious of the social sciences and that kind of help. I want to go back to you mentioned Covid era and then coming out from that, one thing that we’ve seen in congregations is how low volunteerism is that even in congregations where people are starting to come back for attendance, people aren’t necessarily signing up for all the many volunteer roles that make a service happen or make a congregational community happen. Have you heard much about how that’s impacting youth, which is so heavy on volunteers?

Rose: Yeah, it did come up several times. I think with Matt Wiggins and the panel that with campus minister and two youth pastors, that volunteerism is very down. So that even compounds the pressure that they feel. So thinking about the expectations that they put on themselves of how they want to be with youth, then they get the expectations from youth, what they want from a youth ministry, but then huge expectations from parents. So and then of course their pastors, leadership, whoever supervises them. So lots of expectations and volunteerism, so down, so trying to juggle all the stuff with running just shoestring volunteers kind of is really, really, it’s compounding it for them. Absolutely.

Kate: You’ve touched a bit on some of those volunteers and factors, the management of the different constraints and power differentials, the lack of pay. Are there aspects of a burnout experience for a youth or campus minister that is distinct from a other kind of pastor, associate pastor or lead pastor that you can point to?

Rose: I am trying to think what would be distinct. I think because we heard a lot of the same things, like some numbing all of a sudden, I just don’t have the energy, I don’t have the passion I had a year ago. Where did it go? I feel numb. Depression. Depression. Questioning, a lot of questioning, “is this really the path I should be on?” And so a lot of trying to discern, “do I stay in this kind of a ministry role” or not absolute exhaustion. I mean, so I don’t know how distinct that is from what we heard with the clergy burnout, but I think the difference might be, again, they have to, and again, I don’t know if this is different than the lead pastors in clergy burnout, but they felt like they had to keep a certain momentum going. So the exhaustion was just working harder, harder, harder, and not feeling like they were getting the results from working more hours, more intense programming without the volunteers that they really need, so they’re often doing it. So just kind of wearing out, just being worn out from trying to juggle all the balls. And then of course, coming out of 2020, having to be really careful. We know even in the churches about what could they even speak about around current events and what was happening in society because then they would get blowback from parents or maybe from their church or…so, yeah. 

Kate: Whereas the lead pastor can make the call, I’m going to take a stance on whatever issue or policy, especially when we’re in a more heavily masking, vaccination monitoring phase, the youth pastors are at the whim of what their lead has decided is or is not acceptable to talk about. When I think about our framework for resilience, resilience, because comprised of having people, practices and purpose, and then we’ve sometimes talked about burnout in contrast to that as isolation being the lack of people, exhaustion being a lack of practices and disillusionment being counter to purpose. And of course, all of those take place within systems and context that sometimes can always over, often overpower our individual habits. So someone place is the thing, and we’ll talk more about that in a minute, but something that struck me as you were describing the youth ministry leaders experience contrasted to a more senior pastor is from our senior pastors, we hear exhaustion, isolation, and isolation’s really loud, and here exhaustion feels much louder, and then disillusionment also feels like a more significant factor, whereas maybe a lead pastor has had more career space to work through some of their disillusionment of what it means for a church to be a human system. I imagine that some of our youth pastors are hitting up against that earlier in their careers or just in very different ways because of that power differential.

Rose: Absolutely. Absolutely. That is happening across the board for many of them. And when I spoke to Matt Wiggins, who’s been a youth pastor, he’s also a student at the Seattle School, and again, he’s been a youth pastor since 2004, but out of this experience, he enrolled in the Seattle School to get a counseling degree because he realized where his limits were and in the work that he was doing. And so he found a way to get help and get the support that he was needing for his own soul because he knew he couldn’t change the system he was in, but he knew he could change himself and how he was going to be in that system. So I thought that was very interesting. Now, I don’t know if every single youth pastor is going to go to graduate school to get a counseling degree right, but helping, one of the things that came up from Charlie Condor who told her own very, very intense story of her own burnout, and then the work she does now with Orange Theory, which is a curriculum group, and then she works with Mark O, the youth cartel and is a coach for youth ministry. She really, really emphasized the support needed for that disillusionment that people that could come alongside and listen well. So she talked about getting a spiritual director, having a therapist, having people, a coach, like the coaching that different folks do. So you have that. So those are the people. When we talk about our people, practices and purpose, part of the purpose and disillusionment is not having anyone to really process what’s happening for them. So being with maybe a coach that has gone through it themselves, they can at least be a good listener. As to your point, when we opened up, they’ve been through it, they can empathize. They can kind of go, oh my gosh, yes, I hear you. You’re not crazy.

Kate: And normalize some of, yep, this is what working in systems looks like. This is what happens when groups of people get together and we’re all kind of floundering. And then ways to navigate that and wise ways to discern what’s forward, what’s next?

Rose: I think she has, we’ll have it in the episode notes with our episode with Charlie Condor. She actually will have a youth pastor, youth leader burnout quiz that somebody could actually take to see where are you in, how are you really doing? That’s another thing. When we did the panel with a campus minister and two youth pastors, it’s like they don’t even really, they just know it’s hard, but they don’t even have the language for, oh, I could heading for a crash until it’s happening or unless they have people around them. Again, one of the youth pastors that we, Octavia Miller is a student at the Seattle School, counseling student, and she’s a campus minister for the Impact Movement. And so again, she was able to speak to, “because of my education that I’m getting and the work that I’m doing, I can start reading the science now and I can start naming how hard this is rather than just how I used to do it. It would just be grind, grind, grind. And there was no naming to how exhausted I was, where that was coming from.” So that was a good panel to listen to. These three are active now in youth ministry or campus ministry and just hearing their day-to-day experience.

Kate: Yeah, yeah, Yeah. So I want to watch our time, I want to pivot us to our hopes going forward for what’s next. And there’s a lot of different types of people listening. So I’m hoping that we can structure some of our hopes by different ways to think about this, starting with the individual and then moving on to what can congregations do and looking more at the systems. So starting with individual youth ministers, what are your hopes for someone who is listening to this, what do you hope they’re hearing and what do you hope they action-wise do next. 

Rose: Well, my first hope for anyone listening is that they will, again, it will normalize their own experience and they won’t feel like they are crazy or they’re failing or there’s something wrong with them. So the first hope is, oh, they’re going to resonate and go, oh, other people go through this. That whole isolation piece, I’m not alone in this. So that is a hope that they will resonate and put those pieces together. Then what I hope is they hear: find wise guides. If it’s somebody that you have seen in ministry for years that are doing well, maybe and test it out, ask for coffee, see if you click with them, ask if you could meet with them for coffee every once in a while. Find wise guides if you can afford it, find a therapist or spiritual director, spiritual director, unless you have therapeutic issues, which could come out while you’re in spiritual direction, and a good spiritual director will then say, you know what? I think this is beyond my limits. I would, you know what? So getting even professional help if you can, a coach. There’s places again where like Charlie Condor and the Youth Cartel where they do actual youth pastor coaching. So I think seek out wise guides, whether professionally or friends or in different ministries that you look and see someone, well, that person has been in ministry a long time and they’re doing well. I want to pick their brain.

Kate: And to add too from you named a couple of youth ministers who are now in the counseling program at The Seattle School, and that just strikes me as looking for resource beyond what we think of as the field. So there might be a book, a blog, a podcast, a training, a workshop even doesn’t have to be a full degree like those two did, but looking for resources from other fields that will help solve the problems that you’re facing, even if it isn’t necessarily for youth ministry to find counseling resources or learning about mental health first aid or learning about how to manage organizations and systems, but looking for resources that are about the problem, even if you have to translate that back into the field of youth ministry.

Rose: Absolutely. And a couple of our guests had recommendations for that. A couple of them are writing books on it outside the system of the church of how do you work within an emotional human system if you’re a leader, things like that. One was Kurt Rietema, who is, he’s with Youthfont, and his book is going to come out anytime right now called Two Mend the World. And again, so he comes at it at a whole different way. Even we sort of need to tear down how we do youth ministry and start innovating ways with social entrepreneurship for this world that we’re launching youth into. They actually need more than a fun night in a Bible study. Not to put that down, but that there’s just more needed in the world that these youth are going to be adults in. And so just even starting there with just creating ways and new models of how to even be about youth ministry that will really help youth flourish even as different social events and society isn’t doing so great, how do you do this work in the midst of all of that? Right? So you’re right, just workshops, books, podcasts. Absolutely.

Kate: Yeah. My own experience briefly in youth ministry was the church as prayer was quite ahead in moving from that relationship building activity into how do we then structure and help these students get into harder conversations? And I think what you’re pointing to now is the next stage of that journey and progression of have the hard conversation and then do something to help following that hard conversation towards flourishing. And I think that’s a piece that for not all, but many, many youth programs have been missing that constructive opportunity to really resource and develop their youth.

Rose: Megan DeWald from Princeton Theological Seminary, they house the Institute for Youth Ministry. They are also doing some of that work. How are we reimagining what youth ministry is for young people today? They’re doing work at that. And then Mark Devries, who wrote the book, Sustainable Youth Ministry, that’s all about systems. How do you work within a system and keep your own sanity and your own mental health and your own passion for the work that you’re doing. So yeah,

Kate: So important. Moving to think more about the congregational level. I know some more listeners won’t be actively in youth ministry. They might be supervisors over, they might be pastors just in the same system. They might be congregants who are now just gaining more awareness and concern for the people in their youth ministry programs. Are there things that you hope for them to be hearing actions that they might take as they think about the structures and support in their congregation’s, youth ministries?

Rose: I mean, starting with congregants. If you are listening and you are hearing, I wonder what I could do, how could I be helpful? Talk to the youth pastor, the youth leader, and say, how can I be helpful? And maybe they’ll give you some ideas and you won’t be able to do some of them. But even if there was one thing that you could do, maybe it’s once a month, you bring the snacks or you volunteer to drive. I mean, I don’t know. But each youth leader would be able to say to you, oh my gosh, what a gift it would be as a youth pastor to have a congregant stop you and say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you. I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of time, but with the time that I could give, how could I be of help?” So starting with congregants, just maybe lowering the expectations that you might have on what this youth leader, youth pastor is supposed to be doing and not being as critical, maybe being curious, especially if you’re a congregant or yeah, you are not so sure and you tend to be a little bit negative. “Why aren’t they doing this and why don’t they do that” and maybe pull any kind of criticism back and instead be curious to ask the questions, “are you ever going to do this? Why or why not?” So the expectations have to be adjusted to what the reality of the situation is. So congregants can have all these expectations on the youth pastor, especially if you have a child or a young person in youth ministry. You want certain things. And of course, we all know the consumerism that is rampant in the churches. They’ll just pull their kids and go to the club med church down the street that has all the programs. 

Kate: I was just thinking about a relative who they were at a small mainline church. I say small when we talk about church numbers. I think the average congregation in the United States right now is like 60 people and I think their church had like 80 to a hundred. So they were a large congregation, but seemed small compared to the megachurch down the road that had all the ages and stages programming. And so this relative pulled her family from this mainline church because the megachurch has programming specific for her six year old and programming specific for her nine year old. And that’s great, I guess. But I’m also, my pushback was your six year old spends all week with other six year olds, your nine-year-old spends all week with other nine-year-olds. Church is the one place where we can really foster age relationships, which is good for younger people to form mentors with people who are just a step or two ahead of them. Good for the older children, older youth to get to be knowledgeable wise people to help others and form towards that kind of helping mentality. And you don’t get that at an ages and stages program. So something we said for expectations, even of how you think about your children’s formation and how you think about their formation across age spans, not just being age appropriate material, but age appropriate relationships and age crossing relationships.

Rose: Kate, I think that is such an important point because of the fact of the mental health crisis. So young people being with a grandma even or grandpa type of person that they can be formed, that they can be loved by, that they can be seen by having other adults. I can’t remember the report. I can’t remember now. It’s just coming to my mind. There was a Healthy Youth Report a few years back where one of it had 40 points if you’re doing youth, and it wasn’t Christian, it was just youth in America. But one of the points for health was intergenerational relationships. It really was. Don’t try to just keep them all together. Seventh graders.

Kate: I mean, even at my age, and I’m midlife, most of my friends at church are 30 some years older than I am, and I live in a city that I didn’t grow up in. I don’t have parents here, and I haven’t had grandparents living for some decades now. Even at my stage of life, I still need those people who are older than me to give me a different perspective, give me a longer range view on things. And I only imagine that that’s more true when your life is shorter. Someone who’s even just two or three years ahead of you is a wildly different viewpoint and can give you a different perspective on what you’re going through in whatever grade age you’re in.

Rose: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Kate: Last question of hopes for what’s next. I’m thinking about beyond the congregation, whether that’s denominational supports or other organizations that are beyond churches, what would you hope they take from this? What have you learned that you’d want them to hear?

Rose: I would want them to hear listening to this, if they are within an organization that has the power to allocate support for youth. So whether it’s inside of a denomination or a nonprofit parachurch organization, that if you’re listening and you have a voice to bring to the table to say, “Hey, we need to rethink how we’re bringing support to youth pastors, to campus ministers that are out there working 24/7 is the truth. How do we come alongside? How do we investigate what is really going on with them and what would be so important resources for them again” and again, interview a few and hear what is it that you think you need? Because I do the same thing. I could be talking with some people and I think I need X, Y, and Z in some wise person will say, “but Rose, I heard what you just said and what do you think? How would this be helpful?” And I’m like, “oh, I didn’t even think about that.” So to do both and to interview, figure out what did they say they need. And then again, a denomination structure, whoever makes these decisions or in a parachurch organization as to our point earlier, go outside, talk to mental health professionals, talk to systems, organizational systems experts. How do we change these systems in order to help resource and have wellbeing for people that are passionate and giving their lives?

Kate: And to that point of talking to outsiders, but also the resource for bringing outsiders in, and we touched earlier on, a lot of congregations can’t necessarily bring in an expert for a training on something, but in the same way, I know a lot of denominations will do a youth camp that is for all the youth in the region, and that takes on some of the burden of planning that retreat from individual congregations and youth ministers into a denominational level. They could do the same for trainings and even multiple regions together, pool their resources to do a training with a mental health professional or someone who’s really knowledgeable in systems or discernment and really be an innovating center for all the youth ministers in that area to rethink the ways that they’re doing youth ministry to make them more sustainable and maybe even more enlivening for themselves and everyone participating.

Rose: Absolutely. And also they could allocate finances for books. I mean, minimum amount for, like we said before, to read a book on this or take one of our resilience circles. There’s other things that you could send them through that might be a one-time cost that gets that ball rolling where they can actually learn, oh, now I know how to go ask. Now I know where to go look. That sort of thing. Right. So even allocating minimal finances to get support. 

Kate: I mean, buying a book and doing a book group, especially now Zoom groups are so normative. You could do a book group for all your youth ministers in a region or even a nationwide denomination because meeting on Zoom is now a normal way to have relationships and thought partners. There’s a lot more opportunity there than there was four or five years ago.Yeah. Anything we didn’t touch on?

Rose: I think my closing thoughts are when I think about the guests and hearing the stories, I mean just such brave, courageous, passionate people. To, I mean, I personally would not feel calm. I would not do well. And listen, I have 25 grandchildren. I love it. I love kids. But youth ministry is a different, it’s just a different thing, and it requires so much of you. And like I said before, the folks that are passionate about it, they don’t even view it that way, right? Until they can’t breathe anymore because they’re so exhausted, then they start questioning it all. So I just feel honored that I got to have these conversations and just want to applaud anyone in youth ministry, campus ministry that you’re doing such good work, such good work, because you’re launching our future leaders, our future people, whether they’re leaders or just going to be human beings in the world in the next 10, 20 years. And so you’re doing really, really good work bringing formation of the human soul into the world that they’re going to be launched into.

Kate: I’ll let that stand as our closing benediction and just end with a note of gratitude to you Rose, for gathering these conversations and having them and letting us learn alongside you and from you over the course of the season.

Rose: It was my pleasure, Kate. Thanks.