How to Prevent Burnout in Children’s Ministry

To be in any ministry, but especially children’s ministry, for the long haul, you’ve got to focus on personal health.

Excerpted from
Sustainable Children’s Ministry
By Mark DeVries and Annette Safstrom

Your Ministry Marathon

I was done. I mean really done. So done that I wasn’t sure I even wanted to go back to church at all anymore.

After just two years of working in full-time ministry, I had endured all that I could. I started out confident and passionate. But after just two years, I felt like an ill-equipped, outnumbered failure.

The late nights, early mornings and weekends away from family, difficult conversations and criticisms left me feeling abused and accused. I had spent the last few months trying to convince myself that my current state of exhaustion and discouragement was part of fulfilling my calling of leading children to Jesus. But my strong will was writing checks my soul couldn’t cash.

It’s true there were things beyond my control that led me to step out of my first ministry much sooner than I anticipated. But now, many years down the road, I have to admit that the real responsibility for my emotional and spiritual (un)health rested solely with me.

I now realize that in the end no one else could monitor or protect me from the wear and tear of ministry. No one else could have told me when to say “when.”

I hope I’ve caught you early enough. I hope that for you, saying “when” doesn’t mean quitting but taking a deeper look at your emotional health and making the self-care changes you need to make before it’s too late. Too many of us wait until we are spent before doing anything different. And once we get to that place, we may choose to get out of the game for good or sideline ourselves until our passion returns again.

Injury Prevention: It’s So Much Easier

After working with hundreds of children’s ministers over the past few years, I have now heard dozens of stories like mine. The names and the details may change, but the plot is always the same: a fresh, passionate children’s ministry worker launches and then leaves ministry broken and confused.

The good news (if there is any good news in my story of premature exhaustion and resignation) is that plenty of variables in my ministry were within my control. I know now that different choices on my part would have led to a healthier outcome.

The best comparison I can come up with is a sports analogy. Let’s talk injury prevention. When an athlete is playing a sport, there is always the risk of injury. In the heat of competition, an athlete’s adrenaline rush will push them beyond what they have done in their training. An athlete in top athletic condition has a body that can endure being pushed, but when a body hasn’t been properly conditioned, pushing too hard almost always results in an injury.

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My husband plays on a recreational soccer team. They only play one game on the weekend. There are no practices. There is no coach telling them what kind of workouts they should do during the week. Some of the players have a good workout routine on their own, but others are swallowed up by the daily grind of work and family responsibilities. For some players, the once-a-week, Sunday afternoon game is their only athletic outlet all week.

They really look forward to their games. It’s a great way to blow off steam, see friends and get a little exercise. The downside is how many of the players get injured and how frequently they are sidelined by those injuries. By contrast, the few players who have tended to their own conditioning pop up from a fall like nothing happened and get right back in the game.

I hope you’re already seeing the connection to ministry. Once we step into a leadership position in ministry, we often lose our “spiritual trainer,” who has kept us in good emotional and spiritual shape. When our trainer (our pastor) becomes our boss, something shifts. And often, without realizing it, we are on our own to fall into the bad habits of urgency and lousy self-care.

Without an intentional coach or mentor, we can easily find ourselves becoming a lot like casual weekend soccer players. We play hard, giving it everything we’ve got, not even thinking about the possibility of an injury.

It is the rare church that assigns a mentor or hires a coach for their children’s ministry director. If that is something you don’t already have, you owe it to your ministry to seek one out.

Whether in athletics or life or ministry, your coach will tell you that your daily practices determine your overall success. When a hundred priorities fly at us every week, it can be difficult to carve out time for tasks that don’t yield immediate results. But without a stubborn attention to little daily habits, our souls are ripe for injury and burnout.

Self-Assessment Time

I experience seasons when I’m more awake to the things of God, when I seem to be able to see traces of God in every segment of my life. And then, boom, a time of incredible spiritual dryness comes, as if out of nowhere.

When I hit those desert times, I let my busyness and being overwhelmed set my priorities. And like Peter, who, after taking a few amazing steps on the water, couldn’t keep his eyes off of the urgent, tumbling waves around him, I start to sink. The little habits keeping me emotionally and spiritually healthy fly out the window, and I let the churn of my surroundings define the state of my soul. Maybe you can relate.

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If you’re in a healthy place emotionally and spiritually today, it’s a good time to take inventory of your regular practices. If you’re in an unhealthy place, it’s an even better time.

Write your answers to the following, and refer to them every couple of months to make sure you are still conditioning your soul. If you are in a healthy place, the answers to these questions will become your spiritual/emotional preventative maintenance plan.

1. What rhythm of prayer and time in Scripture do I need for my soul to stay alive and healthy? Am I getting the time I need?

2. How often do I need to worship with others? (Sitting in the early service while you’re planning your children’s message doesn’t exactly count.) Am I giving myself the time to be alive and attentive in worship with others?

3. Do I have life-giving relationships outside of my church? How often do I need to interact with these people? Am I getting the time I need?

4. Am I taking a twenty-four-hour sabbath from ministry each week (not answering emails, texts, or phone calls regarding the ministry)?

5. When do I take the time to work on plans for my life and ministry, and not just the tasks at hand?

6. What do I do for fun (hobbies, sports, creative projects, reading, etc.)? And how often?

7. What kind of rest do I need? What kind of rest am I getting?

Based on your answers, how would you describe the state of your emotional and spiritual health these days? As you look at your rhythm of self-care (or lack thereof), do you see any warning lights on the dashboard of your soul? Just to keep things interesting and to create a little sense of accountability, share the results of this inventory with someone you trust, and open yourself to their input.

Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart.” Taking time to tend to your soul is not an elective course for people in ministry. It is a prerequisite for everything else you’ll be trying to do.

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Taken from Sustainable Children’s Ministry by Mark DeVries and Annette Safstrom. ©2018 by Mark DeVries and Annette Safstrom. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426.