How to Survive Ministry Exhaustion

Tuesday night is my free evening.  My wife attends a bible study and after I put the kids to bed I can do whatever I want.  It’s a beautiful thing.  It’s a perfect opportunity to write, relax and recharge.  But tonight, I’m eating Cool Whip right out of the tub and playing a video game that isn’t that great.  The Cool Whip isn’t even thawed.  I just pulled it out of the freezer and started eating it.  It tastes good, like a cloud of sugar–one of those big fluffy clouds that patrol the sky on hot summer days.

It strikes me, as I sit here, mindlessly eating frozen Cool Whip, that I am, in fact, eating frozen Cool Whip.  What am I doing?  Then I realize that my shoulder hurts because I’ve been sitting in an awkward position eating Cool Whip and playing a lame video game for hours.  Yes, I’m embarrassed to say, hours.  Why am I spending my free evening so mindlessly?  This is what strikes me as I sit with an aching shoulder and a developing stomach ache.  I’d like a redo on my Tuesday night.

I’m tired.  It’s April and our student ministry team has been steadily pouring ourselves out all year long.  It’s been leading, writing, filming, counseling, editing, teaching, leading worship, traveling, mentoring, trouble-shooting, serving, setting up, tearing down, staying up late, getting up early, navigating crises, training, calming down parents, prodding parents, meeting deadlines, reviewing, confronting, encouraging, intervening, worrying, producing, acting, and managing on repeat since late last summer.  I’m tired–very tired.  When I look around our office during our team meetings I can see the weariness in all of our faces.  It’s been a great season of ministry but we are all coasting to the finish line like cars running on fumes, praying we make it to the gas station at the next exit.  Will we make it?  I think so.  I hope so.

My suspicion is that I’m not alone.  We’re all tired.  If you are a youth worker, you are exhausted.  Maybe you thought it was just you.  You aren’t alone.

I remember, early in my career, at the end of a season like this, thinking that maybe I wasn’t cut out for student ministry.  Maybe the profound exhaustion I feel is an indicator that this line of work isn’t for me.  Maybe you feel that way.  Maybe you don’t like people right now.  Maybe you feel like hiding.  Maybe all you can think about is summer with less programming and more sand and sun.  Maybe you ate Cool Whip out of the tub last night.  This doesn’t mean you aren’t cut out for student ministry.  It simply means that you’re tired.

The danger here is that tired doesn’t fix itself.  Tired people become exhausted people.  Exhausted people burnout.  Youth workers who are called, gifted and wired for student ministry run out of steam and drop out of the game all the time.  I’m realizing that when I catch myself eating Cool Whip out of the tub it’s time for a day off.  It’s time to delegate a responsibility, cancel a meeting or schedule something that I love.  That’s why I’m going to quit early tomorrow night and play beach volleyball with a few friends.

Are you tired?  Been eating Cool Whip?  Please take a step back and rest.  Go do something you love and recharge your batteries.  Your students need you–fully energized and engaged.  You were called, gifted and wired to do this.  Stay in the game.



How to Convince Your Daugher That She Is Lovable

The other night I had a panic attack.  You see, my daughter told me that her best friends are in love.  They kissed on the lips at recess and danced.  SCANDAL!  If you’re wondering, my daughter is in kindergarten….well, she was.  Now she’s home-schooled.

Someday, a LONG time from now I’d like for my daughters to fall in love.  Maybe.  Wait.  Never mind.  OK, I want them to fall in love but not until they’re like 40.  OK, fine.  I want them to fall in love but it has to be with someone who is worthy of them.  Forget it.  No one ever will be.

Sigh.  Alright, alright, someday I’ll let my daughters date but these guys had better not hurt them or else I’ll track them down and dispatch them with a flurry of vicious rhetoric.

Hypothetically, if I were to let my daughter date, I’d really only have one requirement.  See, I’m not that demanding. It’s just one little thing.  He must treasure her.  He must treat her like she is the most valuable person in his life.  What would this look like practically?  I came up with a list:

  • It means he puts her first
  • It means that he would never hurt her or force her into anything
  • It means that he would never yell at her, intimidate her or hit her
  • It means that he would never abandon her
  • It means that he would see into her heart and love her beyond her body
  • It means that he would learn to understand her moods
  • It means that he would never love another women except her.
  • It means that he would take care of her as they both grow old
  • It means that he would treasure her beyond all else in life.

Here’s the problem.  I know she is worth it but she doesn’t.  In my experience, most girls don’t understand how valuable they are.  Our culture convinces girls that their worth is based on how they look and what boys think about them.  It scares me to death that my daughters will grow up comparing themselves to the girls on magazine covers.  It terrifies me that her self-image might be dependent on what some teenage boy says about her.

So, how do you convince your daughter that she is valuable?  How do you convince her that she is worth more than what she looks like?  I think it’s a constant battle. It is repeated conversations.  She needs to be told over and over again.  But, while words are crucial, it’s important to remember that kids learn far more from observing than being told.  Fathers teach their daughters what value is all about in the ways that they talk about, and look at women .  Girls, even little girls, pick up on the subtlest expressions.  Whatever is in your heart, she will pick up on it.

From what I have learned, if I want to convince my daughter that she is worth being treasured, I need to treasure her mother.  My daughter is building expectations around her parents’ relationship.  She will experience a gravitational pull toward the kind of man I am.  I need to compliment my wife and my daughters on more than their looks and clothes.  Essentially, I need to treat my wife and my daughter exactly how I want her future boyfriend to treat her.  I must treasure them.  She will come to expect and desire what she knows and has experienced.

So, dads, we have a monumental task before us.  If you want your daughter to successfully navigate the minefield that is our culture, if you want her to end up with a man who loves her like she deserves, you need to treasure your wife and your daughter.  She’s smarter than you think.  If she is in middle school, she is already more relationally perceptive than you are.  You can’t fool her.  Love the women in your life authentically.  Start now.



photo credited to Rodrigo Amorim via Flickr


What Are You Fighting?

I’m not usually the guy who sits around pondering poetry and song lyrics, snapping my fingers at the profundity of people’s thoughts but the other day a song captured me.  I was in my usual spot at my favorite Starbucks, with my mug of dark roast, attempting to write curriculum for our student ministry.  For me, writing always requires a soundtrack.  On a whim, I was listening to U2 which is odd because I haven’t intentionally listened to U2 in a long time.  It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that I sort of lost interest after the Joshua Tree album.  As I sat there, getting reacquainted with Bono, the Edge and the other guys in the band who apparently have normal names, a song struck me.  In particular, a chunk of lyrics grabbed my attention.  They were from the song Cedars of Lebanon.

Choose your enemies carefully, ’cause they will define you
Make them interesting ’cause in some ways they will mind you
They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends
Gonna last with you longer than your friends

There are good and bad kinds of enemies.  What we are fighting for will often define the quality and direction of our lives.  Choosing the right enemies can bring meaning and purpose.  Choosing the wrong enemies opens the door to bitterness, envy and pettiness.

This song returned me to a painful question.  What am I fighting?  A few years ago, my family and I were fighting injustice, abandonment and trafficking in Ukraine.  It wasn’t a war but it was a fight to save one life.  When we were in the midst of that battle, it defined our lives.  It consumed our thoughts, our free time, our finances and our conversations.  Looking back, those were healthy days in which we had a singular focus.  We were fighting for something incredibly meaningful and we didn’t have time to waste because we had a fight on our hands.

We lost that battle, or at least part of it.  It was the most painful experience of my life.  For the last year, I’ve felt like a defeated boxer, having just lifted himself off the mat, stumbling around the ring, fighting through a concussive haze in an attempt to orient himself.  I haven’t exactly figured things out but I know my life has lost some purpose.  I think it’s because I need to redefined what I’m fighting for.  I need an enemy.  I need a cause that will define my life, something worth fighting that will define my story.

Lives lived well teeter on the edge of focus and desperation because they are fueled by passion and that passion is often ignited by pain.  He saw something in Africa that wouldn’t leave him alone.  She experienced something that no on should have to experience.  He lost someone.  She visited that place.

What are you fighting?  What enemy or battle defines your life so profoundly that it will be with you in the end?  I hope it isn’t something petty or self-centered.  At my funeral, I want it to be said that I fought a good enemy, that I poured out my life for something meaningful and lasting.


If you’re interested in the details of my fight, here’s the story:

photo credited to viedrie via Free Images

My Body is My Value

Elisa Talmage absolutely rocked this teaching.  Among other things, she did a great job describing how ridiculous it is that we compare ourselves to models on  magazine covers.  I’ll probably make my daughters watch this video tomorrow.

Awkward: Lies About Sexuality – Body Image from LifeLine Student Ministries on Vimeo.

Why We Don’t Compare Babies

Six years ago today, my first little girl emerged into the world.  No other experience has transformed me like becoming a dad.  A seismic shift occurred in my heart at each delivery room experience.  I know there is something spiritual about parenthood because my heart exploded with love each time a slimy, blue tinted alien was handed to me.  It’s spiritual because newborns aren’t exactly cute when they first emerge into the world.  They are slimy, smell nasty, have misshapen heads, look like they just arrived from an MMA bout, and scream like you just forcibly yanked them out of 9 months of cozy darkness.  And yet, each time I laid eyes on my newborn baby I knew I would do anything to provide for and protect this child.  I instantly knew that if necessary, I would sacrifice my very life and that I would never, ever, stop loving this little helpless baby.

I believe this natural flood of love is something that God puts in us.  It’s because we are a little like him.  We are imperfect to be sure, but the love of our heavenly Father is gifted to us when we become parents.  Parents are granted a particular blessing because we get to experience a unique expression of God’s heart as we feel the immediate surge of unconditional love that accompanies laying eyes on our children for the first time.  I truly believe this is a glimpse into how God feels about me and you.

Let me explain by telling you what I didn’t do when I became a parent.  As my little one slept in the hospital nursery, you know that room where they keep all the babies in those plastic little tubs?  That special little room that offers you your last full night of sleep for 18 years.  I didn’t walk up to that glass wall separating big people from all the babies, survey all the babies and say:

  • ”Wow, compared to that baby over there, my baby isn’t cute at all.”
  • “I like the nose on that baby more than my baby’s nose.”
  • “Man, I wish I had a different baby.”

No way.  That would never happen.  You don’t compare your baby.  You simply love your baby.  You treasure that little one because he is yours.  You celebrate all the little unique things about your baby.

With ourselves and the people in our lives, we determine value and worth based on comparison.

  • “She’s better looking than me.”
  • “I’m more productive than he is.”
  • “They have a bigger house than us.”

We rank our value by looking around and comparing.  But, isn’t it interesting that we don’t do the same thing with our babies?  We simply love–purely and unconditionally.  It’s like pulling back the curtains on God’s love for me and for you .  The flood of love that overwhelms parents during the first few moments of parenthood is a glimpse into God’s heart for us.

What if God loves you and me as fiercely and purely as a new parent?  To whom does God compare you?  Does God say, “I wish Aaron were more like Jon?”  No way.  I think God would say, “If only you could see you through My eyes.”  What if instead of comparing us to other people, God celebrates our uniqueness?  We spend so much energy comparing ourselves to everyone else—wishing we were different  We’re always wishing we were more talented, more skinny, more wealthy, more beautiful, more athletic, more smart, more, more, more.  If God could get our attention, I think he would say:   “Stop comparing.  I don’t compare you.  Why should you?  I made you like this and I like you.  If only you could see you through My eyes.”

I don’t know about you, but if I could get my mind and my heart around this reality, I would live differently.

Why PDA is Good

I have a confession.  I’m not a big fan of PDA.  If I see you at the mall kissing on your significant other I will judge you and throw up a little in my mind.  I’m sorry.   It might be that I’m significantly Dutch and we’re a reserved kind of folk.  Or, maybe I’m just weird or maybe you are for kissing at the mall.  Gross.   I don’t know, but either way, please don’t get too affectionate around me.  We can’t be friends if you do.

I’ve recently discovered that my issues with PDA don’t apply to my kids.  What I mean is that every time I give my wife a hug or a kiss my kids make a huge deal about it.  “Ahhh!  Sick!  Daddy kissed Mommy!”  They freak out and act like they are throwing up every time.  Being affectionate with my wife feels like I’m that weird kid from elementary school who catches frogs and shoves them in your face.

It didn’t take me long to realize that my kids aren’t actually grossed out by affection.  The, “Daddy, kiss Mommy again!” was a dead giveaway.  I remember reading somewhere that showing affection in front of your kids is good for them.  I’ve experienced this firsthand.  I get the sense that seeing tangible expressions of their parents’ love brings a sort of steadiness to my kids.  Children build their lives upon what they see in their parents and there is something about knowing your parents love each other that makes everything feel right.

The other night, as we were tucking our kids into bed, they began asking questions about when Katie and I met in college.  They were curious about the details of who we were back then and they couldn’t really get their minds around the idea that there was a time when we weren’t together.

As it turns out, when we were dating in college, I wrote my then girlfriend Katie a children’s book.  It is the story of how we met, fell in love and started dating.  Yes, it is terribly cheesy and the illustrations are a disaster, but she loved it and it probably sealed the deal for our then future marriage.

Anyway, my kids were asking so many questions about our early days that my wife dug the book out of her secret box and brought it to the kids.  We read a couple chapters and they were enthralled.  It was like they were Harry Potter discovering magic.  There were a few moments of controversy though.  “Wait!  Mommy, you had a different boyfriend before Daddy?!?”  It was like we opened up a new world that they never knew existed.  They nearly went into revolt when the time came to put the book away and go to sleep.

The whole episode taught me something.  Kids need concrete examples.  They need to know that their parents love each other because it builds a sort of trust and strength in them.  I’m learning that being affectionate and telling our story to our kids is very good for them.  I guess I’d better get over my Dutchness, but can we all agree to ease up on the PDA?  Disgusting.


photo credited to @Doug88888 via Flickr

March Book Reviews

I did a little reading in March.  In an effort to cut back spending I actually cancelled my account for a while…GASP!  In case you were wondering, is part of why I am able to read so many books.  I always listen to books on my drive to and from work.

Anyway, now I’m getting my books from the local library which is forcing me to make my reading choices based on what’s available.  It’s been a good exercise for me.  Here’s what I read this month and what I thought about the books.

51sCx89vcbLI love Gaffigan’s comedic material so I thought I would check out his book.  While he is a much better stand-up comic than writer I still laughed my way through this book and actually thought he had great insights on the wild adventure of parenting.  If you have kids, and a lot of them, this book is a riot.


I kept hearing from friends that I needed to read this book so I finally picked it up.  There’s no doubt that Steven D. Levitt is a genius and I love the way he approaches difficult questions.  The style of the book reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell who is one of my favorites.  I was engaged from start to finish.

2014-03-04-divergentbyveronicarothSigh…yes, I actually read this.  What can I say?  I wanted to know what the hype is all about.  This isn’t my first foray into the genre of “adolescent girl thriller” either.  I hesitate to admit that I loved the Hunger Games.  Anyway, about Divergent...the story is gripping from start to finish.  I couldn’t put it down and it made a flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix feel like 5 minutes.  With that said, the book has this nasty habit of getting steamy in a physically juvenile kind of way that made me repeatedly look around and make sure no one noticed that I was reading the book.  In spite of that, I loved it and I’m sort of embarrassed to tell you that I’m almost done with the second book in the series.


This man was born in a secret North Korean prison camp and escaped to China, South Korea and then the United States.  He is the only known person to be born in a North Korean camp and escape.  It’s an incredible story and terribly heartbreaking.  Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are brutally mistreated in government camps.  This isn’t 1943 Nazi Germany.  This isn’t the Soviet Gulag.  This is 2014 and it’s slavery and worse.  Everyone needs to read this book.