How to Keep Boundaries in Ministry

This week I have the privilege of writing for the Orange Leaders blog, which is one of my favorite blogs in the world.  The post is about maintaining boundaries in ministry.  Here’s a snippet:

Real questions I’ve been asked by students and parents…

  • So, what’s your real job?
  • Umm . . . what do you actually do all day?
  • So, you just take the summer off then?
  • How was your vacation to Mexico? (It was a mission trip, you Jerky McJerkyson.)

For whatever reason, some people think that family ministries staff don’t work very hard or very often. This of course, is utter nonsense. In fact, it can be incredibly difficult to maintain appropriate boundaries in ministry. The events, problems, conversations, camps, crises, retreats and everything else happen day and night, on the weekends and always on holidays. I mean, always on holidays.

So, how do we keep ourselves from burning out? How do we maintain healthy boundaries so that our families aren’t negatively affected by our ministry? And, how in the world do we keep ourselves healthy?

You can check out the rest of the post here.

1 Question To Keep You From Burning Out

My boss likes to ask me hard questions.  It’s his thing.  And, it’s a good thing because his questions often keep me from doing dumb stuff.  He recently asked me to take a week and identify my stress indicators.  In other words, what are the things in your life that when they pop up, you know you are stressed out.  Why did he ask me this?  Because, stress free people don’t burn out.  We burn out in ministry because we ignore stress and act like we can handle it…until we can’t.  And then, it’s too late.

So, what are my stress indicators?  I’m glad you asked.  Here you go:


I’m sort of a ninja at sleeping, which is awesome for me and not so awesome for my wife.  You see, we have 5 kids.  She hasn’t had a full night of sleep in 10 years.  Meanwhile, anytime she goes away the kids sleep all night.  Or at least, I sleep all night.  To be honest, I don’t really know what the kids do.  All I know is that when I wake up at 6:00 am they are all staring at me.  It’s kind of weird really.

Anyway, what I mean to tell you is that I’m a ninja at sleeping unless I’m stressed out. In stressful seasons, I have awful dreams and wake up in the middle of the night and then can’t fall back to sleep. It’s essentially the worst.  Here’s a catalogue of the weird dreams I’ve recently had:

  • I’m at church and someone asks me if I’m ready to preach.  I totally forgot that I’m preaching.  I wake up hyperventilating in a cold sweat.
  • I’m at church and someone asks me if I’m ready to preach.  I totally forgot that I’m preaching.  I wake up hyperventilating in a cold sweat.
  • I’m at church and someone asks me if I’m ready to preach.  I totally forgot that I’m preaching.  I wake up hyperventilating in a cold sweat.

As you can see, my weird dreams are directly related to work stress.  It’s a stress indicator.


I’m not terribly proud of this stress indicator but it is a very clear sign that I’m running on fumes.  I like to think of myself as a fun dad.  I like to make my kids laugh, play with them and patiently listen to their 45 minute descriptions of what happened at elementary school recess.  But, the truth is that when I am stressed out, I’m a total crab.  I don’t listen well.  I get irritated easily.  I lose motivation to actually play with my kids.  Crabby Daddy is a stress indicator.


When I was a kid there was this character on Sesame Street named Forgetful Jones.  His game was pretty simple:  forget everything important.


I’ve noticed that when I’m stressed, I drop the ball.  For example, when you get a call asking if you’re still going to show up and speak at the Baccalaureate service in 10 minutes and you totally forgot and don’t even know what you’re going to speak on (obviously, this is a story about someone else), you might be stressed out.

Normally, I have a pretty solid memory, but I’ve found that one of my stress indicators is forgetting important details.



So, what about you?  What are your stress Indicators?  If you can’t identify them quickly, it might be worth asking people close to you what they are.  You might be surprised by what you learn.

Also, what exactly do we do when it becomes clear that we are stressed out?  My boss simply says, “Don’t keep doing the same thing.  Do something different.”  For him it might be as simple as changing the scenery.  Adding a walk into his daily routine or holding a meeting outside.

Here are a few things that recharge me:

  • Work from a coffee shop (I’m an outgoing introvert so productive alone time is like gold)
  • Go off the grid (For me, a a day or two of not even getting out of my PJs will get me back on the right track)
  • The Cottage (My aunt has a cottage in Northern Michigan.  It’s literally the best.  A weekend on the water cures just about everything for me)

Pay attention to your stress levels.  The only people who burn out are those who attempt to run too long with too much stress.  Pay attention to your indicators and act on them.  Do something different or do something that recharges you.  Your church, your ministry and your family need a healthy you.


image credited to Vural G. via Flickr

Dumb | Speak Up!

This week I’m blogging about a presentation I gave to West Michigan area youth workers about the top ten dumbest things I’ve ever done in student ministry.  Last week, I posted about being over scheduled, the dangers of being a student ministry rock star and trying to be amazing at everything.   I’ve broken my dumb mistakes down into three categories:  burned out, ineffective and disqualified.  Here’s my #7 dumbest mistake:


Burned Out

Speak Up!

I don’t know about you, but I like to get along with people.  I’ve always been very accommodating.  As a teenager, I was able to float between all sorts of social groups because I never rocked the boat.  I knew how to make everyone happy.  Whenever conflict came I buried it. I always kept my hurts and anger inside because I discovered early in my life that to let them out was dangerous to relationships.

I know what you’re thinking:  “Well, that’s not very healthy!”  Hey, slow down!  I didn’t know that yet.  Besides, you’re ruining my punchline.

Anyway, I carried this understanding of conflict and relationships into college, marriage (which is a whole other blog series!) and ministry.  The thing about ministry is that it is loaded with conflict.  I mean, it is just riddled with it.  I once heard a seasoned senior pastor say that ministry is a “series of difficult conversations.”  I think that sums it up pretty nicely.

So here’s the thing, in my early years of student ministry, I skirted around conflict.  I chose not to confront co-workers or superiors when I had been hurt and I surely didn’t have conversations with volunteers who weren’t meeting expectations.  In short, I didn’t rock the boat.  I kept everyone happy.  And the thing is, everyone was happy.  I was getting glowing reviews, regular raises, and the student ministry was growing quickly.  The only thing was that I wasn’t happy.

The problem is that people disappoint and hurt each other.  This is normal in friendships, marriage and church work.  It’s the nature of things.  When volunteers, co-workers and superiors disappointed and hurt me and I said nothing.  I thought it was best to keep the peace.  What actually happened is that over years this disappointment and hurt grew and evolved into something dark and incredibly heavy.  In fact, it became something so big that I lost control of it.  I became bitter and jaded.

We all know that person in ministry who is jaded.  You can hear it in their tone of voice and in words dripping with bitterness.  Their boss is an idiot.  Their elders are out of touch.  Their church is dumb.  The church across town is has sold out.  So and so author is a heretic.  Don’t become that person.  How do you become that person?  Easy.  You simply don’t speak up when you are disappointed and hurt.  When you choose to keep it inside, you choose to drink the poison of bitterness.

What I’ve learned, the hard way, is that it is far better to speak up in two ways.  First, seek to clarify hurtful conversations.  Most of the time, when I get disappointed or hurt, it is because I misunderstood something someone said or something they said came out in a way they didn’t mean.  By simply asking clarifying questions releases 90% of my disappointments and hurts.

Secondly, I’ve learned that careful confrontation is crucial to healthy relationships.  We’re all broken.  The thing about relationships, whether a friendship, marriage, or working relationship, is that they gravitate toward chaos.  It’s the nature of trying to relate in a fallen world.  You have to fight for healthy relationships.  I’ve learned that in order for a relationship to work over the long-haul, it must involve calling each other out when we get disappointed and hurt.  Ignoring this truth will inevitably lead to either a superficial or broken relationship.

In the end, I left my first church, in part because I had become frustrated, bitter and jaded.  What I’ve learned is that if I had clarified hurtful conversations and carefully confronted when necessary, I’d probably still be there.  It is a great church, with great people but because I functioned in relationally unhealthy ways, I allowed myself to become jaded.

What we do in student ministry is far too important and life-changing for us to become bitter and jaded.  We must choose maturity and maintain healthy relationships so that we can serve and lead for the long-haul because that’s what it takes to grow a great student ministry.  Don’t be dumb.  Speak up.



image credited to ceratosaurrr via Flickr


Dumb | Over Scheduled

This week I’m blogging about a presentation I gave to West Michigan area youth workers about the ten dumbest things I’ve ever done in student ministry.  Over the last few days, I’ve posted about the dangers of being a student ministry rock star and trying to be amazing at everything.   I’ve broken my dumb mistakes down into three categories:  burned out, ineffective and disqualified.  Here’s my #8 dumbest mistake:


Burned Out

8.   Over Scheduled

When I began my first student ministry job, things in the high school ministry weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders.  They guy who was the youth pastor before me is a great guy but for whatever reason, he and the church didn’t click.  To put it bluntly, the high school ministry was basically dead when I was hired.  I felt an enormous amount of pressure to revive the ministry, so I went all in.  We’re talking three programs a week–all year long, two fun events a month, three retreats a year and 3 mission trips a year.  Oh yeah!  Maybe that doesn’t sound nuts to you, but it is.  Trust me.

Did my approach work?  You bet!  The attendance jumped up, the church leadership and parents were pumped, it was a huge win…for a while.  Then, I completely fried.  I exhausted myself.  The truth is, no one can maintain a schedule like that.

I distinctly remember the moment when I realized how over-committed and exhausted I was.  It was a Sunday morning.  I was sitting at my kitchen table in a panic because in a mere two hours, I would stand before 100+ students and preach a sermon I didn’t have.  I had no plan whatsoever.  I had been so busy during the week that I hadn’t studied, written or practiced anything.  This was bad.

Needless to say, that Sunday morning sucked.  In the aftermath, as I came to terms with the fact that I had neglected my most important duty, I finally realized that I needed to cut back.  I had created a monster I couldn’t maintain.  Yes, the student ministry was rocking but the pace and schedule had crushed my soul.

The thing about profound exhaustion is that it doesn’t go away overnight.  When you are exhausted on a soul level, you need a season of rest.  Sadly, I couldn’t recover in the role I was in.  In the end, I quit and took a new job that had a much smaller focus.  My new job was team oriented and specialized.  Also, the student ministry wasn’t schedule heavy.  The sad thing is, the church I left is a great church, with solid leadership and great people.  I was the one who created the problem with my unrealistic expectations and over-committed schedule.

If I could do it all over again, I would use one word to govern my student ministry practices;  sustainability.  A sustainable pace and schedule is absolutely crucial to longevity in ministry, and longevity is crucial to effective ministry.  I firmly believe that great student ministry takes years to grow.  Our students desperately needs pastors and volunteers who will commit to them for years at a time.

Is your schedule sustainable? Are you sprinting toward exhaustion?  Cut back!  Slow down!  Great student ministry takes time to develop and what we do is far to important for us to burn out.  Take the long view and run at a sustainable pace.


image credited to Dafne Cholet via Flickr