by Jason Sansbury
In June 2012 I was finishing up a week of summer camp with senior high students in Panama City when I wound up in the Intensive Care Unit of a local hospital. I was in ICU for four days with a bad case of blood sepsis and pneumonia. At the end of my hospital stay, I committed to examining my life and being intentional about my own health. During the past year I learned some new things and relearned some things I had forgotten or ignored. I want to pass on what I learned, especially to those of us in the youth ministry tribe:
You have to take care of yourself.
When you put that to paper, there is a degree to which it seems obvious. And yet, if you read books on burnout and clergy, overwhelmingly, the consistent theme is that we who are called and gifted by God to lead and care for others seem to always manage to not take care of ourselves. Wayne Cordeiro’s Leading on Empty is one of the best, in part, because it extended out of his own failure to take care of himself and relearning how to do ministry. He does a remarkable job of framing burnout as a Christian leader and how to deal with it, but even more importantly he talks about how to do things in your own life to help avoid hitting the place that he and others have hit of being utterly burned out.
In my 20 years of experience as a paid youth worker, I can tell you that while we like to think our church will help us protect, guard and care for ourselves, the truth is, they sometimes won’t. Now, that isn’t to say that we won’t have some people in our lives from our churches who will guide us and help. But the responsibility of taking care of our own selves lays firmly on us. As Cordiero says in his book, “The only one who can do that in your life is you! It is not a board decision or your response to a spouse’s complaints. It has to be you!” So you need to be committed to caring for yourself in three major ways.
I was/am morbidly obese. 20 years of the typical youth ministry diet coupled with genetics and propensity to watch TV over working out had done much physical harm to my body. While my weight wasn’t the reason I wound up in the hospital, I have no doubt it contributed and I knew that I wanted to change coming out of my time in intensive care. But it meant a lifestyle change.
I spent time in classes learning about nutrition. I enrolled in a state funded program to teach me about fitness. I committed to changing how I ate and changing how I lived. In the course of a year, I have lost over a hundred pounds; the most important thing is that I am healthier. Before I began my journey, I made excuses about how my weight didn’t matter, how it didn’t impact my ministry and how God didn’t care about all that. The truth is hard to admit but food was and is an idol I will always be in recovery from. It did impact my ministry and while God loves me no matter what, it was an important spiritual issue in my life.
So we need to take care of ourselves physically and in ways that can create a healthier, sustainable life. The changes I made are too numerous to outline here; the long and the short of it is that I eat healthier now and I move more. And it has mattered in a large variety of ways in my youth ministry career. First and foremost, I am physically able to do my job better. When the youth group goes out to play or do some physical activity, I don’t have hide behind the camera or make excuses about why I can’t do it. I am able to participate more fully and make memories alongside my students. Second, students who have known me during my whole journey are so much more open to me when I talk about the challenges of making hard changes in our lives. They have seen me do it up close and personal and it has meant something to them when I say that what God may be calling them into may be hard but it is worth it. Lastly, we are an example and that includes our physical health and how we steward it. God has given us bodies and lifelines and we are responsible to show students and families how to live. There are other places in my life where I recognized and made decisions because of how students might see it. For example, I have chosen not to drink alcohol in part because I want students to know a normal adult male who has a fully healthy life without alcohol. In my context of ministry, that is a big deal. But I never thought about the example I was making by abusing my body in other ways.
All of us have challenges and they can be daunting. When I began my journey, my medical team had to remind me repeatedly that I didn’t get into the shape I was in overnight and that I won’t get out of that shape overnight. It will take me years to get back to where I eventually want to be. But it is worth it! So no matter where you are at in your physical health, commit to moving towards a healthy lifestyle because you will be able to do your job better, because your challenge may add a depth to your ministry and because you need to be an example to a generation of students who have struggled with obesity at levels higher than any previous generation in history.
In my years of ministry, my years unofficially mentoring younger youth workers and now in the ministry I have as a CYMT coach, one of the things I have learned is that at times, we have to be prepare to nourish our own spiritual souls away from the churches we serve. There is just a dynamic that is different in most churches where it is hard to both work at and worship at the same place. So we have to be committed to working on our own spiritual lives. So for me, there were some key things I had neglected which I re-established to maintain some healthy balance in my life. Namely, I committed to a weekly Sabbath day, not just from work but from a lot of stuff. I do things on my Sabbath that nurture and nourish me. It sometimes means that I work hard the day and night before to make sure things are done, but having that day of rest is essential.
I also committed myself to an accountability/covenant group. In this group with other pastors, I am able to be honest about my struggles, my joys and my weaknesses. Most youth workers I know don’t have this group away from their church and it means that sometimes we can vent in an unhealthy way to the people at our churches. Our own integrity means we need to find a healthy place to unload our burdens. I’ve lived in a larger metro area for the last seven years where I have built friendships, so creating our group was a bit easier than it might be for those in new places or in small towns. When I first began ministry in rural Georgia, it was hard to create this group. Some of the things that worked for me included reaching out to other youth workers in the area. In part, they understand what it is like to be a leader in the church, whether they are paid or not. And if you were the only youth worker in your area, it would be worth the time and energy to find a nearby larger metro area where you might could find a group. Early in my ministry, I drove an hour each way twice a month to be in a group with other youth workers; others saw that time as important and recognized that it helped keep me healthy. It was worth it. And there may be people in your church who can help you with some of the issues but be smart in how much you share with them; they need a level of maturity that is rare.
Lastly, I figured out ways to worship either locally or online with churches that might have a different time schedule than the church I serve. It is important to me to be ministered to as just a normal person in the pew. When I was isolated in rural Georgia, the internet had just made it possible for me to watch a young adult Bible study on a stream and that connection, though virtual, helped to nourish my soul in a way that was needed.
Spiritual and emotional health are linked, but there are some important differences. The reality is that ministry is painful at times and we can be deeply scarred by it. And most of the time, we tend to treat wounds as something we just power through. We need not be ashamed when we need more help.
In the last year, I have been seeing a counselor who has helped me realize that there are some deep wounds, some as far back as childhood, that I need to work through and that I am not less of a leader or a follower of Jesus because I need help in dealing with those wounds. If you find yourself in a place where you need more than your friends and covenant group can do to help, then please seek out professionals who can help you. This is a delicate process and different for every area. To find someone who can help you, think of people who may have connections that you may need. Your pastor may be someone who can help recommend someone. Leaders at the denominational level may be able to make referrals. Even when I was at a small rural church, the local faith community partnered together in sponsoring a clinic that included trained therapists and counselors. You will have to be vulnerable when asking for help and wise in who you share that with, but it has been my experience that there are people want to help and still maintain your privacy and confidence.
Once I started treatment and talked about it, I was stunned to learn of how many men and women whose faith and ministry I deeply admired were able to honest share that they too were in treatment, either short term or long term. There is a sense that we can fall into of having to be the image that we think everyone else has for ministry. The truth is that we are human, and when our human frailty is demonstrated in our own emotional health, we need to have the courage to allow ourselves to seeking healing through ways that others might not understand. In doing ministry for 20 years, I have too many friends who are done with ministry because they were not willing to risk being seen as less of a leader to be healthier people. If you are struggling and need help, trust God enough to risk being seen as less an image everyone has expectations of and more as a real person with honest struggles.
The last year of my life has been filled with many good things that have come from many hard and challenging things. I have learned more about who I am, who God has called me to be and how my ministry is impacted by my health in all three of these areas. It is easy to be harsh to myself as I am fighting to undo years of neglect physically and emotionally. Some days are better than others. But I do know this: it is worth it. It is worth taking care of myself, allowing God to be at work in new and different ways in me but also through me, as I am in a much healthier place.
So as you work hard to take care of those God has placed in your life, please be wise and make sure you are taking care of yourself as well!
NOTE: If you need someone to talk through changes in your life, especially in terms of weight loss and food issues, please reach out to me at jasonsansbury (at) gmail (dot) com. I know to take on those things can feel completely overwhelming to start and while I am no expert, I can offer some small pieces of advice and loads of encouragement.
Jason Sansbury is the youth minister at Belle Meade United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. Previously, Jason has served churches in Franklin, Tenn. and Georgia and has been on staff with YoungLife. Additionally, Jason was one of the founding partners of Crossed-Up Ministries, a ministry specializing in putting together large worship events for youth groups. He has a heart for helping young people find their call into ministry and succeeding early in their ministry and careers. For fun, Jason loves movies, music, and television. He is a fount of useless pop culture trivia and dreams of being a winner on the TV show Jeopardy.
CYMT is proud to announce the expansion of our original initiative into Theology Together 2.0. CYMT aims to develop a curriculum to be used in local congregations and ministries. Taking what we have learned about engaging youth in deep theological reflection during missional experiences and embedding those processes into congregational youth ministries.
"I hope students come away from my courses with the ability to think more deeply, richly and theologically about their youth ministry practice. I think a lot of what happens in youth ministry happens unreflectively and can be deforming to young people, and my courses are intended to give students a theological framework for evaluating and reforming their youth ministry practice."
Of course, I want students to drink deeply from the academic readings, lectures and discussions, and I want them to be informed by the academics. But more than that, I want them to see that youth ministry is a calling of God, an important part of God’s mission in the world, one that should give them pride and evoke humility at the same time.