YouthWorker Journal: The office phone rings. It's yet another frantic voice. This time it's a mother who just learned her teenage daughter is sexually active. She wants to meet with you immediately for counseling, hoping your skills and insights will guide her family through the rough waters ahead.

 

You're agreeable-as always. The arrangements are made. "Okay then, I'll see you Thursday at 4," you say, no hint of displeasure in your voice. "Bye now."

 

Yet another family-and yet another teen-needs your help. And though you're calm and collected on the outside, inside your heart skips a beat and your stomach churns at the prospect of helping anybody. You find yourself balking at the task ahead. You have doubts. You're in pain.

 

You realize that you're in crisis yourself.

 

Questions rage in your mind: Who am I? How can I fix my own crisis and still have the energy and insight to continue to work with others in crisis? Am I capable to function in my position when I am struggling with guilt?

 

Hopelessness? Depression? Then what follows aren't answers-just more problematic questions: Where can I, as a youth worker, get confidential and affordable counseling? Who in my ministry can I turn to for help when I'm the one who needs guidance?

 

The Wounded Leader

 

Youth workers are always concerned about professional credibility. On one hand, we try to project a confident, I've-got-it-all-together image for our students in order to portray competence. If this image fails, we risk losing face. ("Who will they lean on?") On the other hand, we're always faced with criticism from those who see us as nothing more than big kids or-at best-sanctified game leaders.

 

Our office staff, while often less critical and often more supportive, may see us merely as subordinates to the senior pastor. Perhaps they're hesitant to accept us or trust us as competent leaders, regardless of our education and the years we've sacrificed for our profession.

 

And though it's hard enough when we're battling outside fires, what about negative forces inside us? When our world's not making sense, who's available to help us back to wellness? Who's willing to help us-those who're devoted to so many others? But if we risk seeking professional help for a life problem, what does that say about us? (This question keeps many of us out of beneficial therapy!)

 

Imagine the fallout when the congregation learns you need guidance? Imagine the questions: How can I support our youth pastor when he's in therapy? How can she lead our teens when she can't solve her own problems?

 

Congregations and pastors both suffer from what psychologist Louis McBurney calls a "neurotic transference problem." In other words the child in each of us always hopes for a perfect parent-and ministers are likely objects for the fantasy. So when Christian leaders are unable to cope with life stresses, the urge to seek professional help is often avoided because we in ministry are tempted to protect this image. And in doing so, we perpetuate this storybook caricature.

 

In time all of us at one level or another will suffer from emotional stress while serving in ministry. I've grown to understand that when you care for people, it's inevitable.

 

But after you've done everything you can to heal yourself (e.g., reading through the Psalms, Job, and other Scriptures; prayer; fasting), remind yourself of this: God has placed supporters (gifted people who love and care about your success in life, as well as in your ministry) to comfort you in times of need.

 

When I was struggling emotionally, God gave me three sources of encouragement: My wife, my senior pastor, and a close friend in my church. Hopefully at least one of these sources of comfort-or perhaps a source I haven't mentioned-is in your life, too. The important thing is that those who encourage you have a healthy, balanced view of leadership-broad enough to allow that youth workers are normal, fragile people who struggle with life's demands like everybody else.

 

My Story

 

An ill-conceived small business failed miserably, which caused me great public embarrassment and personal financial loss. My aggressive financial decision and the subsequent hopelessness I felt also caused me a great deal of guilt. I was moving toward clinical depression. I struggled emotionally like never before.


My depression first manifested itself by a loss of energy and interest in activities I once thoroughly enjoyed. I was an avid-no...make that obsessive-golfer. I always looked for excuses to play, conducting "discipleship meetings" on the second 18th tee-even selecting volunteer staff based on character qualities a game of golf revealed in them! Golf was one of my greatest passions. Then after my business failed, I lost all interest in golf. I started making excuses not to play.

 

Then I began feeling a kind of emotional numbness about...everything. Food tasted fair-never excellent. Sleep always was interrupted with tension; I either had very little solid rest or long periods of nothing but sleep. Good friends, even life friends, were avoided. Spending time on the school campus became a chore. Even reading the Bible for pleasure-one of my greatest enjoyments-was difficult to do.

 

My Wife

 

I first turned to my wife. I borrowed her joy, strength, and-at times-her hope to simply face another day. Depressed people often are unable to feel or hope and are overcome with guilt. When every fiber in my being wanted me to quit the ministry and flee (another typical response in depressed people), my wife carried me emotionally for a year, allowing me time to heal and serve the church with limited success, all at the same time.

 

During Christmas I was upset that most of the money my family had received was being spent to reduce the debt I incurred from my failed business. And while our church was particularly generous that year with gifts for the staff, rather than purchasing gifts for my three children, I had to use our money to pay off our daughter's hospital bill. We were faced with a Christmas without presents-or even enough money to prepare a holiday meal!

 

I was ready to sit the kids down to explain everything to them when my wife stopped me. It turns out she was tucking money aside each week from her cleaning job to use for the holidays. I was feeling tremendous guilt, but by God's grace working through my wife's heart, I was renewed.

 

My wife also convinced me that nothing would be gained personally or professionally by fleeing and to stay and work through my problems. Week after week she was a beautiful model of joy and strength in the face of difficult circumstances. She provided the family with emotional stability. Her instincts proved to serve us well as I found, with proper support, I was not finished with ministry.

 

God was reminding me of my own need to depend upon him for strength. I learned the lesson of 2 Corinthians 4:8: "...We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair." In spite of my depression, I was still able to function in ministry, offering to God my broken service.

 

Depression affects families as much as it does individuals. It's also common for spouses to take on the symptoms as well as sympathetic reactions. But my wife had a much greater effect on my healing than I had on her emotional state. Because of her loving support I was given an emotional climate to recover.

 

Youth workers who have husbands or wives would do well in asking for their help and feedback in times of emotional trouble. Why? They have a unique window into your life; they can often more clearly see the events that would otherwise blindside us; they can gauge better if our stress load is too much; they pray for us; and the kinds of skills we seek in good therapists-reflective listening, honest criticism and feedback-are often the skills that our spouses already possess.

 

My Senior Pastor

 

During this time I was serving with a man who also struggled with finding support when he encountered life's difficult circumstances. When I approached him, opened up, and asked for his guidance, he gave me support-and it changed our working relationship.

 

My greatest fear was that he'd use my crisis as a reason to fire me. (I've never been fired from anything!) But one day I found the courage to tell him of my depression, and I was happy to learn that he wanted me to get better-to succeed. I was expecting to hear "I told you so..." But I heard these words: "How can I help you get through this crisis?" Over the next few weeks, I prayed and talked to him, and he encouraged me-even when my progress was slight or nil. His support during that year helped me get better.

 

And later that year, he was going through a health crisis of his own and included me in his plans for the future. He returned me the favor, allowing me to help him, and our working relationship deepened. As I shared my pain, he shared his-and together we experienced comfort in knowing that we were supporting each other.

 

Paul speaks of "the God of all comfort" in his second book to the Corinthians. Here we learn that we can comfort those who're in pain with the comfort we've already received from God. And for me, experiencing emotional pain enabled me to comfort my senior pastor-and others-much more effectively, as I'd already been going through the wringer.

 

My Friend

 

I'd formed a friendship with one of the volunteers on my teaching team. It's one thing to ask a volunteer to chaperone a lock-in-yes, that requires a bit of commitment-but to ask a volunteer for listening ears so you can tell them of your emotional struggles requires a whole different level of commitment.

But I found that confiding elevated this person to a different level of ministry effectiveness because it communicated this person's value as a trusted member of the ministry.

 

This volunteer was a youth worker's dream-humble, gifted, mature, a good listener. This person gave me a great gift-supporting me while others were questioning my emotional state. Fortunately there are people who see us realistically-as normal people who make normal mistakes, recover, heal, and then move on. My greatest fear was that this volunteer would second guess my future decisions or criticize me, but the opposite happened!

 

When Christian leaders have problems coping with life's demands, the historic response has been to run-and sometimes that would result in getting run out of town! But issues can be solved by staying put and working them out. Emotionally struggling youth workers can be renewed if they're willing to pay the price of self-disclosure and toss out the caricature of their reputations.

 

This faulty image-the "perfect parent"-must be destroyed. We're not perfect people with perfect lives. We're fragile, sometimes broken, sometimes healed people who offer ministry through our unique personal growth and development. My best years of ministry are the years ahead. Having been humbled, I'm more sensitive toward hurting people, more aware of my sins, and more forgiving toward others. These qualities could have been heightened through other means, but the pain of my depression taught me more lessons than I thought possible.

 

Youth ministry teaches us that we live in glass houses-it's impossible to suffer a personal problem or emotional pain without people noticing. My sources of support already knew something was going on with me-I just helped them fill in the blanks. But remember-if some believers find out that you're suffering, they may not be so charitable. They may spread rumors. (Christians aren't always kind to hurting, struggling leaders.) Or their faith in the caricature of the perfect leader may be shattered-which may also shake their faith in God.

 

But try to keep in mind that what you will lose is the baggage of a make-believe image. One that's pathological and worth losing. And I've found that by remaining in ministry while struggling through crisis, I received more loving support than I expected.

 

Hopefully as you encounter your struggles, you can demonstrate to others how broken people-how broken youth workers-ought to be healed.

 

Steve Blackshear is a 17-year veteran of youth ministry, having served in four churches in three states. He's youth pastor at First Baptist Church of Corvallis in Oregon. The above author bio was current as of the date this article was published. (c) 2000 Youth Specialties. Click here to subscribe to YouthWorker Journal.