Facing our Losses: Leaders Learning to Grieve

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It all happened in the same week. My mentor in youth ministry (who also happened to be my boss) was called to serve at another church. And a student attempted suicide.

I was out late three nights in a row running youth events and going to meetings. Those three nights were my weekend.

Then Monday came, and I went right back to work.

That week happened over six years ago, but I remember it well. I remember thinking that I could not wait to get it all as far as behind me as possible. Plus, I was a youth pastor. Youth pastors have a special, God-given ability to bear heavy burdens and keep up to speed... right?

Maybe I didn’t know how to reflect on and grieve those losses. Or maybe it was just avoidance.

The truth is, what I experienced that week was intense. I experienced a lot of loss. There was emotional loss, physical loss, relational loss, and more. I am not alone in experiencing these losses as a youth pastor. We sit with students and their families in their stuff all week. It often can feel like too much to deal with our own stuff too. It can be easier to just ignore our losses and start planning the next talk or retreat.

The majority of youth ministry programming is now almost completely “downloadable.” From youth talks to inspiring videos and game ideas, the majority of that stuff is just one click away. What is not downloadable is caring for the soul of the youth pastor. It does not matter if you are just starting out in student ministry or if you have been doing this for over thirty years, self- and soul-care will always be challenging for us. We have to practice self-care, and part of that is naming and facing our losses.
 

Naming Our Losses

Kenneth Mitchell and Herbert Anderson, pastoral care experts, identified six primary losses that most pastors experience. [1] Working from this list, I surveyed fifteen youth pastors of varying age and experience in order to get a snapshot of how these losses resonate with everyday youth ministry leaders. What I found was that the survey became a safe place for youth pastors to unload their grief. The research suggests that loss is a serious issue for pastoral leaders, and that our losses are seldom addressed.
 

Role Loss

Seventy-five percent of the youth pastors I surveyed spent the majority of their reflection on role loss.

One of the most common experiences for the young adult youth pastor is finding community for themselves. A lot of youth pastors stand in a generational gap in their church community and find it difficult to develop close friendships in the church that are differentiated from their role in the community as youth pastor. This situation adds to the difficulty for many youth pastors to maintain spiritual life in their own community.

When I attended social functions with families from the church, I often found myself surrounded by teenagers because they knew I was the only adult who would not ignore them. As a result, it was sometimes difficult to engage in meaningful conversations with other adults.

The fact of the matter is that as youth pastors, we spend the majority of our time with youth. It is common to find ourselves feeling isolated from peers our own age as well as the greater church body.

Pastors in general struggle with isolation, role conflict, inability to trust on some levels - all of this leads to lack of community.

Not only is the youth pastor’s ministry to the church public, often our private lives are more public than desired. We have to think twice about where, when and how we go off the clock in our communities. As one leader lamented, “Everyone is watching you.”

Another possible role loss is rooted in the stereotypes often placed on youth pastors. I have heard a lot of them over the years. Youth pastors are seen as young, rowdy, uneducated, careless, full of energy, and likely to move on just when you get to know them. It can be an uphill battle to change these stereotypes, especially if the leader before you validated any of them. Stereotypes become losses leaders have to live with, grieve, and work against.
 

Relational Loss

Ministry leaders experience relational loss in our personal lives. Just like anyone else, we lose family members, co-workers, spouses, friends, and pets. Amidst the grief of our own losses, we must continue to be sources of support and spiritual guidance for our congregations through their seasons of loss.

Relational loss is just part of the game. It's painful, difficult, and inevitable. However, the loss of relationship could be lessened if the church would do a better job of taking care of youth ministers, giving them monetary and vocational value, and making the possibility of retaining youth ministers for a longer period of time.

While everyone experiences relational loss, there are some losses that are particular to the youth minister’s world. We lose students to graduation. We have to send them off well, honoring their time in our program while in the same breath building excitement and momentum for the new incoming class.

I often found that by the time a student was finishing high school, I was just beginning to really know them on a deep level. Then, in many cases these students left town to attend college somewhere and our relationship changed significantly.

This can often feel like losing a family pet on Monday and adopting a new one on Tuesday. Even if we said goodbye well, it still hurts.

Youth pastors can’t please everyone. We make people angry with some of our decisions, including students, parents, head pastors, and volunteer leaders.

When I had to “fire” my first small group leader… My reasons to let her go were extremely valid, but I lost her friendship and the friendship of her family in the process. The church subsequently lost a supportive family to another church down the road. My pastor was supportive, but it strained the life of the congregation. This was a painful, but real… loss.

There are a myriad of ways that youth pastors lose relationships with our students and leaders. Regardless of the reason, when a student or leader leaves, we lose a relationship in which we have invested deeply.
 

Loss of Identity

The youth pastor’s vocation comes with many challenges and expectations. Often there are layered and conflicting expectations from church staff, parents, and students. As one leader shared, “The expectations/disappointments that the youth pastor faces within themselves can lead to a lot of shame, guilt and further problems.” Grief experts call this “intrapsychic loss,” or the loss of hopes, dreams, and identity.

Because of all of the pressures on the leader, questions arise like, “Can I do this job for the rest of my life?”

For some, the dream of a happy marriage (or a marriage at all) and personal family life seems challenged by the call to be a youth pastor.

It is hard not to let your identity get wrapped up in the ups and downs of a student’s journey or to take their mistakes as signs of personal failure. As one leader shared:

Our spirituality becomes so enmeshed with growing the spirituality of others that we lose touch with ourselves in the process.

Our spiritual journey is not easier simply because we are pastors. We experience the complexities of the spiritual journey too. The youth pastor is often on the forefront of making theological statements about cultural issues. Students ask tough questions all the time, and we are supposed to be able to answer them. If we do not know the answer, what does that mean?

Finally, there is the loss of our own walk with God. There are weeks when we read the Bible only because we are teaching from it. There are weeks when we pray only because we lead two prayer meetings and there was prayer at the staff meeting. There are long stretches of time where we do not Sabbath… because we are too busy.
 

Functional Loss

This may sound surprising, but youth ministry leaders also often lose physical function. There’s the twisted ankle sustained while playing three straight hours of dodge ball. There is also the loss of staying in shape, which according to the survey is a common struggle for youth ministry leaders.

It's probably unfair for me to blame youth ministry, but I gained a lot of weight during my time as youth pastor because I didn't have the healthiest diet. Lots of pizza and ice cream bars.

It can be hard to take care of our bodies because of all of the fast food and because of our erratic calendars. Sometimes ministry schedules change dramatically from week to week. Youth events during the week are built around times that students are available, which means late nights, long weekends, and very few evenings spent at home during the workweek. These losses can directly affect our mood, our ability to sleep, and our ability to function well when we are “off the clock.”

I never felt encouraged to rest well. I always felt like my value as a youth pastor was tied to how many activities and events I was organizing.

Early in my career, because of the pressure put on me by my driven pastor, I sacrificed a lot of family time. Even though I changed my priorities, it is time I will never get back.

Functional loss may be one of the toughest losses to recover in youth ministry. As a result, this vocation has a history of burning people out … and quickly.
 

Systemic Loss

When I was hired on as a young youth pastor at my first full-time calling, my mentor was also on staff as a pastor. Within six months of my hiring, this close friend and boss received a call to another church over 400 miles away. After he told me, I cursed him under my breath and started praying that God would make his new job fall through… it didn’t. I had to grieve the loss of my mentor and friend, and I had to submit to new authority. My position on the church staff was never the same.

Sometimes our church staffing models and polity can be extremely frustrating. When the youth pastor disagrees with something, we often find we have little to no power, and that our voice is at the bottom of the ladder.

Our church session met on Tuesday night (when we had junior high group). As a result, I was assigned an elder who would represent the concerns of the youth ministry. During some years, the elder assigned was someone I had a close relationship with who I trusted to represent the youth ministry well. During the last few years, this was not the case, and there were several times I wish I had been able to participate in important discussions that directly affected me.

Youth pastors leave their positions. Sometimes we get fired. The process of leaving well and processing that loss can be very difficult, whatever the reason.

The one major career change I had in my life was due to being forced out of a church I had been at for almost 11 years. At the time, it was a devastating loss. I didn't know what to do with myself.
 

Hope in the Midst of Loss

It is important to keep in mind that loss is loss. No one can tell us how big or small our losses are, or how significant or insignificant our feelings of loss may be.

Our hope as ministry leaders is that God is present with us in our losses. When we voice our losses, it validates the real pain we experience. Finding others with whom we can be honest about our losses is one way we can begin to care for our own souls in the midst of grief. Working through our losses will grow and shape us in ways that will be obvious to our students and other leaders. Below are a few ideas to get started.
 

Next Steps for Youth Ministry Leaders

  1. Enter into a mindset of self-care, also known as “self-compassion.” This means acknowledging to yourself that it’s okay to give energy to your own care.
     
  2. Work through the types of loss named in the article and list one or two examples that come to mind for you right now for each category.
     
  3. Write down your feelings about these losses.
     
  4. Intentionally create space and time to grieve your losses. Consider inviting other trusted voices into this conversation who can hear you and grieve with you.
     
  5. Consider seeking out professional help from a spiritual director or a therapist.
     

Further Resources

[1] Kenneth R. Mitchell and Herbert Anderson, All Our Losses, All Our Griefs: Resource for pastoral care (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983).