No rest for the weary: The stressors of urban burnout

Haley Smith | Jan 16, 2012

Everywhere I go these days, people are tired. To be honest, I’m pretty tired these days also.

Because of what we’ve learned about urban youth leaders, we at the Fuller Youth Institute have new respect for the unique sources of fatigue that they experience. Given the trauma they are exposed to (both directly as well as indirectly through others in their community), they seem to be particularly prone to stress and burnout.

Sometimes referred to as the “new friars,” urban youth leaders are often dedicated to investing and improving the quality of their entire community. This same dedication is what draws the majority into making deep roots and actually living amongst the people they serve, radically changing the meaning of a full-time job. While providing a strong and meaningful partnership with their community, they are unfortunately placed at an increased risk for emotional distress and exposure to traumatic life events.

Being surrounded by so much devastating need, it can be hard to see the significance of their own needs. Their problems come last because they seem small in comparison.

Leaders Need Help But Often Don’t Seek It

In an FYI study done by Dr. Cynthia Eriksson and her research team at Fuller, 284 urban youth workers from faith-based organizations were surveyed to explore the different types of trauma they were exposed to and how they in turn received or sought support, whether physical, mental or spiritual. It turns out only a quarter of the participants sought therapy for emotional needs and less than half sought spiritual services. The results are surprising considering these are leaders of faith-based organizations, which generally encourage spiritual and emotional well-being. [Shin, Hana J., Eriksson, Cynthia B., Walling, Sherry M., Lee, Hanna and Putman, Katherine M. (2011) ‘Race, resource utilization, and perceived need among urban community development workers from faith-based organizations’, Mental Health & Culture, First published on: 23 February 2011. p 7, 10. This was a further research extrapolation of the study results shared in this article]

The study found that out of all of the perceived barriers for the use of emotional, physical or spiritual resources, the largest are hardly unpredictable: Money and time. Two resources youth workers don’t tend to have a lot of. Further, over a quarter of the participants acknowledged a need for psychological or spiritual services but didn’t take them. [[Shin, Eriksson, et al, 9.]]

Insights from Urban Leader Angel Ruiz

Angel Ruiz, the Field Ministry Vice President for the Western Division of Young Life, knows about the stress that can build in response to the overwhelming needs of others. According to him, work can quickly take over when he loses sight of God and God’s call. When so many things have the potential to spiral out of control, it is easy to take the reins yourself and react to every situation.

Ruiz shares, “I first have to consciously choose to stop the build-up of stressful ministry circumstances. Then I try to find an outlet to help redirect any negative energy, for example grilling or hanging out with my family. When I am ready to re-engage, I try to assess things and then prioritize. I find that making a checklist and working through it helps me with prioritizing.”

When asked how to best set up boundaries, Ruiz notes that it is not so much about making boundaries, but keeping them. “I have to remain disciplined and vigilant in this area, giving myself permission to say ‘no’ and reminding myself of what’s important.” Ruiz has also learned to include his wife and family in this process to help keep him accountable for his time. The support of family not only provides a boundary but also helps give a “way-out” to an over-committed schedule.

Simply put, the sustainability of an organization is dependent on the well-being of its workers. If they aren’t being adequately cared for physically, mentally and spiritually, then they won’t be able to fully care for the people they serve. Ruiz urges other leaders to “create a legacy that includes intentional leadership development, so that the work will continue building and growing beyond you.”

Recommendations for Urban Ministries

So what can we do to care for ourselves and other leaders? The following list includes suggestions for urban ministries based on the research findings:

  1. Remove the barriers – It’s okay to ask for help! There seems to be a general (and unfortunate) understanding among youth leaders that their own needs come last. Organizations and ministries can help change this mindset by providing educational opportunities and training sessions on the priority of their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.
  2. Clearly defined roles/expectations – Some of the leading causes of burnout are inadequate training, vague job descriptions, absence of a support system, and high expectations. By clearly defining leaders’ roles, you are giving value and ownership to the work that they do. This can also decrease task confusion and generate more time and space for team members to work within and further develop their role.
  3. Counseling Resources – If resources aren’t already being provided, it could be helpful to provide a list of places where they can be accessed. Whether through a partnering church or health center, it is important to make sure that your team is receiving the support they need.
  4. Sabbath Encourage your team to rest. God gives us this mandate for a reason. Not only to rest but to also enjoy and spend time with him. A lot of times we get so caught up in God’s work that we forget to simply rest and trust that God can continue his work without us. 
  5. Encouragement There is always room for more encouragement. Make sure your youth leaders know their value and worth in the work that they are doing. It’s easy to lose focus when you feel like what you are doing isn’t meaningful. Words of encouragement not only build up the person but also provide the fuel to keep the mission and the ministry moving.

Action Steps:

  1. Self-Assess: Set aside some time to sit down and self-assess your need for rest and care and what some perceived barriers might be within your organization. This is a great way to gain perspective and the opportunity for you to ask for help.
  2. Set Some Boundaries: Take a look at how much time you and others in your ministry are spending on your work and in your community. Set boundaries between your personal time and work time. You most likely have additional roles and positions that you are serving within the broader community. Give yourself time to do that as well as enough time to spend with your own friends and family.
  3. Write a Note: Simple actions can make a world of difference. Whether you are a part of an urban ministry or not, your encouragement is vital. Take some time to write a note to a valued urban youth leader and let them know what a difference their work is making. You can even take it a step further and commit to writing that specific leader a note once a month.
Haley Smith

Haley Smith is a first year student at Fuller Seminary from Dallas, Texas working to earn her Masters in Theology and Ministry. She graduated from Baylor University with a BA in Journalism and has worked the past four years in fundraising for ministries and social justice organizations. Haley is one of our incredible FYI interns.

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