Relational capacity and ministry burnout:
5 practices that cultivate relational health and longevity in ministry
Photo by Jordan McQueen
When we work with youth, we often strive to have meaningful relationships with every young person we meet. But we inevitably face an important question:
How many of these relationships can I sustain?
When I served as a pastor in my church, one of my primary challenges was navigating my own capacity, or lack thereof, for relationships. Every person has a certain capacity for relationships, influenced by factors like age, gender, and levels of extraversion. Have you ever stopped to wonder:
How many active relationships do I have?
How does my network of friendships impact my risk for burnout?
It turns out that social scientists have worked a lot on these questions. The field of social network theory existed long before the way we think about digital social networks today. One of the pioneers of thinking about our numerical capacity for relationships, psychologist Robin Dunbar, estimates that individuals most often have around 150 people in their active social networks, with about 5 best friends and 15 close relationships embedded in that broader group. In other words, these are the relationship levels at which most of us can operate healthily. It’s our relational capacity.
However, a recent study 1 on youth ministry leaders reveals that they tend to have unique social networks as compared to the general population:
Youth ministers surprisingly have significantly less people in their overall active social networks (119 vs. 150), but more best friends (9 vs 5) and close relationships (25 vs 15).
In other words, youth ministers tend to have bloated inner circles but a smaller number of overall friends. What does this mean? Relational network size impacts risks for burnout (burnout is “a job-related syndrome characterized by emotional exhaustion, lack of accomplishment, and feeling disconnected from those one is working to support” 2). While maintaining relationships with best friends has been shown to guard against burnout, sustaining more than 15 close relationships actually significantly increases risks of burnout. Keeping up with a large inner circle eventually wears on us.
Nevertheless, building close relationships is central to the typical youth ministry job description.
Youth Ministers’ Reflections
When a group of youth ministry leaders gathered to discuss this study’s results and their own experiences of relational capacity, one of them reflected, “I’m struck by how many in my circle would see themselves as closer to me than I consider them.” Youth pastors often pour more into their close relationships than they receive in return; it just comes with the territory. Yet, this reality may make burnout a higher risk for ministers.
Likewise, in response to the question, “Have you experienced ministry pressure to form personal relationships or friendships with people you otherwise would not have as friends?” youth ministers answered, “All the time—this is what ministry is.” Pastoral leaders are in the unique position of developing personal relationships with whomever walks through their doors. Discerning how to gauge the depth and breadth of these relationships can be quite a challenge.
Another youth minister expressed the impact of this reality, “Demand for relational capacity means my closest relationships are constantly threatened.” Youth ministers are often bumping up against their relational limits, and it can be difficult to know what to do when your internal warning bells start sounding.
Given the relational demands of youth ministry, how can you guard against burnout and build a sustainable network of relationships?
Here are five healthy relational practices that can help prevent ministry burnout:
1. Cultivate your closest friendships.
Developing and maintaining your closest personal friendships (i.e., your best friends) is key to feeling effective in ministry and guarding against burnout. These friendships are reciprocal and add value to everyone involved. Investing in these relationships is not selfish, but essential to lifelong ministry.
2. Invest in those who invest in others.
Jesus focused on his inner circle of three disciples, then the twelve, and then the seventy-two. Rather than attempting to be the source of relational intimacy for the entire ministry, reflect on how you might focus your relational output by pouring more into leaders who in turn pour into others.
3. Be a connector.
An important part of your role is helping young people connect to other leaders in your ministry. Not every ministry relationship you have needs to be emotionally close and not every divine encounter with someone new needs to become a friendship. You will interact with and be committed to pastoring many people with whom you will not share emotional closeness. This is normal and should be embraced.
Jesus also ministered to many people with whom he did not develop and maintain ongoing relationships during his earthly life (e.g., Mark 5:1-19). Remind yourself, “Just because I care doesn’t mean we need to be intimate friends.” 3 Trust your intuition on when to develop a personal relationship versus when to relationally connect a young person to other leaders in your ministry. If you are already facing feelings of burnout, you may need a trusted person to help you discern your own relational capacity.
4. Build and maintain friendships with those outside of your ministry.
Due to the high degree of overlap between work and personal relationships in ministry and the smaller active social network among youth ministers, intentionally building and maintaining friendships with those outside of your ministry is paramount. Youth ministers, like all people, need enough individuals to support them as they navigate life’s challenges. When work transitions occur, for example, it is not uncommon for ministers to lose the majority of their active social networks. In fact, the study revealed that when work relationships were removed from youth ministers’ networks, the average network size decreased from 119 to 58 (compared to Dunbar’s number of 150, which doesn’t even include work relationships)!
Building and maintaining relationships with those outside of your church is an important component of cultivating a healthy relational network that can weather all of life’s major transitions. Consider the following questions as a starting point for developing these relationships: What touchpoints do I have with the world outside of church? What hobbies would I enjoy engaging in outside of my church? What friendships do I maintain across time and geographical distance that are meaningful to me, and how can I keep investing in those long-term relationships?
Spend time alone with God. Jesus often retreated to the mountains or to quiet places to spend time with God. When we are not embedded in our typical contexts, we can begin to see the influences of our everyday surroundings because we observe them from the outside. Establish regular rhythms of solitude with God, whether those are through hiking, reading a good book, or artistic expression. Establishing rhythms of retreat is an important balance to high relational exertion. (For more ideas on finding rest if you live and serve in urban areas, see the article Rest in the City.)
To get started practicing these 5 steps, download our free Relational Capacity Healthy Practices Guide.
What practices have helped you thrive relationally as a minister?
I’d love to hear. Add a comment below.
This publication was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.
1. This blog post utilizes research from the following two sources:
Pickett, Candace Coppinger, Justin L. Barrett, Cynthia B. Eriksson, and Christina Kabiri. 2018. “Social Networks among Ministry Relationships: Relational Capacity, Burnout, & Ministry Effectiveness.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 45 (2): 92–105.
Barrett, Justin, Cyntha Eriksson, Candace Coppinger Pickett, Ashley Wilkins, Rebecca Burnside, and Patience Ahmed. “The Science of Ministry Relationships: Burnout, Trauma, and Ministry Effectiveness.” Lecture presented January, 2015.