Stress in the city

A new study of youth workers

Cynthia Eriksson | May 4, 2007


That’s a word urban youth workers know all about.


That word probably isn’t as familiar, but we as youth workers demonstrate it every day. When people are resilient, or “bounce back,” they are able to go through difficult experiences and find energy, hope, and support.

Shortly after Robert heard about our urban youth worker study on risk and resilience, he left us a phone message, asking how he could be involved. When one of our team members called him back, it was tough to hear him over the loud clanging and echoing voices in the background. He explained that he was at a juvenile hall, being fingerprinted so that he could visit some of his kids.

Given that, we agreed that we’d call him back.

When we did, Robert answered the phone and very patiently listened as we explained our goal of understanding both the stress that urban youth workers experience, as well as the support that helps them not just survive, but thrive. Before we could give more details, Robert explained that he was short on time because he was preparing to perform a funeral service for one of the young men in his neighborhood who had been shot.

Violence, poverty, inadequate schools, juvenile hall, gangs, racial tensions, the every-day injustices of urban life. If you are a youth worker like Robert, these are some of your realities.

But as we learned through the Risk and Resilience in Urban Youth Ministry Project, there are life-giving resources and support structures that can help urban youth workers like Robert not just survive, but actually thrive.

In order to understand urban youth workers’ risk and resilience, Fuller Youth Institute (formerly Center for Youth and Family Ministry) partnered with Fuller’s Headington Program [[The mission of the Headington Program is to understand the experience of traumatic and chronic stress in ministry settings.]] to launch the Risk and Resilience in Urban Youth Ministry Project. Surveys were sent to 905 urban youth workers from five randomly selected large American cities (Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Memphis, and Philadelphia) with questions related to community violence, chronic stressors, posttraumatic stressors, burnout, motivation, spirituality, and beliefs about God in the midst of suffering. Completed surveys were returned by 284 youth workers (or 31.4% of those who received them). [[Thirty percent is considered a fairly typical response rate for survey research.]]

Nearly two thirds (65%) of the youth workers who completed the survey were women, and while they represented ages ranging from 18 to over 65, the average age was 35. Just over half of the youth workers (53%) were married, 39% were single, and the remaining 8% were separated, divorced, or widowed; just over half (53%) had children.

The vast majority (90%) were born in the United States. Almost half (46%) of the urban youth workers were Caucasian, 34% were African American, 12% were Latino/a, 4% were Middle Eastern, Asian American, or Native American, and the remaining 4% indicated that they were of more than one race. Nearly two thirds (65%) did NOT live in the community in which they do urban youth ministry. Almost two thirds (62%) were being paid for their urban ministry work.

In order to better understand and translate our research findings into practical ideas, we convened urban youth worker focus groups. [[One of the focus groups was predominantly Los Angeles urban youth workers; the other was comprised of national leaders from across the United States.]] The insights from these groups resulted in practical suggestions that you can try in your life and ministry right now—whether you’re from inner-city Detroit, a small town outside of Des Moines, or the suburbs of Denver.

Question 1: What traumatic experiences did urban youth workers experience during childhood?

Urban youth workers reported fairly high rates of exposure well-documented Adverse Childhood Experiences. [[The Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale (Dube, Anda, Felliti, Edwards, & Williamson, 2002; Felitti, et al., 1998) was used to assess these early traumatic experiences.]]

Over 22% of the urban youth workers indicated that they had experienced four or more of these Adverse Childhood Experiences. Unfortunately, that level of childhood trauma has been shown to increase the risk for psychological and physical health problems later in life. Adults with four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences are more likely than those who do not report any adverse experiences to be obese, experience depression, attempt suicide, use drugs, have more than fifty sexual partners, and experience a stroke or heart disease. [[Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M.. P., Marks, J. S. (1998). The relationship of adult health status to childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14, 245-258]]

Response and Ideas from Urban Youth Workers: According to the urban youth workers in our focus groups, these numbers fit their experience. Yet in the midst of these traumatic experiences, many urban youth workers keep it to themselves because they are reluctant to “tell other people my business.” One national leader remarked, “I know a lot of folks who have 4 or 5 of those Adverse Childhood Experiences, and they don’t talk to others about it. They deal with it through worship and through going to church.” While the Lord is the ultimate healer, many of the urban leaders we talked to recommended that leaders find other like-minded men and women with whom they can share their pain.

Yet sometimes people do need specific care for problems that get in the way of their work and relationships. Leaders said that finding someone who was a trained counselor who understands the urban context may take time. But finding that person is worth the effort, and may prove to be a life-giving resource to staff, as well as kids in the neighborhood.

Question 2: What stressors do youth workers experience now?

Of 24 potential stressors, at least 50% of volunteer and/or paid urban youth workers reported experiencing the following twelve stressful situations.

Interestingly, the most frequent stressors tended to be more personal and internal than we might expect (violence in the community being an obvious exception). The top stressor in both groups was “feeling powerless to change the situation of the people in the community.” The second most prevalent for paid staff was “frustration with portrayals of urban life in the media.”

Response and Ideas from Urban Youth Workers: These stressors undoubtedly take their toll on dedicated youth workers. As one urban youth worker who switched from suburban to inner-city ministry commented, “I never saw a leader meltdown until I got into urban youth ministry. Now I see it four or five times a year.”

The internal quality of these stressors means that we might not see them coming, and they may not be things that the organization can change. But they raise several important questions about our support structure. Who are we talking to about feeling powerless? Who encourages us to take a break when they see us starting to get frazzled or frustrated with our kids? Who reminds us to take a vacation away from the ministry and offers to cover our responsibilities?

Question 3: What types of violence do urban youth workers experience?

Violence, while not the top-rated stressor, is still part of the stress in the city. 

Response and Ideas from Urban Youth Workers: Most everybody we interviewed agreed that the inner city can be a war zone. Not all inner cities are alike, however. As one urban leader described, “There are urban jungles, which are rough and tough, and there are urban villages, which are still tough but not as traumatic.”

In either case, one leader likened urban workers to “sponges” who “absorb all this trauma and then are supposed to squeeze out wisdom. When all the pain comes into you, it’s easy to feel anger, stress, and pity. That pain has to come out somehow, or it can do real damage.” As this comment reminds us, experiencing trauma does not happen only when you are the victim yourself. We experience the pain of trauma when we hear stories, witness violence, or feel loss when a kid turns away from us and to drugs or gangs instead.

In the midst of trying to express pain, many church and parachurch urban youth workers seem to rely on the support of their community for help and healing. As one national parachurch leader commented, “Urban leaders will turn to their church as much or more as to our national ministry. They want support from relationships more than from organizational structure.” Yet on the flipside, other leaders described how important relationships with colleagues can be, both colleagues within their own organization as well as with friends in other ministries who are not connected to organizational politics.

Other tools that were helpful for letting out pain were crying, praying, physical exercise, and expressing pain through art, including music, dance, and murals. As one urban veteran summarized, “In our work with street artists, I’ve learned that for some, tagging is a way to release pain. One kid told me that tagging was his aspirin. The pain of their broken lives has to come out somehow, and if we can provide appropriate ways, then fewer kids and adults will resort to methods like tagging that can get them arrested.”

Question 4: What keeps urban youth workers from receiving the support they need?

Because of these and other types of stress in the city, about one-third of urban youth workers (or 36%) reported significant levels of posttraumatic stress. [[Posttraumatic stress was measured using the Los Angeles Symptom Checklist (King, King, Leskin, & Foy, 1995).]] , [[There was no significant difference in levels of posttraumatic stress between the volunteers compared to paid staff. In addition, there was not a significant difference in levels of post-traumatic stress disorder severity between local leaders (those who ministered in the same neighborhood in which they grew up) and relocated leaders (those who ministered in a different neighborhood than the one in which they grew up).]] By “posttraumatic stress,” we mean the emotional and physical symptoms that can develop after experiencing a trauma. These symptoms fit in 3 categories: re-experiencing the trauma (for example through nightmares or thinking about the event when you do not want to); avoiding the trauma (avoiding things that remind you of the event, withdrawing from people) and hyperarousal (feeling jumpy, easily agitated, or irritable).

The urban youth workers who filled out the survey indicated that 36% of them are feeling those symptoms right now. We can compare that to the general public where studies show that 12% of the population will experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in their lifetime. [[Resnick, H. S., Kilpatrick, D. G., Dansky, B. S., Saudners, B. E., & Best, C. L., (1993). Prevalence of civilian trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder in a representative national sample of women. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61, 984-991.]] This means that there are a significant number of urban youth workers who are serving while simultaneously managing a considerable level of internal pain.

Thankfully, many urban youth workers are taking advantage of support systems available to them such as medical care, church services, counseling, spiritual direction, small groups, support from their teams, and spiritual mentoring. Yet in the last year, approximately one-fifth of urban youth workers felt the need to get emotional, physical or spiritual support but did not end up receiving any. When asked why, they reported the following obstacles: availability, affordability, lack of time, self-addressed (meaning they ended up taking care of it themselves), and concern about the stigma involved in getting the help.

Response and Ideas from Urban Youth Workers: For many of the urban youth workers in our focus groups, the idea that “lack of time” would keep leaders from getting the support they need was disconcerting. As one summarized, “If I need help, going to a spiritual director is just as much part of my ministry as hanging out with a kid.” Some likened self-care to the announcement we hear every time we board a plane that we need to put on our own oxygen masks before we try to put the mask around the children. Keeping ourselves healthy means that we will be around to care for kids in the future.

A few wondered if behind the obstacles of time and money lay a deeper obstacle: that if I have a “Savior Complex” and I have to get help, then that means I’m no longer the Savior. Taking time to get support forces leaders to realize that it’s “God’s ministry and not mine,” which quite honestly, can be hard to face.

In addition, some youth workers seem to enjoy the “drama” of urban ministry. As one leader lamented, “I had to let one of our team members go because he seemed to thrive on the drama of urban ministry. Since he couldn’t control the drama in his own home, he burned himself out trying to respond to the drama in his kids’ homes.”

Question 5: What is unique about urban youth workers’ burnout? [[Burnout was measured using the Maslach Burnout Inventory (Maslach & Jackson, 1996).]]

In general, people who are emotionally exhausted tend to feel like they are accomplishing less than those who are less exhausted. Perhaps the greatest surprise of our entire study is that in urban youth workers, the opposite is true. Youth workers who are emotionally exhausted tend to feel like they are actually accomplishing more!

Response and Ideas from Urban Youth Workers: The majority of our focus group leaders didn’t seem surprised that the youth workers who are the most tired also seem to feel the most effective. In many cases, perhaps being exhausted and/or traumatized by violence and pain is a “badge of honor” in the city. As one youth worker commented, “Someone is welcomed into the urban family when they’ve been shot or done time.”

However, urban youth workers cautioned against oversimplifying the link between fatigue and a sense of accomplishment. For many urban youth workers, being tired and experiencing suffering is part of who they are, and since it is part of their own personal story, it becomes a deep well of healing for the kids and families in their own communities.

In either case, the urban leaders also made a number of recommendations to help youth workers find a sense of rhythm and balance:

  • Take a sabbatical, and if your ministry doesn’t currently have a sabbatical policy, suggest that they consider developing one.
  • REQUIRE, not recommend, that leaders take one day each week to disengage from the constant ups and downs of urban ministry.
  • Beware of adrenaline addiction, meaning the tendency we have to get hooked on the physiological “rush” that comes from being needed and being busy.
  • Listen to your team members or your mentor when they warn you that you are approaching burnout.
  • Team leaders need to model rest for their entire team. If they don’t, then the rest of the team wonders if it is okay to take a break.
  • Think about what “rest” is for you. It does not always mean getting away and taking a retreat. It may mean having a great game of one on one basketball with a kid in the neighborhood. What are the things that give you life, that renew and “recycle” you?


During our focus groups, one veteran youth worker shared about her early days living in the neighborhood and pouring herself out for the kids, taking little rest for herself. One day one of her high school seniors told her, “You need to get a life. We love you and we love all the time you spend with us. But if you don’t get a life, you will burn out and get tired of us. Then you’ll leave and we will have no one.”

In the gospels, Jesus teaches us to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” not “instead of ourselves.” More often than not, seeking our own health and healing is the best ministry we can offer our kids.

Action Points

  • What among these primary findings strikes a chord with you? What stressors or responses do you most resonate with from this research? Write these down and call a friend or ministry partner to talk through the questions and issues this research raises for you.
  • How do you respond to the finding that youth workers tend to equate exhaustion with accomplishment? Set aside some time for some personal reflection and prayer on what makes you feel like you’ve succeeded in ministry and whether you might be “addicted to exhaustion.”
  • What avenues for self-care and resilience exist in your ministry? Who can you forward this article to and set up a conversation with this week to begin evaluating those avenues and their effectiveness? Where might your ministry need to grow to help you and other youth workers get healthier?
  • When you think about your own responses to painful experiences, do you tend to find help from others when you need it or keep to yourself? What relationships do you need to intentionally build, or what professional help might you need to seek, to set yourself on a trajectory towards processing and healing from the pain in your life and ministry?

NOTE: All of the research data reported in this article is taken from the Risk and Resilience in Urban Ministry: Stress, Spirituality, and Support, Report of General Findings (Eriksson, Shin, Walling, Lee, & Montgomery , 2007).


Dube, S. R., Anda, R. F. Felitti, V. J., Edwards, V., & Williamson, D. F. (2002). Exposure to abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction among adults who witnessed intimate partner violence as children: Implication for health and social services, Violence and Victims, 17, 3-17

Eriksson, C., Shin, H., Walling, S., Lee, H., & Montgomery, C. (2007, January). Risk and resilience in urban ministry: Stress, spirituality, and support, Report of General Findings. Pasadena, CA: Fuller Youth Institute (formerly Center for Youth and Family Ministry), Fuller Theological Seminary.

Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D.,. Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M.. P., Marks, J. S. (1998). The relationship of adult health status to childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14, 245-258

King, L., King, D., Leskin, G., & Foy, D. (1995). The Los Angeles symptom checklist: A self-report measure of posttraumatic stress disorder. Assessment, 2, 1-17.

Maslach, C. & Jackson, S. E. (1996). Maslach Burnout Inventory - Human Services Survey (MBI-HSS). In C. Maslach, S. E. Jackson, & M. P. Leiter (Eds.), MBI Manual (3rd Ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Resnick, H. S., Kilpatrick, D. G., Dansky, B. S., Saudners, B. E., & Best, C. L., (1993). Prevalence of civilian trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder in a representative national sample of women. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61, 984-991.

Richters, J.E., & Saltzman, W. (1990). Survey of Children’s Exposure to Community Violence. National Institute of Mental Health.

A version of this article also appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of the Journal of Student Ministries.

Cynthia Eriksson

Cynthia is one of three faculty in the Headington Program in International Trauma at Fuller Seminary and an Assistant Professor of Psychology. The Headington Program conducts innovative research in order to better understand the variables affecting acute, chronic, and post-traumatic stress, and creatively applies this knowledge to the development of better methods of identification and treatment of individuals, families, and communities that have been affected by chronic stress and trauma. Cynthia has participated in trauma research and training in Liberia, Guatemala, The Netherlands, and Japan.

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