It was a cool and rainy mid-November Saturday morning. As usual, I had looked forward to the monthly junior high school kids are much more capable of spiritual growth and leadership than people give them credit for, and this group of spiritually motivated and ministry-minded kids was a good case in point.
We had made breakfast together in the church kitchen and now it was time to settle down. On the agenda was the happy business of prayer and planning the group activities. September and October had gone very well, and great events were on the calendar for us to look forward to. In the two years I’d been at the church, the junior high ministry had become famous for the right reasons.
“So, before we start planning, how do you feel it’s going in the group these days?” I asked.
Jana began. “I think it’s going terrible. Shella, that new girl, is so obnoxious.”
“Yeah, I agree,” answered Charlie. “None of the events are any fun anymore.”
“I don’t even look forward to coming,” added Karen.
“I don’t like it either, and I think my family might start looking for a different church,” Ricci added helpfully.
Believe it or not, the conversation went downhill from there. Negativism was expressed with vehemence and bitter conviction. For me, it was an agonizing hour. When they seemed to be done I asked, “Does anyone have anything positive, anything good about the group, they want to say?”
Seven pairs of eyes looked back at me. No one responded, not even one. I was so totally blown away that all I could do was close with a brief prayer. After spending the next hour taking all of them home in the church van, I went back to my office and sat at my desk, lost in thought. Damage control time. If this had been my first ministry, no doubt I would have composed a resignation letter. I decided instead to do nothing unusual. Why?
“Len, you stupid jerk,” I kindly said to myself, “you forgot it was November.”
Here’s another example. From time to time I get invited to participate in a youth ministry as an observer, with the idea that I can provide some kind of critique as to what’s going on. Recently I was sitting in on a youth group session that started out bad and went down hill from there. Jennifer began by asking the twenty five youth present to “feel free now to share with us all what God is doing in your life or what you are learning from Him these days.” Blank stares, silence. “Well let’s sing then” and she launched into an a capella song, which became a solo.
Eventually people did warm up a little bit, but not much. Later that day I met with Jennifer. She was so discouraged and so devastated that it didn’t go well. She was even questioning her own call and fitness for ministry, faced with such a spectacular failure.
“Have you ever heard of S.A.D.” I asked her.
“Yes of course, but that doesn’t really affect people does it?”
Long pause. “Knowing it’s November, here are some ideas that may have helped…” It was epiphany time for Jennifer as she realized that even if only a handful are “down” the dragging down influence can effect how an entire evening goes.
November…it’s one of the four reasons youth workers get burned out and quit.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)…that’s a fancy clinical name. In my first few years of ministry I didn’t know the clinical name for it, but I did notice a distinct pattern. What I noticed then and still notice today is that some of our brightest and best will go into a spiritual tail spin in November. They’ll get negative and critical. They won’t feel like talking, sharing, or singing. Some young people will get this way and so will some adults.
I used to lie awake at night thinking about this…worrying, praying, wondering why. I tried to use counseling or “heavy” talks with the group or individuals as early weapons. It only took a few years to figure out, however, that no amount of prayer, counseling, and extra meeting would make any difference. All I had to do was wait…by mid or late December, the grumpy kids and adults would snap out of it and be their cheerful and positive selves again.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is very well documented. The Journal of the American Medical Association and Scientific American have both discussed over the years. It’s in the popular press, too: USA Today, Sports Illustrated, Business Horizons and even Vogue among many others.(2)
SAD exists because of the change to and from daylight savings time that we all experience twice a year; this change causes a fluctuation in the amount of daily light we see. The time change is also coupled with worse weather or better weather, and less sunshine or more sunshine. This change of light level affects the body’s production of a chemical called melatonin. In some people, this change in melatonin level produces symptoms of depression In other words, people get grumpy. Six weeks is about what it takes to readjust, though some people have the symptoms through all the winter months.
Youth workers who don’t know about this are doubly vulnerable. We are vulnerable first because we’re clueless as to why we get blindsided by people who we thought were on our side. Nice, friendly, supportive people all of a sudden want to see our ministries filleted and our souls hung on meat hooks…fodder for the circling vultures they and others have become.
Second, we are vulnerable because we ourselves may be victims of SAD. Things might be going okay and then, without apparent cause or warning, our internal “self-talk” gets negative. We internally rehearse long, critical speeches to kids, board members, or our senior pastor. We compose our resignation letters, dream of how nice it would be to be to change churches, and speculate on how unjust it is that someone so wonderful as we could be stuck with such ungrateful people.
If we live in Florida or Southern California, chances are we may have never seen SAD. One study showed that the farther north a person went in North America, the greater the percentage of people who were severely affected. (3)
Florida 1.4 percent
Maryland 6.3 percent
New York 8.0 percent
New Hampshire 10.0 percent
These percentages represent the severe cases. An equal percentage of SAD sufferers will experience only moderate symptoms. What does it mean? If we live in Baltimore, St. Louis, Denver, or Eureka, and we minister to fifty junior and senior high school kids, about seven or eight will experience the significant emotional undertow of SAD. It’s only a small number, but the destructive potential is frightening.
Knowing this, what do I do about SAD? (1) Every November I remind the youth group and volunteer staff about SAD. I tell them that the feelings, if they come, are normal. I implore them not to drop out during this time, but to around people can encourage them. (2) Personally, I have a policy to never, ever resign from anything in November. (3) When I go to youth pastor meetings, I try to watch for those who are feeling low and encourage them, if I can.
In this chapter, we have toured the reasons many youth workers choose to get off the bus. Are there any easy solutions to these issues? Actually, there are!
Being Aware. It sounds almost too simple, but just knowing about SAD will help. Unaware of SAD? Now you are aware.
Jim moved from San Diego to Portland, Oregon, when he same to work at his new church. He’d read about SAD and he knew there were a lot of niceties about life in San Diego he would miss dearly. He began his ministry July first and sure enough, in mid-November, he was feeling the pull toward home. He put a big picture of the ocean up in his office, and he shared his feelings openly with the pastoral staff and other youth pastors he saw frequently. He made it through his first winter and now, three years later, he’s an avid backpacker. He loves Portland and loves how close the mountains are. The ocean picture in his office has been replaced by one of Mt. Hood.
Being Real. Having our ideals crushed by reality is never fun. Youth workers who survive the shattering of early ideals do so largely because they truly love young people, they deeply feel a call from God to be in youth ministry, and they have a support network.
Samantha went to her second church assuming her senior pastor would be warm, supportive, and caring. Her first senior pastor had been that way. Surprise! Her new pastor was aloof and never talked at a feeling level; soon Samantha felt life she’d made a big mistake. She almost resigned the day after he told her, “Look, I don’t need or want to be your friend, get that through your head.” Samantha got active with a support group for youth pastors that met monthly. She found several other youth ministers had pastors like that. She successfully let go of her expectations about her pastor and this group began to meet her needs for caring support.
Being Honest. There is nothing wrong with changing our minds. We may have set out with high hopes of long-term ministry with kids, but now our changing hearts pull us in a different direction. It’s okay. In fact, it’s better to leave than to stay for the wrong reasons.
Being Centered. The surest way to survive discouragement and setback in the early years of ministry is to remain centered on Jesus Christ. His is our comfort when we hurt, our security when our surroundings shake. The apostle Paul certainly had his chare of bad days and setbacks: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed…we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:8,9,16,17).
Yes, sometimes it seems like we must slog through the slime to be youth pastors. Yet, when we are properly centered on our relationship with Christ, we can keep from being swallowed up.