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Youth Worker Burnout [VIDEO]

Watch this video with Matt Steen and Len Kageler as they talk through youth worker burnout.

A Chemistry Conversation with Dr. Len Kageler


Join Matt Steen, co-founder of Chemistry Staffing, and Len Kageler, author and speaker, as they talk through the research he has done on youth worker burnout.


Watch the conversation or view the transcript.

Len Kageler, Ph.D. is a Seattle native currently living just outside of Philadelphia. At Nyack College, he served as Professor of Youth & Family Studies and Dean of Nyack's Center for Teaching Excellence. He continues to research, write , and speak on topics related all aspects of church ministry. He is now on the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (volunteer, part time) and ministering at Haverford College. He has five decades of youth ministry leadership.
Len conducted several Youth Worker studies. Download the Youth Worker Burnout Study from 2020

We'd love to hear your strategies for addressing this with your congregation and church leaders (just email us at news@chemistrystaffing.com). As always, we are here for you, and we're praying for churches and teams all over the United States!



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Read the Full Transcript

Matt Steen: Well hey, I'm Matt Steen, and this is a Chemistry conversation. So joining me today, this is a special treat. So Len Kageler is joining me. Len was one of my youth ministry professors way back when in the Dark Ages somewhere after the turn of the century. And I'm just really excited to have the opportunity to talk with him. So Len is currently part of InterVarsity staff. He's a volunteer staff at Haverford College, and that's down outside of Philadelphia, right Len?

Len Kageler: Correct, yes.

Matt Steen: But before that, he has invested about five decades into developing youth leaders, working with students, again was a youth ministry professor at Nyack College for years and now continues to do research through his connections at Nyack. And recently released a study on burnout within youth workers, both in the United States and the UK. So Len, thanks for taking some time to talk.

Len Kageler: Yeah, I'm glad to. Glad to be here.

Matt Steen: So Len, you're no stranger to doing research on burnout with youth workers. You've done this. You did this maybe a decade or so ago and then just redid it. So tell me, what are you learning? Anything that surprised you in this? Anything that people just wouldn't assume is the case?

Len Kageler: Well it's so important. And I wasn't necessarily surprised but I was just so interested to see how people responded. And by the way, in this particular study I did, it's called a convenience sample. In other words, I sent out invitations, and those who wanted to do that. So the results are true for the people who took the survey, but they don't necessarily apply to everybody. But they're really interesting. And I did this, as you said, ten years ago and it was pretty much the same response. So I think these are important. So the first and second things that triggered burnout was feeling isolation and loneliness. And then secondly spiritual dryness. When I first learned this and was teaching at Nyack college, I helped my students understand when they go to a new church, they fall in love with them and the candidating process and it's all really cool. But maybe this church is 500 miles from their home area, and so they're going to be in a situation where they don't automatically have friends. Or there might not be anybody in their age at the church. And that can be really debilitating over a period of time to feel like you are alone. Zoom certainly can help. And you can be part of it, if you're part of a denomination that you can connect with. But feeling isolated and lonely, youth ministry is a very gregarious people thing. It's one thing to have friends with teenagers. It's quite another thing to have friends with people your own age. So that was one thing. And then, another one that didn't surprise me but is top two was spiritual dryness. And I know as a youth pastor myself, I was always preparing messages or Bible studies. Hook-Book-Look-Took and the Seven Laws of the Teacher. You know. And I had to make sure that I was taking care of my own soul first. And then my second and third churches, they allowed me, and I asked them, in the first hour when I get into the office is my time for private devotions and praying for the ministry and just feeling my own soul. And they said, yeah, that's just fine. So that's how I carved out time at the office because the home is too crazy to take care of my own soul. So that's really, really, really helpful. And a lot of people, they get so, because you get something out of preparing, you know. If you're studying the Bible to teach it, of course you're going to learn something. But that's a little different than just walking with Jesus. You know, it's just a little different than walking with him. And I found that the personalities - I would always for my youth ministry students and every seminar that I do, I'll give a personality quick test - and I find people who are, what Cloud and Townsend would call golden retrievers - they're very caring, very deep, they love deep conversations - it's criticism that destroys people who have kind of their first strength is deeply caring. My personality is that, if people think I'm doing something wrong I just assume they're wrong. You know. I don't give a second thought to criticism hardly. Whereas this certain personality style is really debilitated by criticism. And people are critical. Not everybody of course, but it can be very, very difficult that's for sure.

Matt Steen: So there's something to knowing yourself and knowing how you deal with that and helping kind of develop strategies to -

Len Kageler: Yeah, every strength has a good side and a bad side. Like in the lion, otter, golden retriever schema, as a lion I don't doubt myself, I make decisions easily without regret. I'm a visionary, all that kind of stuff. And that's great. But it's not so great when you think you can do it all yourself. Like in my second church. Before I went to the seminars that the church sent me to, one of my volunteers, this was on an event we were having, and I was taking the equipment from my office down to the gym. We had a gym in our church. And she said, "Len, don't you trust us to even carry the sports equipment?" You know, talk about a damning question. I went, "Uh, sorry." You know. But that was feedback to me that, you know, I thought I was the gifted person. I'm the youth pastor, so I can do all this stuff. And then as I told you a little earlier, a board member took me to lunch and he said, "Len, you do great with the kids, but you do terrible with working with adults who work with kids." So I really had to learn the skills of how to enfold, encourage, equip, and unleash volunteers. That really changed everything. Just really changed everything.

Matt Steen: Yeah. So learning how to delegate and work with teams and that kind of stuff is going to help people to protect. Anything else that you just see for a youth worker listening to this that they need to build into their rhythms to protect themselves from burning out?

Len Kageler: Well obviously it would be to take care of your own soul, to make sure if you're married, your spouse and family have your attention on a regular basis. I try not to bring church work home. I try to just be, you know, try to just do it at the office.

Matt Steen: So how do you do that? There's a lot of people that are saying, man, that sounds really nice, but how do you actually do that?

Len Kageler: Well it's a matter of control of your own schedule. If you're at the office and you're in ministry 40-50 hours of the week, some of that is in the office time, just having a list of things to do and doing it. And maybe being accountable to somebody about this. Maybe finding another youth pastor to be accountable together on this kind of thing. Because in my first church where I was in charge of junior high, senior high, college, and couples, I would come home having worked all day, and then I would come home with a list of people to call. And my wife wasn't pleased by that. You know. She was not impressed by my care for her. So I really had to learn. Of course, fi there's an emergency et cetera, that changes things. But generally speaking, I tried not to do any work at home. That helped a lot.

Matt Steen: So we've talked a little bit about what youth workers can do. Let's shift a little bit. Let's talk about pastors, executive pastors, the people that are responsible for not just managing and leading youth pastors but also caring for them. How best can they monitor for burnout? How best can they help protect and guard against burnout in their youth team?

Len Kageler: Well I would, if a person above you is a good person and has actually you can see that they care and they're good at caring, then being and helping the youth pastor be honest about how they feel, where are their pressure points, if they could change something what would they change, that kind of thing. That would be the key is having someone to talk about, letting your youth pastor know that they can talk about something negative without it being spread around the church or seen as a weakness. And some I think are afraid if they share any problem, they're going to think I'm not a good youth pastor.

Matt Steen: Yeah. Yeah, it's almost like not trying to fix my wife Theresa's problems. Just listening, helping process if it's so desired. But just being that safe place. And that probably works on some of those relational struggles in that isolation issue I'm guessing. So I want to honor your time and not have this go on too long, but is there any last word, anything that you would pass along to the people that are listening to this, just one last word of wisdom for churches to start thinking through burnout.

Len Kageler: Yeah. Just know that burnout is an occupational hazard. Because ministry is never done. There's always more people to contact, more things to do, and yet we live as youth workers with our work is never done. But to live with that and to draw boundaries and stick within those boundaries and be accountable for those boundaries, that can make all the difference, that can make all the difference. And in the survey that I did, some people explained how they stay sane. A few people said, well, I've got a couple good novels that I like to read. I like to go hiking with my wife. We do things that are fun that are outside of youth work. So those things will help I'm sure.

Matt Steen: Well that's great. Len, thank you so much for your time. We'll make a copy of your research available to everybody that's watching this. you can click the link down below this. But would love to learn more as you're learning more about burnout and how youth work is being done today. Would love to be able to share that with our crowd in the future.

Len Kageler: Great, great.

Matt Steen: Thanks Len.
Matt Steen

Matt Steen

Matt has served the local church for over two decades as a youth pastor, church planter, and executive pastor. Originally from Baltimore, Matt currently lives in Orlando, with his wife Theresa, and has a B.S. in Youth Ministry from Nyack College and an M.Div. and MBA from Baylor University. Certified as an Urban Church Planter Coach by Redeemer City to City and as a StratOp facilitator by the Paterson Center, Matt has made a career of helping churches thrive through intentionality, clarity, and creating healthy cultures. He is convinced that a healthy church is led by a healthy team with great chemistry, and loves partnering with Chemistry’s churches to do great things for the Kingdom.

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