Sometimes, youth ministry is like a bulldozer that plows stress-upon-stress onto your shoulders. If you let it keep piling up, it will bury you. So in the thick of stress, you need stuff you can do, not just stuff you can think about. These five practices will help you prevent a build-up of stress and manage it if it does hit:
1. Express yourself.
My son struggles with bipolar disorder. The impact on our family often drives me to my knees, crying out to God. Sometimes I’m afraid this illness will kill him; other times I’m furious at God for allowing this to happen to my dear son. And sometimes it simply feels as if God has forsaken us. I can feel the explosion coming.
Scripture is full of stories about God’s people calling out to him when they’re frustrated, afraid, grieving, overjoyed, excited, furious, and passionate. But somewhere along the way, we’ve learned a false “hidden curriculum”—we shouldn’t emote because feelings aren’t trustworthy. But it’s crucial to release what we’re holding inside; that’s a primary way to relieve stress. King David had no problem emoting, by the way: “In my alarm I said, ‘I am cut off from your sight!’ Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help” (Psalm 31:21). Find a quiet space where you’re guaranteed you won’t be interrupted, lock the door, turn out the lights, and cry out to God. Give yourself all the space you need to get it all out.
2. Fight resentment.
When I don’t talk about the stress I’m experiencing, I tend to wallow in bitterness, resenting everything and everyone. Every day I find new reasons to be angry with God and others, and this leads to isolation. When my voice is the only one I listen to, I’m in a dangerous place. Resentment gives me a sense of power and control that I hold over other people’s heads. It’s an illusion, of course, and it’s destructive to the heart.
“Resent” means to feel (sentiment) again (re). Resentful people relive the offense with the same intensity as it was originally experienced. The long-term consequences of clinging to resentment are many, and according to Scripture, toxic: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15). Picture your resentment in your mind, then close your eyes, stretch out your hands, and release it as if it were a bird. Let it fly away.
3. Reach out.
During a recent and particularly difficult time with my son, I felt broken and angry at God and others. I’d become an island of resentment, and I was sinking quickly. So I decided to reach out to others in my faith community, even though I didn’t really want to. And it was in this community that I began to receive the healing my heart desperately needed. A loner mentality goes against the very nature of the Triune God, who has always existed in community. We’re made in God’s communal image, and therefore made to stay attached to others in community. When one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
4. Adjust your perspective.
Once I began experiencing the love of my faith community, I was quickly reminded that this is God’s love poured out to me by his people. By God’s grace, I was able to reorient myself back to the One who sustains us all. When we’re stressed out, we don’t turn away from Jesus as much as we simply forget about Him. For many, turning to Jesus is a last resort, and when everything hits the proverbial fan, we go running back to Him, who welcomes us with outstretched arms. Some of us need to adjust our functional perspective—from seeing Jesus as our demanding “opponent” to seeing Him as our advocate. He wants us to know that he is Immanuel—”God with us”—and that He’s with us in our storms. You can rest and trust because he is present.
5. Be persistent.
I’m prone to wander, I’m weak, I’m soft. I quickly forget about God’s faithfulness and that I can’t do this alone. So stress overwhelms me. I need to be encouraged to persevere. So be persistent in your pursuit of Jesus, in seeking rest, in finding time to play, and in pushing through difficulties. But don’t do it in your own strength—do it through the dependence expressed in your determined attachment to the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit is your comforter, your advocate, and your healer.