Survey Reveals Urban Youth Worker Burnout

LOS ANGELES – About one-third of urban youth workers report significant levels of posttraumatic stress, a recent study found.

The realities surrounding an urban youth worker are violence, poverty, inadequate schools, juvenile hall and every-day injustices of urban life. Almost all youth workers interviewed in the survey by Fuller Seminary's Center for Youth and Family Ministry and Headington Program agreed that the inner city can be a war zone and it can be easy to absorb the trauma that they deal with each day.

Traumatic experiences, however, are not only witnessed among the youth they currently work with, but some date back to the workers' childhood.

According to the survey, 37 percent of urban youth workers were exposed to divorce during their childhood; nearly 34 percent experienced substance abuse; 28 percent, mental illness; 27 percent, sexual abuse; and 25 percent, a death in the family.

Over 22 percent of respondents indicated that they had experienced four or more of some of these adverse childhood experiences.

Today, 71 percent of youth workers feel powerless to change the situation of the people in the community and the same proportion is frustrated with portrayals of urban life in media. The survey also found that 69 percent of respondents have difficulty finding time for rest and relaxation; 67 percent experience violence in the community; 64 percent encounter subtle racist attitudes; 63 percent negotiate the gap between urban ministry environment and family/friends/sending church; 60 percent have low or no salary as well as economic pressures; and 58 percent struggle to maintain emotional boundaries.

"I never saw a leader meltdown until I got into urban youth ministry. Now, I see it four or five times a year," said one urban youth worker who switched from suburban to inner city ministry, the study quoted.

Amid the experiences of pain, urban leaders turn to their church as much as or more than their national ministry, seeking support from relationships, the study noted.

While over a third indicated feeling posttraumatic symptoms right now, many urban youth workers are turning to support systems such as medical care, church services, counseling, small groups and spiritual mentoring. Still, one-fifth did not end up receiving any of the support because of lack of availability, affordability and lack of time.

Nevertheless, in general, youth workers' burnout did not apply to urban youth leaders. Those emotionally exhausted tend to feel like they're actually accomplishing more. Also, the youth workers who are the most tired seem to feel the most effective.

To avoid burnout, urban leaders suggested a sabbatical and that leaders be required to take one day each week to disengage from the constant ups and downs of urban ministry.

Surveys were sent out to 905 urban youth workers in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Memphis and Philadelphia. Completed surveys were returned by 284 youth workers.