Switching gears: How I found my place in volunteering
A passion of mine for the last 13 years has been working with high school teens through my church youth group. During my last year as a student at ASU, I completed a youth ministry internship at the All Saints Catholic Newman Center on the Tempe campus. After that, I was released into the "real world" and went on to pursue a career as a youth minister. I spent the next six years coordinating youth ministry programs for two different churches within that time.
I loved my job and felt so fed by the work I did and the teens I encountered — which made my next step feel more like a step backward rather than a step forward. Almost exactly one year ago, I resigned as Coordinator of Youth Ministry for St. Vincent de Paul Church in Phoenix. Why? Well, mainly because I wanted more for the teens of St. Vincent de Paul. It wasn't that I felt inept to perform the duties of the job; I felt like I was being held back. And what was holding me back? Myself. I was afraid of burn out.
See, early on in my career I was made well aware of the high turnover rate for youth ministers. It's not uncommon for many to only last two years before they burn themselves out. This phenomenon was explained more fully in an article from the Catholic Sun in April 2007. At that time, I found myself nearing the end of my third year in the profession and being a mother to a 7-month-old baby girl. Having already passed the dreaded two-year mark, I felt good about what I was doing and where I was headed.
As youth ministers within the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, we were always reminded to take care of ourselves, nurture our spiritual lives, and focus on our personal prayer time. It was explained to us that if we couldn't do those things, we wouldn't be able to help the teens do it for themselves. This made a lot of sense to me, and I was so committed to the youth that I knew I had to take care of myself, for their sake.
As the years went on, my daughter grew into a toddler, and then a preschooler, as children tend to do, and with that she became hungry for my time and attention. She began to realize that I wasn't home on weekday evenings and that I was often gone on the weekends, too — and she made it known that she didn't like it (also, as children tend to do)!
So, I adjusted. I watched my time at work, I made sure that I took time off when I put in extra hours, and I trained some key volunteers to do things that I normally did myself. One thing I did, though somewhat subconsciously, was limit programming for the teens. We had our key events, fundraisers, weekly youth group, and such, but I chose not to go beyond that. It didn't take me long to realize that the teens needed me to go beyond that — they deserved more. Following the advice I had been given, I prayed about it and soon came to realize that, if I was to offer the teens more, I was going to have to let someone else do it. The final quote in the Catholic Sun article really rang true for me: "If all of who you are is wrapped up in youth ministry... then you're going to burn out."
I didn't abandon my passion entirely. I am now back in the role of volunteer — and I love it. I have my time at home with my family, and I still give my time to the teens of St. Vincent de Paul church. I want everything for those teens — I want them to walk through the doors and feel welcome and at home; I want them to have experiences that will change their lives for the good and that they will never forget; and I want them to take all of that and pass it on to the teens, children, friends, and family members that come after them. It took a lot for me to accept that I alone can't give them all of that — but I can be a piece of the puzzle that can. Within this last year I have finally come to truly understand the cliché "less is more." Though I'm giving them less of my time, I'm able to help them achieve more of what I want them to have.
The youth ministry program at St. Vincent de Paul Church is in good hands, and as a volunteer offering my support I can help to make sure that those hands don't burn out or fall subject to those negative statistics.
Whether you're a volunteer, an executive, a board member, or part of the support staff for any organization — a faith community, a human services agency, or any other type of nonprofit — you will be able to do the most for those you serve if you find the right fit for you and what you have to offer. Depending on the support of others and knowing that life (or the program) will go on if you're not there is a big part of keeping yourself going and being a productive part of the team.
Sarah Hipolito is Program Coordinator, Sr. of the Nonprofit Management Institute at the ASU Lodestar Center. Prior to her work with the Center, Sarah coordinated youth programs within the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix for six years. She remains an active volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul Church, serving as a high school religious education instructor and is also a choir member at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Glendale.