Knowing that God has called us to prison ministry doesn’t mean it will be a constantly joyful experience. We can get tired, discouraged, stressed, even burned out if we don’t address the warning signs soon enough.
This can be especially true of people who are typically “givers”—dedicated to helping others—and who are serving a group of people with complex and often relentless needs—such as prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families.
People like you!
A study on resiliency in counselors*—another group dedicated to helping people with complex needs—looked at factors that contribute to discouragement and burnout. One of these is the inability to say no—because they don’t like that “feeling of turning one’s back on human need.”
Consequently, they can get caught up in too much “one-way caring” which depletes their own physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
Another factor is what the researchers call “elusive measures of success”—particularly when it comes to “client change.” Those of us in prison ministry can relate to that. Prison Fellowship’s mission, in part, is to seek the transformation of prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families. But how do we know when a person has truly transformed? And what if the person doesn’t seem to have changed much at all? We can start to doubt our competency as a volunteer instructor, Bible study leader, or mentor.
The researchers warn counselors against validating their competency and self-worth on the basis of changes in the client. “This is the dimension over which counselors have the least control,” they point out.
Instead, they should reflect on dimensions where they do have some control: “Did I do the relationship work well? Was I attached and involved? Was my knowledge base sufficient?”
That’s good advice. So we’ve taken the findings of this and other research, added in a Christian perspective, and come up with a list of some ways you might deal with times of discouragement and ward off care-giver burnout.
Ways to Deal with Discouragement
- Identify the positives. List every aspect of your volunteer service that is positive, motivating, and satisfying to you. Thank God for those blessings.
- Recognize the challenges. Identify the circumstances and factors that negatively influence your ability to serve as well as you would like—factors where you need the support of your volunteer leader or PF staff to resolve. This might relate to lack of resources, relational conflicts, confusion over the “big picture” mission. Seek out the appropriate person to discuss these issues and your needs.
- Set realistic measures. Don’t try to measure your “success” or competency as a volunteer by how much change you see in another person’s life—the prisoner, ex-prisoner, prisoner’s child, etc. You really can’t control another person’s life. You can plant and water, but God causes the growth. Instead, ask yourself: Was I caring and involved in the person’s life? Did I adequately prepare for the seminar/Bible study/class/etc.? Was I honoring to God in what I did? (See Ephesians 6:7, Colossians 3:17.)
- Become a mentor of novice volunteers. It will lift your spirits to offer your support and wisdom to those with less experience.
- Seek out a mentor for yourself. Even veteran volunteers may benefit from being mentored by another volunteer with different experiences and skills to share. Having a mentor also enables you to receive regular feedback on what you are doing and ideas you have for new approaches.
- Recognize and celebrate the service of your volunteer colleagues. Prison Fellowship has implemented ways to show appreciation for volunteers, but you and your ministry team can also do it for one another on a more regular basis! Awards don’t need to be formal or grandiose. Even humorous little gifts can do a lot to promote a pleasant atmosphere where people feel cared for and valued.
- Add some humor to your volunteer service. Most of us already recognize the healing powers of laughter. And science bears that out. Laughter lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, and releases endorphins that elevate our mood. If you volunteer in an office, you might want to keep a few toys in a desk drawer. If you teach seminars, you might want to incorporate some fun activities that will bring laughter to both you and the prisoners—such as fun skits, silly songs, decorations.
- Consider a change in tasks. Discouragement might signal a need for something different—a new challenge, more responsibility. Speak to your volunteer leader or Prison Fellowship staff about other opportunities available to you.
- Learn to say no—politely, but without guilt. Allow others the opportunity to share in meeting the need. Remember the wise words of Jethro to his overcommitted son-in-law, Moses: “You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone” (Exodus 18:18). Appreciate and respect your limits.
- Take time for self-care. No one has faced the magnitude and urgency of needs that Jesus confronted, as hordes of people continually surged around Him seeking physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. Yet even Jesus took time for personal refreshment. There is nothing selfish about taking care of your own needs. In fact, it is very other-focused to recognize that we must periodically replenish our own inner resources so that we can better serve God and other people.
- Call upon Prison Fellowship staff. We value you and want to support you in any way we can. If you have any concerns or needs, please don’t hesitate to let us know. You can contact your PF field director or call PF’s Program Support Center any time at 1-800-251-7411.
Remember: “We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3).
* Skovhold, T. M., Grier, T. L., & Hanson, M. R. (2001). Career counseling for longevity: Self-care and burnout prevention strategies for counselor resilience. Journal of Career Development 27, 167-176.