Let me spell out an all-too-common scenario. A bright young Christian arrives on the scene as a volunteer worker for a small struggling, yet anointed ministry organization. He (or she) gives a few months or a few years of his young life as a “full time worker” and selflessly dedicates his precious time. He sees the ministry make some headway due to his unique set of skills. The founder of the ministry is pleased and gives the young worker a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars to help complete a project. Due to the messy organizational skills of the leader and the lack of a well-defined plan, the project either falls by the wayside or stalls once it is more than half finished. The level of frustration rises on both sides. The young worker realizes that his own financial situation has grown dire due to a growing amount of time spent sacrificially without an adequate salary. He feels he has wasted his precious time and will never see the fruit of his labor. He leaves the ministry he previously admired with a bad taste in his mouth and then slanders the ministry founder to numerous friends and acquaintances.
I’ve seen this scenario — or something similar to it — play out a few dozen times in my Christian experience. It is not a syndrome peculiar to a certain type ministry or church denomination. The “martyr syndrome” seems to be everywhere. I would define this as ministry burnout when unrealistic expectations are not met and a “victim” mentality ensues. Here’s a good set of articles from the Emmanuel Research Review that describe this syndrome as being pervasive and makes some good suggestions for reform: Is it just me that is dysfunctional or is it my church?
Where does this happen most? Youth ministries that recruit full-time Christian workers that are required to raise their own support are more prone to this than others. The conundrum comes when a worker is responsible for his or her own support, but is nevertheless placed in a situation that demands a high level of commitment. Young Christians have the greatest amount of zeal, but they are also the most naïve. They are therefore prone to spiritual abuse and often place unrealistic expectations on themselves. When things don’t work out exactly as imagined, this is either an opportunity to learn and mature or it can be a pitfall for bitterness as well.
As a high school teacher in a lower income area, I deal young people who come from dysfunctional families all day long. It is not surprising that given the high level of dysfunctionality in our culture that we find this syndrome among young adults who are placed in ministry situations.