According to the Webster’s dictionary, burnout is “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration”. Burnout among missionaries is real and it is also one reason for why some missionaries leave the field. Sometimes burnout itself is actually the main reason behind why someone leaves the field even when other reasons are given for their departure.
I do not blame anyone for leaving the field for burnout. I actually believe that there was a point in our ministry that I was spiraling towards burnout and if something had not changed we would have had to leave the field. In this 2-part blog I want to explore what I believe are contributing factors to missionary burnout, how these factors can lead to burnout, symptoms of burnout and a plan for derailing it before it happens.
Part 1 will explore common causes of burnout and how they lead to it. In Part 2, I will share symptoms of burnout and a plan for alleviating potential burnout, along with some suggestions for those caring for missionaries.
Contributing Factors to Burnout
Why is mission work so stressful? I believe there are three practical contributing stress factors to missionary life and potential burnout. These include life challenges, unmet expectations and the reality that what we are hoping to accomplish is just a lot of work.
Think about all of the unique challenges missionaries experience just existing in another country. There are superficial, yet initially drastic, differences like possible changes in timezone, diet, climate, accessibility of goods and services, etc. that can be overwhelming on first arrival and for a period of time while adjusting to the new country.
I remember about six months ago, after being here in Mexico for a year, I found myself trying to navigate through some life stressors that all seemed to pile up at once. We had a broken window and a broken water pump, our brakes on the van needed work, and we were having some communication problems with our landlady because our tub was leaking in the house. On top of that, we found a cavity in Iris’ mouth. Each of those problems individually was minor, and would be pretty straightforward to figure out in the States. However, together they felt overwhelming and I had trouble knowing even where to begin here in Mexico.
Other life challenges are subtle and slowly wear you down over time. The missionary daily communicates in a different language then his or her heart language. They have to constantly think through the cultural grid-work of the people whose worldview can be vastly different from his or her home culture. Building and maintaining friendships can be difficult to wade through, let alone investing in others. Already, here in Mexico I am pretty sure that I have unintentionally burned through a couple of potential friendships just because of cultural misunderstandings. It is challenging and there are times when surviving is all the missionary is able to do. Even then, it takes work just to exist.
Financial stress also contributes to this. Being under supported adds life stress that can be overwhelming at times.
Not only are there continual challenges based merely on the differences between living in one culture while being from another, but there are also a lot of expectations that the missionary either has placed on them or more often that they place upon themselves, especially when they first arrive. A few years ago I wrote a blog about expectations and shared from a list of possible expectations new missionaries face. A few examples include being a skilled language learner, adjusting the culture quickly, having a thriving spiritual life, building great friendships with ease, bearing fruit, success in ministry, having good leadership, staying connected with supporters, having clear direction at all times, and the list goes on. We all have expectations and especially the new missionary believes he or she can do it all.
Couple the life challenges with expectations, and then also throw in the reality of what the work itself entails. For example, when you are working on a ministry team for the organization we work with, you are looking to: start a literacy program that will continue on, in some places engage in medical work, build loving relationships with those around you, teach through the Scriptures in a way that is contextualized to the people and culture, evangelize the lost, model the Christian life for others, disciple the believers, serve your teammates, translate the Bible, lead well, mentor others into leadership, see a maturing church function in loving community and to eventually see leaders appointed and walk with them through outreach. (This is why you don’t hear from some missionaries very often!) It’s a ton of work and unless we are sharing the load with our team and depending on the Lord for His strength, it is a recipe for burnout just by virtue of being completely overworked.
I think newer missionaries especially struggle with the workload. In their zeal to work hard for the Lord, they try to do too much and what inevitably happens is they become fried and then every area of their life starts crumbling. Instead of being super productive, they become too worn out to be productive in any one area.
The Road to Burnout
I believe that when you combine the realities of life challenge, unmet exceptions and a lot to accomplish you are looking at the potential for burnout. I do not think that burnout is inevitable because of these three areas, but I do believe that there is potential for burnout.
Why? Because the average missionary carries with them the desire and zeal to accomplish great things for God. This is not wrong. Where we start to veer into a trajectory that leads to burnout is when we believe that to be faithful to God means that responsibility for success in our work is on our shoulders. This is reinforced every time we hear anecdotes of what other missionaries have sacrificed to do their work. We begin to believe that unless we make the same sacrifices, work as hard, or make the same practical decisions as the others did, we are not going to have success or not being as faithful to God as we could be. Everything is up to me and my success. I have to keep the plates spinning or I will be a failure before the Lord and my church and supporters.
We hear stories of missionaries who have gone to difficult measures to reach the people. Once, we were told of one missionary husband who would wake up at five on the morning to start work and that his example showed the people that the message he came to share was important. So what does the blossoming missionary do when hearing this story? He plans to try and wake up early. Why? Because he does not want to run the risk of communicating that the gospel is unimportant. Do you see what happened there? One anecdote of what one missionary did was added to the list of things that the missionary now has to do to be faithful or to have success. I know this happens, because I bought into this idea myself.
I remember coming back to our village from one conference where the idea of waking up early communicated a sense of urgency to the gospel was proposed. I tried to get up early for a while, but eventually could not because I was way too exhausted all of the time. It was frustrating because the people we were working with would wake up early every day, so I thought I was modeling laziness or lack or urgency. Then a short while later I was walking through our village and it dawned on me that while the Tigak do wake up early they also take frequent naps throughout the day whenever they felt tired!
I do believe in the urgency of the task and redeeming the time, but what that looks like itself depends on the individual missionaries and their individual circumstances. Also many cultures vary in how they view time orientation and we can unintentionally pass off our cultural time orientation to our disciples as part and parcel of being a good follower of Christ.
As westerners we connect our “busyness” and “full schedule” with our identity. If we are less than busy all of the time, we are not working hard, and if we are not working hard we are wasting time, and as Christians if we are wasting time we are squandering what God has given us, and if we are squandering what God has given us, we are unfaithful servants, and if we are unfaithful servants? We are worthless. It would have been better to not have even tried because now we are just letting God down. While we are wasting time people are entering into a Christ-less eternity. Who can live under that pressure?
I often felt like a failure in Papua New Guinea. There was always more to do. I had to be the perfect husband, father, language learner, culture studier, church planter, teammate, disciple-maker and leader, all at the same time. You feel pulled in a hundred directions and what ends up happening is you start failing at all of them. It becomes a downward spiral: you know you are failing, and the thought that you are failing zaps you of all your energy to even try anymore, so you are failing in the midst of being a failure. You are thrust into discouragement, depression and despair. Many days were marked by the overwhelming feeling of just being sad.
I was at my lowest weight in Papua New Guinea at one hundred and forty-five pounds. I saw a picture of myself from then recently and was shocked at how skinny I was. A friend came out and visited us in PNG and later said he was concerned about my health because I looked emaciated. I did not realize it at the time but I was struggling. It might have appeared like laziness to others around me, but at its root, I think it was excessive stress.
Where did the excessive stress come from? I believe it came ultimately from feeling responsible to carry more than God wanted me to carry, which I was doing this because I believed it’s what God wanted and expected of me to be a faithful servant. I do not blame anyone but myself. Our teammates and consultants were great.
All of this to say that I do not believe any missionary can escape the three realities of life challenges, unmet expectations and a ton of work in their ministry. A Scripturally derived sense of our communion with Christ and identity in Him will help to alleviate the area of unmet expectations but I do not believe we can ever fully escape the reality that we simply have expectations. The contributing factors may remain, but burnout does not have to be inevitable.