Burnout among missionaries is real and it is 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. According to Webster’s dictionary, burnout is “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.”
As I mentioned in Part 1, I do not blame anyone for resigning from their field of service for burnout. I believe that there was a point in our ministry in PNG that I was heading 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 explored common causes of burnout and how they lead to it. In Part 2, I want to share symptoms of burnout and a plan for alleviating potential burnout, along with some suggestions for those caring for missionaries.
Symptoms of Burnout
There are some common symptoms of burnout. I have collected these possible symptoms from a number of different resources on the subject. I do not think it will be surprising to see that the possible symptoms or burnout and depression are very similar. In any case, a cursory look into the subject will reveal the following possible symptoms of burnout:
• Tired or exhausted all of the time
• Difficulty Focusing
• Feelings of Anxiety
• Feeling guilty or worthless
• Loss of enjoyment
• Feelings of hopelessness
• Feeling of dread
• Weight loss
• Difficulty sleeping
• Loss of appetite
• Preferring isolation
Some of these are more extreme, but a lot of missionaries struggle with many of these symptoms and they should be reason for reflection. I would say at my lowest point I was dealing with about ten of the above symptoms, no exaggeration.
A Plan for Derailing Burnout
In this part of the blog I want to write specifically to the missionary who may be struggling. While this is written to the missionary, it is also helpful for those caring for them. While I have thoughts about what contributes to burnout and some of the reasons why they do, I am still in the process of understanding what it takes to derail it. I can only share with you how the Lord helped me personally in my own struggles and maybe it will help you if you are struggling with the same things.
If we want to avoid burnout we need to alleviate the affects of the contributing factors that I mentioned in Part 1: life challenges, unmet expectations and workload.
Life Challenges: Ask for Help
Thankfully the challenges I mentioned in Part 1 of living in a new country and culture lessen over time, especially the language barrier (if you are able to learn the language), where to get things repaired for your home or car, or where to go for medical and dental work. You also learn how to navigate friendships within the culture.
Even while some of these lessen over time, if you are new to the field or have been on the field a while but facing new circumstances, whenever you find yourself in over your head, the Lord has often provided other people within the body of Christ nearby who can help you depending on where you serve. My co-worker back in PNG used to help me when I got stuck with home repairs. Here in Mexico, a fellow missionary came over to my house to teach me how to clean and care for my “swamp coolers” (a type of simple home air cooling system). Lately I have been trying to figure out where to get a medical procedure done and one of our field chairmen has been helping me.
Don’t be afraid to call on others for help or advice when you are in over your head. We can always learn from one another and in my experience in any given area that I have needed help or advice, the Lord has provided someone older who has gone through what I have gone through before and is available to help. The danger is when we are too prideful or scared to ask others for help, because we either want to make it seem like we know it all or because we are afraid of bothering them.
On the subject of financial support specifically: if being critically under supported continues to cause stress on your life and family, it might be worth it to consider taking a home assignment and raising more support.
***Tip: When you need help, ask for it. Don’t be a hero.***
Unmet Expectations: Be Honest
One of our problems, especially with newer missionaries, is that we think we can do it all and we think that we have to be some kind of missionary hero. I think some of this pressure comes from the fact that many of us live off of the support of other individuals and churches, and because of this we need to be “super-productive” to be able to send reports back home and so that people will continue to support us. Pressure can come from within when we tie our identity to our sense of productiveness. It can also come from leaders or even our teammates.
No matter where the expectations are coming from, ourselves, our supporters or our leadership or team, the resolution is the same. We need to identify before the Lord what the expectations are, and evaluate what is reasonable and unreasonable to expect of ourselves (and others).
One thing that is simply the reality of overseas missions work is this: it’s slow and complex… very slow and very complex. Adjusting to the culture takes time, learning language takes time, working with people takes lots and lots of time and creativity and living life takes time. Everything is just slower and complex on the mission field. (I think it has to do with the fact that we are in a spiritual battle for souls)
Another reality is that missionaries work primarily with people and people are complex. We simply cannot force fruitfulness in the life of someone else; we cannot force people to respond to the Gospel and we cannot force people to be interested in growing. This contributes to the slowness of our work. How people respond is outside of our control.
Coming to grips with unmet expectations is something everyone has to go through. The young, new missionary typically arrives on the field with a lot of zeal. That zeal wanes over time as he or she faces the hardship of life and ministry, but that hardship brings us to a place of deeper maturity as it chips away at our “zeal” approach to ministry and replaces it with a “communion wth Christ” approach to ministry. Mission work is not a sprint, its a marathon and it is run slow and steady.
Our identity should be found, not in what we accomplish for Him, but who we are in Him. Our lives should be lived out from communion with Him, not pressure to perform for Him. Finding our conviction about what He does and does not expect from us is helpful.
***Tip: Identify unrealistic expectations and obliterate them.***
The Workload: Manage It
Really, “unrealistic expectations” and “workload” are intertwined. A lot of our unrealistic expectations have to do with what we hope to accomplish.
Along with the challenge above to understand that mission work is slow and that we need to disconnect our sense of identity from the expectations we place on ourselves or are placed on us from others, there are a few practical things that we can do to alleviate stress.
For one thing, we need to determine for ourselves what we can do and cannot do in terms of total hours in the day. This is basically about time management. Everyone deals with this, not just missionaries. The problem in missions is that you often feel like you should be doing more. Part of the reason is the actual urgency of the task since we are talking about human souls.
We as missionaries specifically need to learn when to say “no” to some things and when to rest.
Some have talked about how you can’t approach mission work as if it were a 9-5 job, because you are on all the time. I get what they are saying, but since this blog is about burnout, if you want the quickest route to burnout, take that approach to ministry. No. People need time off, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. We need rest sometimes and rest is not unspiritual. It is given by God and a gift from Him. It is okay to set parameters and take breaks. You have permission.
One leader in our church used to say that we need to learn the ministry of “no,” that is, saying no to things we cannot add to our already full plates. I think this is true. If someone is asking more of you than is appropriate, such as a field leader or a teammate, you should have the freedom to talk with them about what you can and cannot do, and it might require some assertiveness. You have permission.
A huge problem with being overworked is that our families are usually the one’s that pay the price.
I hear anecdotes from time to time about people who were so dedicated to the task that they worked long hours. I heard one missionary man brag about how his wife and kids basically did not see him for one year because of how hard he was working on language study. So faithfulness, dedication and commitment to the task is indicated by how many hours someone works? In this case it was at the sacrifice of his family.
Some missionaries, like the one I mentioned above, are so “committed” to the task that they neglect their families. The amount of stories of children who grew up on the mission field with their parents valuing the ministry over their families is sickening. I have seen firsthand the damage that this perspective causes. If that is our outlook, we should be ashamed of ourselves. One speaker was once overheard telling missionary candidates that being a missionary means that you “sacrifice your children” for the sake of the ministry. So wrong! Part of the problem is that we make a false dichotomy between our “ministry” and our “family.”
Right now I am required to work on acquiring the Spanish language and learning about Mexican culture for forty-four hours per week. I don’t think its unreasonable; after all, its my job. It’s a reasonable expectation. So, I am not suggesting we do not work. What I am saying is that there are other realms of responsibility outside of work that I am delegated to manage before God, such as managing my household or training my children, and the sum total of everything I have to do requires me to manage it all well. This includes scheduling in times of rest and saying no to some things being asked of me.
Every one of us has to manage what we can and cannot do at any given time. When we believe that we have to say yes to everything that everyone around us wants to put on us, we begin to become overworked.
***Tip: Learn to be content with what you can and cannot do.***
Make time for rest. Do not sacrifice your family health.
If you think that you may be spiraling towards burnout, my suggestion is that you take an intentional break to spend some time reflecting and talking with the Lord about these areas. Usually when we are overworked and discouraged, we think that taking a break will just add to the discouragement. A healthy work ethic is good, but if potential burnout is on the table it’s worth taking the time off needed to purposefully evaluate your life trajectory. It might be good to even go on a short home assignment to spend time in your church and seek counsel. A break itself often helps us to get a fresh perspective on things.
Let me give this piece of related advice: when you get low, I mean really low on the mission field and you are considering leaving the field, before you resign, at least first take a break and go home. That alone might be all that you need. If you are going to leave the field, it’s better to make that decision after having gotten a breather outside of the work on a break, rather than from the depths of discouragement.
Spiritual Beings in a Spiritual Battle
The truth is, we are spiritual beings in a spiritual battle. Much of what I have personally discovered about my descent into depression and potential burnout is rooted in the realm of truth versus lies. The truth is that in Christ, I am accepted, forgiven, loved and secure. The lies that I believed were that I was worthless and that my endeavors were pointless. Because of this I felt like I had to prove my worthiness. To do this, I needed to succeed in every way. This led to bondage and a controlling concern whether or not people, leaders or God approved of me.
We determine what we are choosing to believe at any given time. We can choose to believe the truth or we can choose to believe lies. To choose lies is to choose slavery. To choose truth is to choose liberty and abundance of life. Because our worthiness is based on Christ’s righteousness, we have nothing to prove. We can simply rest in His lovingkindness as His life is made manifest in ours. If productivity is our goal, this rest is actually more motivating and energizing to our ministry endeavors than anything else.
People pleasing is also a huge problem for some of us. On this, we need to find our worth in Christ and not on the evaluations of others. Every time our ego is threatened by the fear of how others might see us, we need to remember God’s evaluation of us in Christ and live from that. I believe that some of us are burning out because we care too much about what other people, especially people we respect, think of us.
Practical Tips for those Caring for Missionaries
I want to conclude this 2-part blog with some suggestions for those committed to caring for missionaries. If you want to get involved in helping your missionary family member or friend as they face the stress of working overseas, here’s some ideas for how to engage with them:
- Ask how they are really doing every once in a while and be prepared to listen
- Remind them often that God loves them and that He’s not disappointed in them
- Encourage them to take regular breaks
- Ask if there is anything practical they need and consider providing it
- Visit them or send someone to visit them, just for the purpose of encouragement
- If they are overworked or stressed, don’t give them more work, i.e. “You should read this book, it really helped me…” 🙂
- Visit Paracletos.Org for more resources on caring for missionaries
Missionaries face life challenges, unmet expectations and a huge workload. That’s reality. These things can be alleviated through proper perspective and practical changes in time management. Most importantly though, we need to be living in communion with Christ. Our perspective always gets off base when we deviate from truth and as you have probably noticed a lot of the issues related to burnout relate to our identity in Christ and understanding the expectations He has (or does not have) for our lives in service to Him. He is good and loves us, and has promised never to abandon us. We can trust Him and move ahead in His strength.