What I Wish I’d Known About Missionary Burnout

March 24, 2015

missionary burnoutTwo years ago, I left the red-earthed Africa that I loved and landed awkwardly into a new life in San Francisco, lugging six giant suitcases that held all my worldly possessions. I had been running Zion Project for seven years at that point, spending nearly six of those full time as a missionary in Uganda. I had returned America for many reasons, one being that I was very close to burnout.

I wasn’t able to admit that to myself at the time, because in my mind, I still could have kept going, but stress, daily life running a non profit, and the loss of a baby, had taken a vicious toll on my body and emotions. I felt depressed, alone, and like a failure.

I wanted to turn the blinds down on the world. 

Twenty six months later, admitting that out loud is still difficult, even though my life no longer resembles a closed room. It’s taken a lot of internal self-awareness, counseling, doctors, supplements, yoga, friends, and God’s ever loving Spirit to get me to a place of wholeness. It’s not been easy work, but it’s been incredibly rewarding.

Now, my greatest hope is to help other missionaries/leaders who want to minister out of wholeness, not brokenness. I’ll be doing a series on this.

The statistics are scary: 80% of missionaries burn out and don’t finish their term. 46% of missionaries have been diagnosed with a psychological issue, and of those 87% are diagnosed with depression. 

A few weeks ago I spoke to the short term people, now I want to speak to the long term missionaries on what I wish I’d known about missionary burnout:

1. Stress is not something to be ignored

As a missionary I was faced with grueling situations every day from orphans needing homes, to babies nearly dying due to poor intervention, a stressful work environment and challenges communicating cross culturally, to dealing with corruption, or misunderstandings on the home front. I often viewed these as just part of daily life, but in fact, they were major life stressors that compound over time and can often lead to illness:

“In Holmes and Rahe’s original study on stress, they found that when people scored 200 points or more during a given year, the cumulative stress had an impact well beyond that year. They found that 50% of those scoring 200 points were hospitalized within the subsequent two years for heart attacks, diabetes, cancer, or other severe illness. The average cross cultural worker scores around 600 points on average. With around 800-900 points the first year in ministry.” (Heartstream ministries )

I guess when I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue and consequently, infertility, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Take the stress test here.

2. Treat Yo’ self

When I became a missionary I was taught to lay my life down for others. And yes, I was meant to serve, but no one told me there should be a line. I felt guilty if I put myself before someone else’s needs.

I was a perpetual paramedic responding to a car crash. 

The reality is, God doesn’t want me to be miserable. Saying no isn’t selfish; it is healthy. If I take care of myself first, I will have so much more to give away to others. Not only that, but because I live in extreme circumstances often without regular electricity or running water, or comforts of home, where a trip to the market for groceries can almost cause a panic attack, self care is even more imperative. Some mornings that might mean being late to the office so I can soak to some worship music, or write prayers in my journal. It’s important to know my limits and set them. It’s important to communicate your needs to others like your board or supporters who can help contribute so you can build in rest and play.

Breaks should be mandatory, not optional, and no, a speaking tour at churches in the West, is not a break. 

I’m thinking swimming pool, umbrella type drink, and happy, pedicured feet.

3. Inner healing is a priority

Central to my emotions, was my belief system, holding everything in place. In my heart, I believed I’d failed God and others, that I couldn’t do enough, and that I was ultimately responsible for everyone’s lives around me. I took on trying to save people instead of empowering them to be their own champion of freedom. Most of the guilt and responsibility I carried around was due to my own erroneous beliefs. Many missionaries also experience PTSD because of the extreme situations we are exposed to often in isolation, whether it be military combat, death, war, or stories of sexual violence.

Robert Grant, a leading psychologist who has counseled countless missionaries says,

“Growing up in a traumatic environment makes one a prime candidate to seek out unwittingly traumatic situations in adult life. Ministries chosen in cultures permeated by violence can often be mute attempts to reconnect with repressed and violent personal histories. A life of dedication to God’s less fortunate can be an unconscious way to seek atonement for shameful acts and feelings resulting from early childhood abuse. At the same time, the hope is that a life based on good works will overcome inherent feelings of inadequacy, while achieving salvation at the same time.”

I went through Sozo, Theophostic, and professional therapy to alter my belief systems and change my life. I also read a lot on sonship and resting in being a daughter by Jack Frost, which set my belief system on the right track. It was not a quick fix, but it was necessary.

4. Listen to my body

Pain is a good indicator that something is wrong and needs attention. As J. Worden says,

“Pain is often a symbol for suppressed grief.”

Not all suffering is bad, but prolonged suffering isn’t God’s heart for us. He wants us to be healed and whole. Numerous illnesses, aches, a compromised immune system, weight gain, and exhaustion, are like warning lights on my front dash, letting me know that I need to take a break, refuel, and focus on getting healthy. The mind, body, and spirit are intimately connected and emotional stress can lead to physical damage.

The good news is, dissatisfaction can be a great impetus for change.

Sometimes treating it might mean going back to the West for intensive medical treatment or counseling, or taking a restful retreat. It might mean a shorter work week and getting up early to go running or swimming. Maybe buying an exercise bike. Maybe planting a garden for more nutritious foods and having teams bring over supplements.

It’s ok to put yourself first. You have to, if you want to be of use to anybody.

5. I cannot meet every need or solve every problem

This was a hard one for me and I had to trace it all the way back to its roots in my history in order to finally be free of it. But knowing my Enneagram personality type and realizing that as a “Helper,” I was compassionately drawn to meet everyone’s needs, helped me learn where I needed to set boundaries. I was also an introvert so I needed more time to myself. On the mission field, I was bombarded with a host of needs every day from a hungry child, to a sex trafficked woman, and I had to learn that I was not to be a need-meeter, but to be led by Father’s voice. I had to learn they were not my kids and my responsibility, they were God’s kids. Even Jesus did not meet every need and when He was overwhelmed, He used to go to a solitary place to be repositioned by His Father and see from Heaven’s perspective.

Justice is God’s heart, but He doesn’t need you to accomplish all of it for Him.

Also important to train and delegate to your nationals. It’s more sustainable to replicate yourself than to do all the work.

6. What I do is not who I am

It got harder and harder to separate who I was from the ministry. My identity got wrapped up in what people thought of me and the praise of man, the pat on the back for the work I was doing, the constant pressure to do more and help more people. I was afraid I would no longer be loved simply for being Sarita, a Sarita with flaws I couldn’t show people because they might stop supporting me and leave the ministry unfunded. I didn’t want to let anyone down. It took stepping away from the ministry, and out of the limelight in a season of anonymity to really find out who I was again and love me for me, even with my imperfections.

The truth is, God loves you regardless of what you do or don’t do, and He thinks you kick ass. 

7. Take myself less seriously

Honestly, I worried too much about all that was going wrong.

I let all the grief that was stalking me knife me clean through because I didn’t know what to do with so many sad stories from the people I’d come to love. 

So I started watching a lot of comedy shows from ripped off DVD’s (C’mon you know how easy they are to get in the developing world. We all do it) I invited friends over to try and make bad pizza. I got two dogs and laughed while they chased chickens out of our yard. And I was blessed to have a husband whose jokes I think are actually funny. The joy of the Lord is your strength, and sometimes, that means laughter.

8. My marriage is my priority

If you are married, (which it’s ok if you aren’t–I wasn’t when I first started and you don’t have to be) then you’ll know that what takes the greatest toll during your life as a missionary, is your marriage. Intimacy is so desperately needed, and yet, the constant pain and trauma, workload, and the very difficulty of male and female connection and mutual understanding, is often what leads to isolation. There can be such a sharp contrast between the person you are by day, (serving, loving, giving) and the person you become at night (angry, demanding, needy) because of all you are required to expend. I know because that was how I experienced my first few years of marriage. And yet, it is this very person, who knows who you are at you’re very worst, who can help bring you back from the edge. Your marriage needs to come before your ministry and yet often, it doesn’t. I recommend lots of therapy, good books, and sexy dates. Know each other’s love languages.

9.  I need friends

For a long time I prided myself on the fact that I didn’t “need” people. I thought it was what allowed me to leave my family and travel into war zones and slums alone because I could do it, just Jesus and me.

I thought needing people and worse, needing help, was weakness.  

But being part of a community here at Bethel has taught me how desperately we all need people we can be ourselves with, someone who will laugh at your inappropriate jokes and still like you. Someone who will enter into your pain. Perhaps the biggest piece of advice I can give you is find at least 1 person who will be a friend/mentor who will commit to Skype you at least once a month just to find out how you are, someone who is safe for you to open up to. This shouldn’t be a board member, or church that supports you member, just simply someone who loves you and will encourage you and maybe watch for signs of burnout. (Depression, crankiness, cynicism, exhaustion, defeat, etc) Ideally, this would be a counselor or someone who gets counseling, but at least find someone wholly empathetic.

10. And when all that doesn’t work, it’s ok to leave

Ok, so I’m obsessed with Dr. Robert Grant. If he would agree to be my mentor, I would walk his dog and take his dirty laundry to the dry cleaners. This man in a genius in the field of missionary trauma. He says,

“Many who suffer from PTSD feel normal only when living on “the edge” or in the midst of trauma. The long-term survivor habituates or adapts to violence and insanity because he or she has not other choice. Since there is no emotional support in nor understanding of traumatic effects, many missionaries become increasingly deadened to all levels of their being. Intimacy is what victims of trauma most desperately need. Yet it is exactly what early abuse, formation, and mission life often prohibit. Healing cannot occur in isolation. One needs to feel affirmed, supported, and cared for by understanding others.”

It sometimes comes to a point, where you cannot get the healing you need on the field and short breaks are not enough to fix long term injuries.

I came to that point, and have written a book about it, and believe me, I know how painful it is to leave, how much shame is involved, how much inadequacy and fear, how much of you doesn’t want to give up. I lived through all these emotions and more. But the truth is, God is so good He did not want me to remain in my pain. He wanted to bring me out. And sometimes that means leaving. I really encourage you to think deeply and honesty about what point you are at. It doesn’t mean you won’t serve again, it just means you might need an extended break so you can serve out of wholeness.

How have you learned to avoid burnout?

I’ve written more on how to recover from burnout and have also compiled a list of missionary care resources including retreats and therapists.

I also provide missionary coaching and pastoral counseling for those who have burnout symptoms. Please email saritahartz@gmail.com for more info. 

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  • dorothypearce

    Wow! With a few small changes (I am older and single) you are speaking for me. I am preparing to leave the mission field and it hurts so bad! I will not be able to finish raising the children in my orphanage. I hate that for them. I feel that I have caused unnecessary pain to them but know that if I hadn’t been here to help them, most would be dead now anyway. It’s all so hard to process. Thank you! Serving in Haiti.

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Thanks for sharing your heart Dorothy. Yes it can be so incredibly painful to leave when it’s time, but we have to remember these kids are God’s kids ultimately and we’ve done our best to love them and get them into a safe place. I’ve learned in my work not to underestimate what your local team of nationals on the ground can do. Raising them up to be leaders to help their own people is one strategic way we can avoid everything being dependent on us. Grace to you in this difficult transition!

  • Joanna Chidgey

    thankyou Sarita for this gut-wrenchingly honest account of your journey in burn out and beyond.! I can so relate to this blog…..I have been on a big journey of healing the last seven years following my time abroad ( also Uganda but for a shorter time than yourself ). I believe one of the key things in healing is learning to love yourself ! In the Word it says to love others as yourself and I believe this means that loving ourselves is vital if we are to love others. This means taking care of ourselves in every way..physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. this can be an effort in a developing country especially if you are living in a community or Mission Base or sharing a bedroom or dorm!!!!!…Intimacy with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is key, as well as a good network of friends /kingdom family…everything has to be done out of a place of rest and abiding in the Vine and not striving or trying to rescue others. Jesus only did what the Father led Him to do and we need to know His voice and go deeper with HIm. There can be so many demands on people as they step into Missions..boundaries are important and protecting your devotional time too. Its a wonderful thing to just be and know that Papa God loves you without all the doing..of course the doing needs to happen but in His way and time not ours.

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Joanna I so agree with this! This journey of loving ourselves and accepting ourselves even with imperfections is so necessary and so difficult. It’s a lot of what I’ve written my memoir about. Thank you for sharing your heart!

  • Tim Wright

    I work with men with sexual addiction on the field. Trying to get the mission orgs to look at this is very challenging, because they need the people to do the work and the work becomes the priority insteading taking the time and helping people to learn how to abide and rest in Him. I do Theo with folks and it truly does shift the inner paradigm. This is so well written and hopefully will bless many people.

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Thanks Tim for sharing with us! Have you found any advice or suggestions helpful for getting people to slow down and rest in God?

      • Tim Wright

        Hi,

        Solitude and journaling. Mindfulness is very good for people who only have 12-15 minutes a day. Most men want to overcome and becoming aware that they have really no idea how to receive from the Father is a journey in itself. I also use Tony Stoltzfus, Questions for Jesus to initiate their journey.

  • Peter Bowers

    I’m writing as a missionary who has struggled with burnout. I so appreciate about 98% of what you said and thank you for writing so honestly and compellingly. Please allow me to share my 2 concerns which I think really detract from the article.

    The 1st quote by Robert Grant is dumped out of the blue and with no context seems to imply that missionaries must be motivated by some kind of childhood trauma and running from abuse – presumably particularly those who struggle with burnout. I’m sure that is the case in some cases and I want to be ever so sensitive to care for folks in this situation. But please don’t throw in that quote in that context just for shock value. The article would be better without this quote altogether! (I wasn’t enamoured with the 2nd quote by Grant either, but my dislike wasn’t as visceral so I’ll leave aside my thoughts on that one. I think in the context of his whole book he’s probably pretty good, but without that context he comes across as a label looking for a victim…)

    “Not all suffering is bad, but prolonged suffering isn’t God’s heart for us. He wants us to be healed and whole.” If you are talking about the fact that this earth is not our home and that we are made for heaven then I agree. But in the context you seem to be talking about this earth. I wonder what my friend suffering from CIDP would respond. I wonder what my friend dying painfully of cancer would say. Are these people somehow out of God’s will? Please be careful of throwing out statements like these… I agree with your conclusion (take care of yourself and deal with preventable issues), but your diagnosis (God wants us to be healed and whole, presumably physically and presumably on this side of heaven) is just too broad and theologically off base.

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Peter, thanks so much for your feedback. I’m sorry you found some of the things I said offensive, but I think that’s probably where we just have to have grace for one another in having differences of opinion. Dr. Grant spent 25 counseling missionaries and I think what he was trying to say is that there are a lot of linkages between those who have gone through trauma and are attracted to trauma that can happen on the mission field because there is a lot of psychological evidence that people tend to gravitate towards what is familiar to them, what creates similar familial patterns, and without healing it can wreak more havoc. I’m pretty sure most psychologists would agree with him on that and I do as well having spent 10 years in ministry and seeing that a lot of people who are “helpers,” are also people who are trying to heal something within themselves. That said, not all missionaries will come from backgrounds of trauma or abuse, but it is a serious reality to consider and address. I thought it was worth bringing up in the context of the fact that when we decide to serve we should be giving out of abundance of the healing we ourselves have received first, not looking to fulfill our ego or repeat negative patterns. Then of course, there is the trauma that just happens on the field, regardless of our family history that definitely requires therapy and attention. My point was, the psychological needs of missionaries often go ignored. Lastly, my comment about God desiring for us to be healed and whole, is definitely a theological point I believe in as do many others here at Bethel church and Bill Johnson has written many books on this subject if you’re interested. That is not to say that someone is “outside God’s will,” if they are suffering and of course my heart goes out to your friend with cancer, rather that as a good Father, God always wants the best for His children and does not prefer to see them in pain. Suffering is a part of this world we live in and it is unavoidable and it’s not that person’s fault. I was only saying that sometimes, we as individuals remain in certain situations of suffering because we think that God wants us to “suffer for Him,” and this is a missionary mentality that is widespread. I think God does call us sometimes to bear suffering because of the beautiful good for the whole of the Body of Christ, but I do not believe He orchestrates it. I hope that helps clarify, but I’d be interested in your thoughts. Comments are great because they help promote discussion and understanding. Blessings!

  • Marlene Perkins Allen

    Sarita, thank you for sharing my exact thoughts. I, too, landed at Bethel 19 months ago after 14 years in Southeast Asia. It was a pretty rough landing. Would love to connect with you.

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Hi Marlene! I would love to connect with you. You can email me at saritahartz@gmail.com :) Would be so great to get this message out more at Bethel, so definitely share the link with your friends. I’m so interested in how we can get churches to do effective missionary care. Would love your thoughts on this!

  • Elena Pellizzaris

    Sarita, i can’t thank you enough for this post. it’s like you took all the wordless things in my heart and put them out there, made them make sense, somehow. after four off-and-on years in orphan care ministry in Liberia, i left the field in 2013. two years later, my mind, body, heart, and spirit are still healing. i’ve been thinking so much about burnout and grief and trauma and brokenness in missionaries and aid workers, and wrestling through it as i walk through my own journey. i want to blog about this; telling the stories, mine and others’, is important, i think. i’d love to cite you, if i could. email elena (dot) pellizzaris [at] gmail or leave me a message at elenateresaann {dot} com. many thanks. -ep.

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Elena, you are so welcome! I’m glad that this post spoke to you. I’m thinking of doing more articles on this subject—what do you think you would have liked to tell your church or sending org if you could have about how to help take care of you as you were serving in Liberia? I’d be so happy for you to cite me of course! And definitely share the link with others so we can spread the word!

      • Elena Pellizzaris

        That’s a great question! There are many things I’d like them to know, but I think the two most important are:
        * counseling should be mandatory once leaving the field, even if it’s just for a brief break. if possible, counseling services should be arranged ahead of time so that doesn’t get added to the missionary’s to-do list and
        * coming home to do fundraising is NOT the same thing as coming home to rest.

        Thanks for letting me cite you, too! I’ll pass along the link once the blog is done.

        best,
        ep.

  • Ginny

    so many great things here…things I wish someone had told me years ago!!! But maybe things that we as missionaries kind of need to learn for ourselves. Somethings you just need to figure out by experience, you just can’t believe it otherwise. But so very wonderful to have a discussion about and be open with each other through the journey. Thank you for sharing. I feel like I could have written most of this myself! We are not as alone as we tend to think…..

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Thanks for sharing Ginny. It’s so true that we can feel so alone and yet there are so many others going through a similar experience. I’m glad this spoke to you. What are some of the things you think you learned about how to avoid burnout?

  • Lee Trueblood

    I could have written this but I am not as far along in the process of healing as you are. I started an orphanage in Mozambique basically by myself 13 years ago. I just came back to live in the states Jan of last year. I wish I had known you then but God is getting me through. I spent some time in Bethel last summer and I think it helped a bit. What has helped me most is to find a church that I can be involved with. One that just accepts me in my crazy journey. Thanks so much for sharing your wealth. I will keep in touch.

  • This is a brilliant synopsis of this so misunderstood phenomonum.

    As ‘ career missionaries’ of 25 years in Africa (we are African), we handed over a work of the last 10 years we had pioneered for abandoned and HIV/Aids babies in Lesotho.

    My wife and i had both been diagnosed with depression and I with acute (and no it wasnt cute) burnout. 3 and a half years later, despite a move to a beautiful city, i am still unemployed, we are both are still on meds and in therapy and recovery!!

    How could we have known the misunderstandibg, devastation, lonliness and pain such noble and beautiful life giving work could have brought!!

    Thank you so much for writing about this. I have written abd published a book of my life before and during our ministry time. Mh intention has been to write a sequel but how do i do so with authenticity and without seeming selfish, misunderstood, judging and sorry for ourselves. Id love to read your book as, in time i will write mine.

    Please tell me how to get a copy of what is no doubt going to be very useful and healing to so many.

    God bless you.
    Ray Haakonsen.

  • Erika Loftis

    Thank you so much for sharing your story.

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Thank you Erika! Would love to hear your thoughts on how we can communicate our needs more effectively with churches and ways you’ve found to avoid burnout. Thinking about doing an additional article on that. 😉

      • Erika Loftis

        Sarita, I am not sure, but I feel like I HAVE burnt out, and I haven’t even begun DOING anything! I’m a stay at home mum of four, a missionary mum, married to the man who is doing two jobs, that are stressful, but also rewarding for him (I think.) We have lived here in Shangri La (Chiang Mai, Thailand) for two years… Meanwhile I feel like I have been swallowed whole. Surviving, trying to “get through” baby and toddler years, and trying to “get through” my complete discontent, my sense of self being squeezed out in my own life… I too am embarking on the wonderful world of anti depressants, to see if I can “get through” to a time in which I am more at peace, able to sleep at night, and able to enjoy more of my life, and perhaps even some of Thailand. My husband works in member care, and I believe in what he is doing, I wonder if adjusting expectations, if the pressure to be suffering, to be living the had way, would help us? If we understood coming to the field that we may require air conditioning. That we will not change the world. Perhaps we may disappoint ourselves with how little we are able to do. If we understood that it takes YEARS of hard work, and study to learn a language, and that likely no one, even the kids just “pick it up”. Perhaps buying the missionary line, that we are super spiritual, or super special, we are setting ourselves up for burn out. I think I bought the lie being sold by my own imagination. I am jealous of people who burn out doing something they believed in. I feel like I am burnt out, missionary toast, and I have done no ministry outside the house. No volunteering with trafficked kids, no holding babies in an orphanage, no feeding the poor, or helping many sick… I just feed my kids, kinda. Try to keep petrol in our mostly functioning car, hoping desperately I won’t need to do anything that requires me speaking Thai on the phone, or reading something… Because I would fail… Blessings as you recover from burn out.

  • Kari Rwenzo

    Thank you for affirming what I’ve been through. I’ve spent the last 6 years in Uganda setting up a ministry for orphans and widows (Dorcas Widows Fund) . This has been a very difficult emotional transition back home. I’m way past burn out. I’m in the Minneapolis area…do you know anyone in this area I could talk to?

  • Kelsey Nielsen

    Sarita. THANK YOU. This is exactly where I am at right now and exactly what I need to read. That is okay to need to come back for an extended period and get the healing you need. Thank you, just thank you for writing so openly about this.

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      You are so welcome Kelsey! I’m so glad you found it helpful. Please share with others you think might need it!

  • 7bill_lee7

    Just wondering where you got the 80% figure. Gearing up to go on a sabbatical and want to clue my people into key stats. Thanks!

  • David Hewitt

    The Dark Scriptures (if I may call them that) helped me more than Hallelujah Verses. Not every Psalm ends with a Hallelujah. Writing honest painful, poetry which include unanswered questions. Writing some e-books on Loneliness and Rejection helped. Getting a coach. Learning to work only 2/3 of a day. Am trying to take two-week vacations twice a year (one week isn’t enough to unwind). These aren’t pat answers, just fingers on top of the cliff’s edge we’re hanging off. :-)
    http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00GDYK3CM#

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      These are great suggestions David!

  • Brianna Farr

    Amen, amen. So beautiful.

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Thanks so much Brianna!

  • Jonathan David Trexel

    Sarita, a great article, but could you tell me where you got the stats above? (80% of missionaries burn out and don’t finish their term. 46% of missionaries have been diagnosed with a psychological issue, and of those 87% are diagnosed with depression). Thanks. Jonathan

    • Hi Jonathan, thank you. Yes, it’s been really hard to find more recent statistics out there on missionary burnout. Most of these stats came from the World Evangelical Alliance REMAP II study and the 1997 book Too Valuable to Lose. Also according to a 1997 study conducted by Debbie Lovell-Hawker of Oxford University. But we desperately need some newer research and stats. Thanks for reading! :)

      • Also from this: Debbie Lovell-Hawker, “Specialist Care: Psychological Input,” Global Connections Member Care Conference, February 18, 2002)

      • Jonathan David Trexel

        Thanks! Very gracious reply. I deeply share your frustration over current information. But, we plan to address research and analysis with our nonprofits hopefully starting next year. Stay tuned! God’s blessings! Jonathan