What I Wish I’d Known About Missionary Burnout
Two 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 )
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.
I also provide missionary coaching and pastoral counseling for those who have burnout symptoms. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.