Unlike other vocations, missionary burnout doesn’t just affect a person’s body and emotions. It also carries spiritual implications—both for missionaries and those they are called to reach.
Stress and burnout are realities in every profession. Without proper self-care, any career can become a breeding ground for workaholism and unrealistic expectations. Any job can convince you that a little more will get you over the top or that you’re the only one who can save the day.
Whether you’re on the field now or preparing for a life of missionary service, you need to understand the dangers of missionary burnout.
Missionaries start out with a heart fully committed to God. They feel a passion for the nations, and they long to share the gospel with others. So, it might come as a shock when following God’s call creates an incredible amount of stress—stress that can lead to missionary burnout.
But burnout among missionaries actually makes sense. For one thing, they embrace more than their fair share of shifting paradigms by packing up and moving to another culture. Missionaries experience change on a dozen levels, and sometimes those changes create stress.
One common measure of stress is called the Holmes-Rahe Inventory. This chart measures stress by assigning a number value to the various transitions in a person’s life. One or two life transitions at a time are relatively normal. Multiple life transitions (like what missionaries face) can create a perfect storm of stress and anxiety.
In addition, missionaries often are exposed to the worst this world has to offer. The needs are so great, and the resources are so limited. Trying to be all things to all people can become overwhelming, which leads to stress and missionary burnout.
So, as you consider how you can avoid burnout as a missionary, understanding who you are and embracing your limits is a great place to start. Set realistic expectations and remember that you can never solve every problem. Let God lead you and when necessary, let God heal you. Do the best you can and leave the results in His hands.
Beyond knowing yourself and accepting your limits, stock your missionary toolbox with practical ideas for reducing stress and avoiding burnout. Take time to check yourself through a regular self-care evaluation. On the surface, that might sound selfish, but nothing could be further from the truth. God didn’t call you to burn the candle at both ends. He called you to serve Him effectively, and you can’t do that if you don’t take care of yourself.
On the mission field, you will face stressful seasons, but you should never operate in high gear on a permanent basis. Spiritual disciplines like Bible reading, prayer, and fellowship will help you maintain a healthy balance. But look for additional ways to relieve stress and avoid missionary burnout outside your spiritual routines.
For example, find some quiet time to read a book or listen to music simply for enjoyment. Make time for exercise. You don’t have to run a marathon, but you do need to get your heart rate going. Start a new hobby that will recharge your batteries. Above all, set aside intentional time for rest each day, week, and month. Again, “me” time is not selfish. Even Jesus encouraged His followers to get away for a while (Mark 6:30-31).
As noted, too much change can create additional stress and hasten burnout. But that doesn’t mean you should never change anything! Routines are good, but embracing change often can be better. The old cliché says variety is the spice of life. So, do what’s required to add appropriate spice to your experience.
Alter your schedule or create new traditions. Delegate some jobs so you can focus on other commitments. Those ideas can be tough; but, if they save you from stress and burnout, it’s worth the trip outside your comfort zone.
Isolation is the main ingredient in the recipe for burnout among missionaries. Even if you have a great family and friends on the field, you can still feel alone in your new reality. Find ways to intentionally form relationships that have nothing to do with work. Build connections based on mutual interests, not mutual ministry.
If you’re struggling, talk to people who can help. Reject the idea that God wants you to “tough it out” or “go it alone.” You’re part of the body of Christ. So, lean into the people He provides to support and mentor you.
One great thing about thanksgiving is how it shifts your attention. It forces you to look in a different direction and refocus. Of course, gratitude is no silver bullet. It never denies what’s going on around you. But it does remind you that God is really big and that you are part of His grand design.
Missionary burnout is often associated with the drive to do more. But that drive is often fueled by a false belief that you are not enough and need to do more to measure up. Even as you’re working hard to serve God faithfully, the enemy will whisper lies designed to tear you down.
Thankfully, even as a missionary, you are not what you do. You are more than a missionary, and that’s how God sees you! So, instead of listening to the unhealthy voices that lead to burnout for missionaries, embrace what Jesus says about you. Lean deeply into His truth: He loves you more than you could ever imagine—and, with Him, you are always more than enough for any job He has for you.
For missionaries, there’s a fine line between being uncomfortable and being unhealthy. Sometimes, that line’s a little fuzzy. And if it gets too blurry, it can lead to missionary burnout.
God gave us pain as a warning sign. So, if you’re suffering physically, listen to your body and get help. That doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you’re wise!
If you’re already suffering from burnout—or think you might be on the brink—you need to do two things: get help and give yourself time. This is not a battle you should fight alone. Talk with a professional who is trained to address missionary burnout. And remember that you will not get through this overnight. It’s a process, so let the process work—even if it means taking a break from the field.
Your mission is important, but God created you to function in a healthy way. Take the necessary steps to avoid missionary burnout so you can become the servant that God created you to be.
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