Steps to Prevent Missionary Burnout

Woman carrying a heavy load of grass in Nepal

By Mary Ann Bianchi, WIM Member Care

Reality check

When you hear the expression, “The straw that broke the camel’s back,” what do you think of? What meaning does that hold for you?

A camel is designed to carry considerable loads, but there is a limit. One thing as seemingly inconsequential as a piece of straw can spell overload for even a camel.

Think of your own back — the load you are carrying.

  1. What is “overload” for you?
  2. When does your load exceed your limits?
  3. How do you know when you’ve reached your limit or beyond to “overload”?
  4. Where do you go for help?

We tend to push the limits as far as possible. We spend more money, time, and energy than we have. We compare ourselves to others and what they are accomplishing. A constant recitation of our busyness serves as a badge of honor for some. In an attempt to keep up with what’s going on, we hurry from one place to another or one internet site to another.

In our efforts to serve the Lord and others, we often exceed our limits. The pain of exceeding our limits is unmistakable: we become more and more stressed and may collapse in exhaustion, potentially destroying our physical, emotional and spiritual health. This, in turn, affects how we function in our relationships with others (spouse, children, friends, co-workers) and influences our attitudes toward marriage and ministry.

Overload and stress can lead to burnout. I know, burnout seems like a highly overrated and over-used term these days. But we see the reality of it in too many of our lives and in the lives of many ministry leaders. We cannot afford to ignore its effects, short- and long-term!

My story

Having been on the verge of overload numerous times due to the stressors and challenges of ministry over the last 25+ years, I’ve slipped into burnout several times. One episode was more than 10 years ago and once again more recently. I’m not proud of that; it’s certainly not a badge of honor for me.

Tony and I were in language school in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and heavily involved in a Thai church, discipling and training others, preaching and teaching. It was too much! (Lesson learned: do not engage in ministry before completing language studies!)

At this time, we were also experiencing a lot of “performance” pressure from one of our supporting churches. I nearly broke under all the weight of unrealistic expectations and the fears of losing support, credibility, and acceptance. I became overwhelmed, exhausted, resentful, and almost non-functioning.

Something had to give. I realized I couldn’t continue in this state and still serve the Lord with the passion, zeal, and commitment I once had. I desperately desired the peace and rest that only Jesus can give. I needed to renew my mind and transform some of my ways of handling stressors.

As I depended upon the Lord and the power of His Holy Spirit to help me walk out of burnout, I am most grateful that I recovered and that He restored my soul.

I have learned (and am still learning) to base my life on God’s purposes and plans for me, not on my or other people’s expectations (real or perceived). I am continually engaged in the thoughtful process to simplify and de-clutter my life, allowing God to control my life and shape my decisions.

What to do

If overload, stress, and exhaustion are causing you to teeter on the edge of burnout, meditate on and memorize Jesus’ words from Matthew 11:28-30. We must first come to Him and give Him all our burdens. We must learn His ways and receive His rest and peace.

Here are some additional, helpful steps to also consider:

  1. Discern the enemy’s involvement and resist. Stand firm; engage in spiritual warfare if needed. If Satan can’t stop you he will try and get you to burn out.
  2. Recognize the symptoms and consequences of overload, stress and burnout.
  3. Acknowledge and prayerfully consider your own limits and capabilities.
  4. Learn to say “No” as you take control of your schedule. Define and defend boundaries: what you will and will not allow into your life and your family’s life.
  5. Consider your personal and ministry vision statement (take the time to develop and write it down if you don’t have one).
  6. Line up your values, priorities, and commitments so that they reflect your vision.
  7. Build margin into your everyday life to accommodate the need for rest, relaxation, and refreshment. Make a conscious effort to slow the pace. Simplify!

God meets our needs directly as we call upon Him. He is faithful to perform His word and fulfill His promises.

He also meets our needs through others He has commissioned to care for us, either as a mentor, guide, helper, or burden-bearer. WIM Member Care takes this seriously and is dedicated to serve, help and care for you.

Please let us know how we can pray for you and/or if you need additional resources or information regarding this article or other topics.

Also, we ask you to take care of yourselves as good stewards of God’s gifts in order to be free from overload, stress and burnout. Our heart is for you to remain effective and fulfilled in your calling as you serve the Lord with gladness. May God receive all the glory, honor and praise for our lives as we are poured out (not burned out) for Him!

Photo by lain32 / CC BY

4 Comments on “Steps to Prevent Missionary Burnout

  1. Great thoughts, Mary Ann. Brought back memories of my days in Chiang Mai. I pray that many will heed your advice, so I will be referring to this article on my blog as well :)

  2. Hey, Mary Ann, I appreciated your article on burnout. I have had several of those close episodes. Now I am dealing with the issue from a different perspective. The Lord is bringing us missionaries and I find myself in the role as amission executive with a responsibility for missionary. It’s a blessing, but I know the reality of how big a role missionary care has to play. It is not a fire department to come in fore emergencies, but a relationship and a lifestyle that builds and maintains healthy missionaries from the beginning. Please pray for Martha and me as we move forward and step into this role both personally and organizationally. The Lord has given us the charge to spark a movement that will se one million missionaries thrust into the harvest in the next ten years. We replicate who we are, so as we invest in those who will train and replicate others, a culture of good missionary care has to be part of the dna.

    • Sarita, thanks for your comment and blog link. One of the most powerful aspects of your blog post is that it is backed by evidence—your own life. I just recently have been thinking a lot about these issues and really appreciated the perspective of Rolland and Heidi Baker in their newsletter from last July. Again, Rolland’s writing is backed by experience and he does a beautiful job communicated what is most important in life. Check it out here:

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