by Marjory Foyle
Lessons learned in brownout can be of life-changing importance.
Many Christians today worry about burnout. Some young people have been so frightened by the term that they believe a call to the mission field means a commitment to burnout. They are right in being unwilling for this to happen-but often they then must deal with the guilt that comes of apparently refusing God’s call.
The term burnout comes from rocket technology, from booster rockets, which, having used an enormous amount of energy to do their work, fall away and burn out: they become useless bits of rubbish. Human burnout is said to occur in people who have worked for too long with an over-high expenditure of adrenaline-among other things.
I recently saw an example of this as I stood in the visitor’s gallery of the London Money Market. I noted that all the staff were young, and I asked my companion why. He replied that young people are brought in and trained for the job. By the age of 25 they may be reasonably rich – but they are mentally burned out and no longer able to handle very responsible work.
This is what Christian young people fear about missionary service. I believe their fears are unfounded, however, because we who are believers have the Holy Spirit within us. We are his temple. I do not believe any of the circumstances of our lives can kill him; we cannot become burned-out bits of rubbish.
But why do missionaries feel totally exhausted and think they are finished? Is this burnout, or is it something else? I call it brownout-a more meaningful term than burnout. It is a term most missionaries understand, for it indicates a loss of voltage. This is such a common experience that electrical equipment even includes a voltage regulator. When brownout occurs, the lights dim, the voltage regulator clicks madly, and voices on a tape recorder drop to a slow bass.
It is just that same sort of experience that missionaries can have personally. Their power is reduced, and further service seems nearly impossible. The experience may be distressing, and it may continue for a while. But I do not believe it is true burnout. I am certain God intends to restore his servants, and to teach them something important. No, they may never again be the same—but that is often a good thing. Lessons learned in brownout can be of life-changing importance. Often, there is even an encouraging aspect to brownout: it may indicate that we have done a good job.
ELIJAH: A CLASSIC EXAMPLE
The Bible records several examples of brownout. One of the best is the story of Elijah, for it describes not only the condition, but also the treatment. Elijah, we recall, had done a terrific job for God: he had taken on the prophets of Baal; he had handled the breaking of the drought. And as if that weren’t enough, he ran in the power of the Spirit to reach Jezreel before Ahab. All this he had done in God’s power.
But that power was contained in a human body, and a normal human reaction set in. When Jezebel threatened him, Elijah thought he couldn’t take any more. He ran for his life, and then he went off alone into the desert where he sat down under a scrubby tree. "Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors," he told God (1 Kings 19:4). Clearly he was totally exhausted – browned out.
Usually we do not find it easy to sleep in these circumstances. Our minds won’t let us rest, but go round and round. Surprisingly, however, Elijah lay down and slept, for God had touched him and was starting treatment. After Elijah had slept a while, an angel woke him and gave him food to eat and water to drink. Then he slept again. These three – food, drink, and sleep – are at the core of good medical treatment after any period of stress.
I take real encouragement from what happened next: the angel came and woke Elijah again, speaking to him kindly, and using what in India we call "sweet words." Then he gave him another meal, sustenance that was spiritually charged, which enabled Elijah to go in its strength for 40 days and nights toward a new meeting with God. This, in turn, resulted in an extraordinary change in Elijah’s (Ahab’s?) heart, which had been the basic struggle all along.
We see in this familiar story a classic pattern for missionary brownout: our service has become too much for us. We, too, need restoration-first for our human bodies: food, drink, rest, a holiday. Then, as we begin to feel stronger, God will begin our spiritual restoration. He will take us on until we have understood the lessons we needed to learn. Then he will show us our next place of service.
What does brownout feel like? Many symptoms resemble those of stage three stress reaction, and there is a sensation of trying to work through a blanket of cotton wool. Some people have described it as trying to function while endlessly carrying along two heavy suitcases. Exhaustion is common, and victims feel a sort of inner deadness: everything loses its purpose, and there is little drive or energy. People may find it harder than usual to get out of bed in the morning. If the condition worsens, it is increasingly impossible for them to work. Anxiety and depression may break through the deadness; this is not a clinical depression, however, but an exhaustion state.
CAUSES OF BROWNOUT
What brings on brownout? While we need to examine the reasons, we must remember that mild brownout is not abnormal-because of the wear and tear we sustain in our service for God.
1. Health. Missionaries can be very careless about adequate recuperation after physical illnesses. They are subject to a remarkable range of hazards, most of them very debilitating. Malaria, virus infections, dengue fever, hepatitis, amoebic dysentery, Giardia-all can take their toll. Add to that an unfavorable climate and restricted diet, and the human body takes a real beating.
I once saw a missionary conducting his business in bed, having sustained a serious head injury three days earlier. I intervened with a remarkable degree of medical firmness!
2. Physical resources. Apart from illness, missionaries often deny the normal needs of the human body. But when Jesus was wearied with his journey, he sat down while his disciples went shopping. He did evangelism-but he sat down to do it. Also, some of his disciples must have gotten very tired walking, since they were used to riding in a boat. One reason the Lord tried to take them away for a picnic was that it allowed for a short period of rest before the people caught up with them.
Wise people know what their bodies can and cannot do. Apart from emergencies, they try to live within its limits. Failure to understand this can lead to premature brownout.
3. Work-related stress. However good our interpersonal relationships, work-related matters can be a potent cause of brownout. Overwork may be related to workaholism, or it may be a reality. Some people simply have too much to do: because they are willing, more and more work is heaped upon them, and they do not like to refuse lest doing so will slow the work down, or superiors be offended.
It is essential to learn how to say no. A blunt "no" will often cause offense, whereas a qualified "no," on the other hand, will be accepted: "I am sorry I cannot do what you ask because the work will suffer if I leave everything else undone," for example, or "I am sorry, I am overloaded just now. But maybe Mr. X, with the help of Mr. Y, could do that job."
Leaders need protection, for they cannot say no to the demands they make upon themselves. They can, however, learn to plan wisely for the work, and to look realistically at their own capacity and at the staff available. The problem is that missionaries sometimes presume on the power of the Holy Spirit. They use him the way some people use a credit card-getting all they want without counting the cost. Though the Spirit’s power is freely available to us, that does not give us license to make grandiose plans with no thought for human reality.
Delegation is another way to handle overwork, but it has the potential for creating additional problems-the work may not be done in time, or in the way one wishes. If we have the courage to delegate, however, we may even find the work is done in a more culturally acceptable way.
When work we have delegated is not completed, we need to remind the person doing it several times, then set a deadline and offer a final reminder just before that deadline. For example, to say, "My meeting is tomorrow, and if the work has not been completed, I shall just have to say so," may provide needed incentive.
It is not pleasant to be a workaholic, or to work with one. Difficulties arise that are related to overinvolvement in the job. If the work closes down, or the workaholic is moved to a new location, the overinvolved personality may become a victim of depression. If one’s boss is a workaholic, it is important not to get caught in the same trap. This may cause friction, but it is often the right thing to do. Speak to the mission leadership about the problem, after first telling the workaholic that you mean to do so. If the mission leader is the workaholic, the problem is more difficult. Then, sometimes the mission doctor, or another director, can intervene.
Missionaries often feel inadequately trained for their job, especially in areas of administration and personnel management, and brownout may be precipitated by continued stress in those areas. This can be minimized by preliminary training, but unfortunately, missionaries are expected to know by instinct principles of group dynamics, personnel management, accounting and bookkeeping, how to read a balance sheet and an audit, how to run meetings, and how to make a budget. I have personally had to do all this, plus write two new hospital constitutions and supervise modern personnel policy preparation. I believe every missionary with no administrative training should have a short, relevant course relating to these subjects. I have long looked for businessmen willing to teach, but with little success. As a result, I have personally been forced to teach some of this.
Often missionaries are too inflexible in their requirements. They become overly frustrated by the lack of equipment, or by the academic inadequacies of their trainees. If we drop our rigidity, however, and begin to use what is at hand, it can be amazingly satisfying. We can train local people to do certain aspects of the job, and the fact that they lack formal education in no way affects their intelligence. Equipment can even be devised from local materials. One of the best doctors I ever worked with was an expert at doing this: the local young men he trained reached a remarkably high level; he performed bone surgery under primitive conditions, and treated serious fractures; and he constructed hard beds from packing cases with planks on top. Elsewhere I have even seen a first-class operating light made from old tin cans.
This approach, of course, is not always possible. For example, missionaries who work in government-recognized training institutions require better equipment. We should all aim to achieve the highest possible standards. When things do not fully function first class, however, an individual may experience brownout because he or she is ashamed of the reality of the inadequacies.
Humility is a valuable personal quality, and one that is helpful to exercise when handling job-related matters. If a matter is beyond our capacity to deal with, we ought to say so, and ask our colleagues to help. We should beware of overdoing this, however, or applying it universally. There is nothing more irritating than having colleagues who habitually say they cannot do something.
I once learned a lesson about humility when I was director of a psychiatric hospital in India. I was never very good at giving intravenous injections, and by the time I was director, I had gotten badly out of practice. One evening I sent all the staff out for an excursion and looked after the hospital with the help of the usual evening nurse and two attendants. Then a patient collapsed and needed an immediate intravenous injection. I oozed confidence and pretended to be the big director-but inside, I was anxious. Then God reminded me of humility: if I was not good at giving injections, why not say so? Out of hearing of the patient, I said to the attendants, "I am not much good at this, but I will try."
"Don’t worry, doctor," they said, "you give it, and we will pray."
So the Hindu attendant muttered, "Sita Ram," the Muslim called on Allah, and I prayed to Jesus. The injection went straight in. The patient recovered, I learned something about humility, and we moved to a new plane of director-attendant relationship. We all learned to trust more in prayer as well!
We have mentioned earlier the matter of a person feeling his job is not really what he or she should be doing, but this needs further comment. First, avoid making a continual fuss! Leaders may be gravely over-stressed by people who spend their entire term of service complaining about their job. Talk it over, make your point-and then stop fussing.
When a natural break comes, such as furlough, think over your situation carefully. Do not let guilt pressure you into returning blindly to the same job. Find out what God wants you to do-whether it is to go back to the same place or move onto something new-and then obey. People sometimes fear they will suffer brownout if they remain a whole term in a distasteful job, but I do not believe this is necessarily true. Those who have done this have found it useful to "serve an apprenticeship of discipline."
4. An excess of negative emotions. Important as these job-related problems are, missionaries know there is more to missionary service than work. We also have feelings, and an important cause of brownout is excess emotional baggage-It would be good if missionaries were as concerned about this as they are about excess weight at the airport check-in counter. These emotions are one of the things Paul is talking about when he urges us to "lay aside every weight."
HUMILITY OR INFERIORITY?
Inferiority is an emotion that needs some further examination. I rarely see a distressed missionary who does not complain of inferiority; its persistence may cause early brownout.
Inferiority may be a primary problem, or it may be secondary to other things. Inferiority may be a reality. We may not be as clever, or as beautiful, or have personalities as easy to get along with as others. It is healthier and more restful simply to admit the differences. But this does not mean we should wallow in inferiority. Acceptance of reality opens the door to new patterns of understanding ourselves, and God’s dealings with us. God has no favorites; he makes and uses us all differently. Rather than brooding on inferiority or superiority, it is better to think of these traits as differences, within God’s good purposes.
There is a difference between humility and inferiority. Humility is a constructive force, inferiority destructive. Humility is the result of the new birth. That is why Paul mentioned it especially to the Greeks, who were trained in self-assertiveness. Conversely, inferiority is often the product of lifelong problems that have never been fully resolved. Humility is able to recognize the presence and absence of gifts, and rejoices in what God has given. Inferiority regards such an attitude as pride, concentrating instead on weaknesses and inadequacies.
Sometimes a crippling sense of inferiority is turned into the exact opposite. We have all met missionaries who believe they are God’s answer to all the needs of their host country. Maybe they are-but that would never occur to humble people!
The great value of humility is that it leads to an increased personal understanding of grace. This is the meaning of the words "having nothing, yet possessing all things." The more we need, the more grace is given. People struggling with lifelong inferiority never enter the experience of living in God’s grace, and enjoying their gifts. It is difficult for them to experience resurrection joy.
Some people struggle with inferiority more than others. They may have been damaged by painful childhood experiences, made to feel unwanted, or not valued. Inferiority may also be caused by critical comments at specially sensitive times. I once met someone who had been told at school that he was hopeless – just at the time he was trying to handle a serious home problem. Despite real achievements as an adult, he still believed he was a failure and of no use to anyone. Because he was especially vulnerable at the time, the critical school comment stuck in his mind, and it hindered his enjoyment of life.
Senior missionaries may make unwise comments to new people. They do not always remember how vulnerable culture shock can make a person. They should take great care not to "put down" new missionaries in those early, vulnerable days.
How does a person handle inferiority? First, avoid the "if onlys." People avoid reality by living in an "if only" fantasy world. It is not at all helpful to believe that things would be different if only God had done some particular thing. Accepting things as they are is not passivity. It is an active cooperation with God for our future lives.
And learning unpleasant things about ourselves can be helpful, even when it hurts us. Adverse criticism should always be examined, for it may not even be true. But if it is true, accepting it gives God a chance to work with us and to show more grace on our behalf. Simply denying what has been said pushes the problem into the subconscious, where it continues to feed inferiority.
We help ourselves when we take steps toward personal improvement-by adding to our job skills, for example, or by taking additional training when we are home on leave, or by taking better care of our appearance, and learning new social skills.
Finally, we should handle inferiority as carefully as any other negative emotion, and it is sometimes as simple as making it a daily habit, something we handle along with our daily patterns of cleansing. (But deep-rooted, persistent inferiority may require professional help. And we can also use the pathways of forgiveness outlined previously in the section on interpersonal relationships.)
One thing is certain: we should never allow ourselves to be weighed down with the excess baggage of negative emotions. They will surely contribute to brownout.
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