Is It Time? How to Know When It’s Time to Leave the Field

by Richard and Evelyn Hibbert

Conscientiousness and commitment are vital qualities of effective Christian workers, but over-conscientious workers do not listen to their limitations as humans.

Many missionaires suffer from an overdose of conscientiousness. This quality makes them wonderfully reliable members of their agencies and enables them to persevere through difficult circumstances. But it can also prevent them from leaving an emotionally harmful situation. Christians involved in missions need to understand when it is time to leave their ministry or agency, and how to leave well. Just as there has been little written about the personal crisis of leaving pastoral ministry (cf. Taylor 2004, 80), few have written about the personal crisis missionaries face as they go through the process of leaving.

There are many reasons why missionaries leave the mission agency with whom they serve. Many work-related reasons involve shortcomings in the agency or its leadership, including inadequate supervision, poor communication, dominating leadership, rigid structures, uninformed criticism of the missionary’s work, and a gap between organizational rhetoric and reality (Brierley 1997, 85-103; Van Ochs 2001, 468; Donovan and Myors 2002, 300; Foyle 2001, 94).

Over-conscientiousness can also cause missionaries to persevere beyond reasonable endurance in these and other situations, including physical hardship and disillusionment or frustration relating to lack of expected fruit in ministry.

Missionary Over-conscientiousness and Burnout
Over-conscientious missionaries can become “so focussed on the mission that they continually press on, ignoring the admonitions of friends and family and their body’s increasing exhaustion” (Oswald 1991, 71). Conscientiousness and commitment are vital qualities of effective Christian workers, but over-conscientious workers do not listen to their limitations as humans. They are compelled by a sense of duty based on biblical imperatives which they are unable to negotiate into a reasonable perspective.

Frustrated and dissatisfied, missionaries in the cycle of over-conscientiousness see their negative emotions as unacceptable and attempt to suppress them. Resentment toward the situation, their organization, the people among whom they serve, or even toward God, alternates with guilt and shame about feeling like this. A seemingly inescapable sense of obligation leaves them feeling trapped.

Missionaries caught in this cycle over a prolonged period can experience burnout, which has been defined as a combination of exhaustion, cynicism, and severely impaired effectiveness in ministry (Maslach et al. 2001, 402-403).

Recent studies of burnout helpfully reveal that the main problem leading to burnout is the degree of mismatch between the person and his or her job or ministry. Six types of mismatch have been identified: excessive workload, responsibility that exceeds authority, lack of appropriate rewards or recognition, isolation from or conflict with others, lack of perceived fairness in the organization, and a conflict between the individual’s and the organization’s values (Maslach et al. 2001, 413-415).

Although over-conscientious individuals may be more prone to burnout, the focus of this article is not burnout itself, but the over-conscientiousness which may drive a person to feel unable to leave a work situation which has become personally harmful.

The feeling of obligation which over-conscientious missionaries have is heightened by the missionary vocation being understood as a life-long calling. Feelings of being trapped can be heightened when mission leaders and supporters reinforce this view by expressing disappointment and imputing shame if the individuals express their thoughts about leaving.

Leaving the mission agency, in fact, can be made to seem almost as serious as abandoning faith. Those who leave can begin to question their ability to hear God speaking and even the authority of the Bible.

Why Is It so Difficult to Leave?
There are at least three major reasons missionaries find it so difficult to leave the field.

1. An over-developed sense of duty. Over-conscientious missionaries do not leave personally harmful situations because they feel they should fulfil their commitments. They believe that God has given them this work and that to abandon it would mean to let God, their organization, and their church down. They may also feel that if they leave, the work will collapse. They forget that the work is God’s and their job is simply to work with him.

Because mission agencies are usually understaffed, missionaries often take on far too many responsibilities. This happens partly because of unrealistic expectations held by the missionaries and/or their agency. It is past time that missionary organizations, trainers, and sending churches recognize and acknowledge that the under-resourcing of mission work is normal and allow for this in its training, practices, and policies.

2. Deriving identity from ministry. It is difficult for some missionaries to separate their ministry from their faith (cf. Eenigenburg and Bliss 2010, 11). Leaving a mission organization can be perceived as a kind of failure, not just in ministry but also in faith. This can be particularly important for missionaries who are frequently put on spiritual pedestals and feel the need to live up to unreasonable expectations.

Overly-conscientious missionaries can also tend to derive much of their sense of identity from their ministry due to confusion about the relationship between the missionary vocation and faith. This can be devastating when the missionaries consider leaving their agency and ministry. So much of themselves has been tied up with their work that leaving can mean a sense of loss of self that leads to deep depression. Christian psychologist Archibald Hart recommends that the person in this situation must learn to make “a clear boundary between what the self is and what the self does” (1995, 22).  

3. Defining ourselves by what we do rather than who we are. In most of the Majority World, people define themselves by who they are, who they belong to, or where they live. In much of North America and northern Europe, people are valued by what they do and there is a strong tendency to equate self-worth with the quality of their work (cf. Hiebert 2008, 63-64). This means that if their work is undermined, devalued, or disregarded, they feel undermined, devalued, and disregarded. This is not a biblical perspective. If, for example, a person’s job is to clean toilets, the toilet being crystal clean does not indicate that his or her relationship with God is pure and shining.

Below is a guide to help you know whether it’s time to leave and how to leave well.


Are You Burned Out and Over Conscientious? A Guide to Discern Your Next Steps

Working Out Whether to Leave

When workers are caught up in the destructive cycle of over-conscientiousness, it is hard to think clearly. Below are five steps we have found helpful in evaluating the situation. Underlying these steps is the conviction that in addition to a vital relationship with God that is at the heart of missionary life, self-care and mutual care—care from oneself and from relationships with others—are the backbone of helping missionaries be healthy and productive (O’Donnell 2002, 15-17).

1. Find an outside friend and listen to him or her. One of the problems of being in the cycle of over-conscientiousness is that it becomes difficult to think objectively. One way to overcome this is by listening to an outside voice. “Every missionary (including MKs, home office staff, and leaders) needs an acceptable and safe outlet to openly share personal and group concerns…. These outlets are real safeguards to prevent poor morale, bitterness, and needless frustration” (O’Donnell and O’Donnell 1992, 115). 

It is important to find someone you trust and whose advice you will follow, even if you find it difficult to accept what he or she is saying. Member care personnel from the agency, leaders in your home church, and Christian friends can help you gain a more objective perspective.

2. Evaluate your thought world. When ministry situations become emotionally harmful, your internal thought world and emotions can easily become consumed with that situation. You may find yourselves spending a lot of intellectual and emotional energy (or even prayer time) rationalizing or excusing the actions of others. You may also find yourself continually thinking about the ministry situation, with the same issues and scenarios playing over and over without resolution. You may find that you cannot get to sleep, or wake at night thinking about the situation.

You must do your best to communicate your feelings and thoughts as clearly as you can with your leaders and colleagues. If you find yourself continually rationalizing and making excuses for them or for the agency over a prolonged period, it may be time to leave. If you find yourself crying with minimal provocation or having no motivation to do anything, it is time to take a serious break and seek help.

3. Examine how you view yourself. Self-depreciation is a recognized aspect of burnout (Oswald 1991, 71). When your gifts, qualifications, and contributions are ignored or undermined, you can gradually adopt a negative view of yourself. Every individual is a valuable creation made in the image of God. If what you have to offer is not recognized, or is attacked, undermined, or devalued, then your ministry situation is a destructive environment. Ministry should be a nurturing environment, encouraging you to be all that God has made you to be. If you are no longer valued, you are not in the right place.

4. Consider whether you still believe in the organization. Most workers join their agencies feeling enthusiastic and committed to the organization. After several years in the agency, however, they discover that the reality does not fit the rhetoric. If this is you, once you realize that you no longer believe in the organization, you have a number of options: change the way you think, try and change the organization, or leave. Attempting to change an organization is a long-term task. If you opt to work to renew the organization, you need to set deadlines and stick to them.

5. Be wary of misusing biblical examples. Some mission workers feel obligated to stay because they equate their situation with that of the prophets, especially Jeremiah. However, Jeremiah was an exception rather than the rule. As missionaries, we are not primarily prophets to the people of God, but rather messengers to those who do not yet know Jesus. Paul is our example. He did not allow a concern for the reformation of the Jerusalem church or his teamwork with Barnabas to prevent him from focusing on his core business of reaching the unreached.

Our gaze should be outwards, not inwards. Part of the destructiveness of the over-conscientiousness cycle is that our energy is drawn inwards to the organization or the situation, rather than outwards to the people the organization exists to serve.

How to Leave Well

After assessing the situation and realizing that you need to leave, how do you leave well? Here are five principles to apply.

1. Make sure you have outside accountability and support. Ask a friend to hold you accountable for decisions, and to help you set boundaries and develop a healthy perspective. Most church members are well aware of the humanity of their missionaries. Give them the opportunity to show compassion and offer support. In exceptional circumstances, you may decide to wait a little longer. If you do this, set a deadline to which your friend will hold you accountable, and stick to it.

2. Clearly communicate to your leadership your reasons for leaving. Frame these reasons in terms of your own feelings and the difficulties you are facing, rather than what you imagine to be the motivations and thoughts of others. Describe how the actions of others made you feel. The more specific you can be, the better you will understand yourself and help others to understand what has happened. This should be done in a way that reflects the biblical commands to “speak truthfully” and to “not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, so that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:25, 29).

Prepare to communicate with your leaders. Go over what you will say with your friend and let him or her help you express your thoughts, feelings, and reactions, rather than talking about what you imagine might be the leaders’ motivations. You do not need to defend your actions. Explain what has happened from your point of view.

When you talk with your leadership, apologize for misunderstandings, not as a generalized acknowledgement of fault, but simply as recognition of a breakdown in the relationship and a desire to see the relationship restored. Your aim is to communicate clearly so that they have at least heard what you said. If your leaders do not accept what you say, simply leave it to God, even if your reputation has been damaged.

3. Finish well. If possible, plan enough time to leave so that you can hand over your ministry. Do this realistically, letting the new person do the job in a way that suits him or her, and guard your tongue so as not to negatively impact the new person’s view of the leadership. If you have articulated clearly why you are leaving and have communicated it to the leadership, you can also explain it to the new person. The goal is to have a transparent handover, rather than secrets and suspicions.

4. Plan for recovery. Plan for time out after you leave. Give yourself at least three months. Often, people do not realize just how much they have been affected emotionally. It takes time for full restoration to occur. Just as major physical wounds take time to heal, emotional and spiritual wounds require healing time. Do things you enjoy.

5. Hand the situation over to God. Finally, let go. There is no value in going over and over the situation to see how you could have done it differently. Debrief with your friend and sending church leadership after leaving and then move on. Similar to the Apostle Paul, we must “press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called [us] heavenwards in Christ Jesus” and in order to do this, we must forget what is behind (Phil. 3:13-14). Once you leave the situation that was harmful for you, you do not have to worry about fixing it up. That is now the responsibility of others.

Focus on other things. Engage in physical exercise to help you sleep. Study hard to engage your mind. This can be a very disquieting time, but take each day as it comes. As you rediscover who you are, God will gently guide you into the path you should follow.

Brierley, Peter. 1997. “Missionary Attrition: The ReMAP Research Project.” In Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition. Ed. William Taylor, 85-104. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Donovan, Kath and Ruth Myors. 2002. “Reinventing Missionary Commitment.” In Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices from around the World. Ed. Kelly O’Donnell, 295-308. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Eenigenburg, Sue and Robynn Bliss. 2010. Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Foyle, Marjory. 2001. Honourably Wounded: Stress among Christian Workers. London, U.K.: Monarch.

Hart, Archibald. 1984. Coping with Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions. Waco, Tex.: Word.

Hiebert, Paul. 2008. Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Maslach, Christina, Wilmar Schaufeli, and Michael Leiter. 2001. “Job Burnout.” Annual Review of Psychology 52(1): 397-422.

O’Donnell, Kelly. 2002. “A Member Care Model for Best Practice.” In Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices from around the World. Ed. Kelly O’Donnell, 13-22. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

O’Donnell, Kelly and Michele O’Donnell. 1992. “Understanding and Managing Stress.” In Missionary Care: Counting the Cost for World Evangelization. Ed. KellyO’Donnell, 110-122. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Oswald, Roy. 1991. Clergy Self-Care: Finding a Balance for Effective Ministry. Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute.

Taylor, James. 2004. Pastors under Pressure: Conflicts on the Outside, Fears Within. Leominster, U.K.: Day One Publications.

Van Ochs, B. 2001. “10 Challenges that May Make Going Home Look Attractive.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 37(4): 466-471.



Richard and Evelyn Hibbert worked with WEC International in the Middle East, Bulgaria, the U.K. and Australia for twenty years. They were involved in pioneer church planting and leadership training. Richard is director of the School of Cross-Cultural Mission at the Sydney Missionary and Bible College.

EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 264-271. Copyright  © 2013 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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