Missionary Burnout: Who is Adequate for These Things?

by Gregory S. Waddell

Speaking from experience, the author shares how missionaries and leaders can identify burnout—and offers five steps to recovery.

Burnout was the furthest thing from our minds in those early years. We were pumped up and ready to take on the world for Christ. With $150 of monthly support coming in, my wife, our one-year-old daughter, and I hit the highways and interstates of central Ohio in a red 1976 Chevrolet Monza. Our goal was to raise funds so we could be missionaries to Uruguay, a tiny country we had only seen in books. We did raise those funds and we did go to Uruguay in 1983. After seven years of walking the streets of Montevideo, knocking on doors, holding late-night Bible studies around the kitchen tables of countless families, and learning how to drink their bitter green tea called maté, we saw a new church emerge.

We then decided to cross the river to begin a new work in Argentina. Starting in a tent, we preached, counseled, taught, exhorted, and wept. I can still feel the gusts of crisp winter winds whipping under the tent flaps and across the concrete floor in an effort to chill the faith of many who attended those early services. Every other church service was accompanied by a blackout. One of our church members would put on a pair of heavy rubber gloves, run across the street, and gently move the live cable that connected our tent to the power source from one supply line to another; problema solucionado, problem solved.

None of these inconveniences could dampen the spirit of adventure that filled our hearts in those early years and caused us to hang on to our dream of seeing thousands come to Christ through our efforts. By the grace of God, three congregations were planted and the church took root. A Bible institute, a leadership training center, a youth activity center, and a soup kitchen ministry were also launched.

Some may look at that record and see only success; yet behind the scenes, a flame was dying through a slow process of burnout. Herbert Freudenberger, the man who coined the term, defined burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.” In a word, burnout is the loss of the spirit of adventure.

In contrast to that spirit of adventure, missionaries who experience burnout feel trapped by impossible standards that are often applied to Christian heroes of the faith. Conservative Christians tend to view missionaries and pastors as a special breed in a category just above normal human beings. It may be true that God gives missionaries an extra dose of the adventurous temperament; however, it is doubtful they are all that different from other Christians. No matter how large their faith is, and no matter how inspiring their vision, they are still limited in their humanness.

Not only are they limited, but, like any other leader, they often have mixed in with their holy calling some purely human internal drives. Some have referred to this aspect of our personality as the “shadow” or the “dark side.” For example, missionaries often go to the mission field with a view to conquer, which is couched in the terminology of planting churches. They arrive on the field knowing what they want and what the people need. They go with their plans, strategies, objectives, and goals.

In some of our early publicity, we even used the phrase “Target Argentina.” Argentina was our target, our point of conquest. Without realizing it, we had joined the ranks of conquistadores who had arrived throughout the centuries to the Latin American continent to conquer, to dominate, to master. Only in our case, instead of becoming masters of the people, we wanted to master a project. We intended to be a blessing to the people, whether they liked it or not. We thought we were giving them what they needed. In reality, we were out to achieve our objectives.

Establishing measurable objectives is a hallmark of American missionary work. Everyone understands that objectives are good and that it is important to be deliberate about where we are going. Yet there is a major problem with approaching missions purely from the perspective of our objectives. God has created people to be free moral agents. People do what they want, not what the missionary wants them to do. I had my plans and objectives; however, the people didn’t cooperate. It seemed that no matter how hard we tried, no matter how innovative our methods, no matter how detailed our strategies, nothing worked. It was like plodding through a dense, muddy forest, always seeing just enough light ahead to keep our hopes from totally dying out, yet never seeming to draw any nearer to that open place, never reaching the goal. As mentioned above, this is one of the key ingredients of burnout, the growing awareness that you are not achieving your dream.

A deep, suffocating sense of frustration sets in that eventually expresses itself in anger. The missionary senses that the people are not cooperating with his or her plans. The lack of progress becomes “their fault.” I can remember being able to enumerate a multitude of their flaws, inconsistencies, and failings. When you hear a missionary talk only of the negative aspects of the field culture and always in terms of “them” versus “us,” you may be witnessing the latter stages of burnout. Even though he or she may be able to keep it hidden under a facade of hard-nosed perseverance, anger can eat away at the missionary’s inner life.
Perseverance is good; however, when it does not allow us to stop and take stock of what is happening in our lives, it becomes deadly.

Even efforts at benevolence can breed contempt rather than gratitude. The missionary can become a source of financial opportunity for the national Christians. This may lead the missionary to feel as though people are always taking advantage of him or her. The national, on the other hand, may feel that the missionary is not fulfilling his or her part of an unspoken social contract.

Burnout may be experienced as a sense that one is falling into a pattern of growing anger, frustration, and cynicism. The missionary may find him or herself asking, “Is the gospel really sufficient for all people?” There may be a feeling of emptiness.

Most missionaries feel they have a public image to maintain. They dare not show weakness to supporters. A part of their drive to serve in the first place may have been their own inner need for significance and recognition. They may fear falling off that missionary pedestal and discovering that they are not equipped for the work to which they have dedicated their lives. They may come to dread the moment when they must sit down and write their monthly report. They know that people want to hear about conversions and numbers. They sit staring at their computer monitor, wondering, “What do I write about today? I was here last month, and I’m still here today.”

What happens to that pioneer spirit that leads a young family to an unknown land? How can it turn into cynicism, frustration, and exhaustion? The answer is burnout. It is happening every day among God’s leaders and the Church needs to understand the nature of this problem.

Burnout is the condition of being spiritually, emotionally, and physically spent, of having nothing more to offer. We all have bad days—times when we did not get enough sleep or the gas company hit us with the year-end catch-up charge that is more than the entire previous year. Burnout, however, is a condition that does not go away with a good night’s sleep and a day at the beach. It impairs your ability to work and to maintain healthy relationships.

While attending a major missionary convention in 1998, I asked veteran missionaries from various fields what they considered to be the main causes of missionary burnout. Perhaps the most telling aspect of these interviews was that, without exception, everyone knew exactly what I was talking about. Nobody asked, “Missionary burnout? What’s that?” Below are eight factors veteran missionaries mentioned:

1. Culture shock. By this, the missionaries did not mean the big differences they encountered when they first arrived on the foreign field. Rather, it was the subtle nuances of cultural differences that, over the years, began to wear on them. For example, a missionary working in Latin America may puzzle for years over how to appropriately interrupt a conversation or how to show appreciation without communicating privilege.

2. Team conflict. Missionary teams are often made up of people who have not had to work a lot in teams and have not developed strong team skills. This is difficult in one’s home culture—and exponentially so in a foreign environment.

3. Management style. Missionaries naturally have strong personalities; they often feel they must do everything. This is often the case in the early stages of a new work; however, when it becomes the defining nature of their leadership, it leads to dependency and burnout. Jethro was right when he advised Moses to delegate and to train his people to take on responsibility (Exodus 18). He understood that the consequences of continuing to do everything would be that he would surely wear out.

4. Spiritual warfare. Several missionaries talked about the reality of spiritual warfare. We dare not underemphasize the impact that a missionary’s work may have on a nation or people. Our spiritual enemy will do everything within his power to mitigate the impact of that work. Second Corinthians 2:15-16 says, “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?”

5. Schooling children. Many questions abound: Does the missionary put his or her children in the local school system and thereby hamper their progress in the American system? Does the missionary send the children to a boarding school? Does the missionary pay $12,000 to send them to the American school? What about home-schooling? Regardless of how sublime the calling, the fact is that basic considerations of care and concern for one’s family can wear on the missionary’s mind and emotions.

6. Feeling unappreciated. Missionaries may feel that people do not appreciate their work. They may be working on a bare minimum budget, both for their personal living expenses and for their work expenses. Yet they are expected to produce the same results that churches in the US, which have million-dollar budgets and multiple staff, produce.

7. The totalitarian call. Any job can become your entire life if you let it. Missionaries and pastors are especially prone to this scenario because their job is their life. It could be argued that the two should not be separated; ministry, after all, is a divine calling. This temptation to allow the mission to absorb everything we are and everything we do is harmful both to the missionary and to his or her family.

8. The hero cult. Several missionaries described their experience of coming home to find people cold and unsympathetic. One missionary said, “It was as though by simply coming home I had broken some kind of sacred shrine they had built to their missionary hero.” This only adds guilt to the problem and makes adjustment and renewal doubly difficult. This is a serious and costly problem because, without renewal, many missionaries leave not only the field, but also the ministry. Years of valuable lessons learned on the field can be lost. One study found that sixty-five percent of the missionaries interviewed expressed the need for more support; seventy-five percent said that they could not reveal their struggle with burnout for fear that their sending churches would not understand and would likely bring them home. Churches and missionary sending agencies must rid themselves of the idea that burnout is merely a class of personal or spiritual failure. They must begin to see those suffering burnout as honorably wounded rather than as traitors to the cause. They must help them find a path toward renewal and recovery.

My path to recovery involved five deliberate actions that required major changes in thinking and attitude. These actions can be identified by the verbs return, reframe, reposition, renew, and relate.

1. Return. If burnout is the extinction of motivation or incentive, then recovery is the reverse. It is the igniting of motivation and incentive, and the rekindling of hope that one can achieve the life purpose to which he or she has been called. This begins with a return to the source of that calling, a return to God. For me, this meant learning how to pray again—not as a missionary, but as a soul in need of God’s grace and loving touch. In a real sense, the first thing that needs recovery is the capacity to believe again.

2. Reframe. The second step is to reframe what mission is all about. It is not about conquering or achieving; it is about learning and sharing. It was a great relief for me to realize that Jesus is the teacher and I am a fellow learner in the midst of this rich cross-cultural experience. There is much for me to learn from those to whom God has sent me. From my Argentine brothers and sisters and from the Argentine culture in general, I have learned the deep value of relationships. I have learned to listen and to feel the hurts, longings, and fears of a people who have their own dreams and goals that have often been crushed.

3. Reposition. The third step is to reposition yourself in the missionary enterprise by developing an invitational approach to evangelism. My previous approach to inviting people to know God had not been very inviting at all. I had not listened to them to discover their felt needs, perspectives on life, values, concerns, beliefs, and fears. They were merely the materials from which I would build my dream. Christianity is supposed to be an invitation from God to humanity to come and to know the saving power of his kingdom and his love. Unfortunately, most of what is called evangelism is not invitational at all. It is often viewed as something we do to people. We evangelize them. Milk companies homogenize and pasteurize milk; we evangelize sinners. What a relief it was for me to realize that I cannot evangelize. I can only invite; I can only try to create an environment that is conducive to finding Jesus. Jesus said, “Follow me.” His approach was fundamentally invitational.

4. Renew. The fourth step is to commit yourself to personal and professional renewal. Only by learning to love myself unconditionally was I able to share love with others. This renewal came in the form of intellectual development as well as spiritual development. A turning point for me was to enroll in the Operation Impact program at Azusa Pacific University, a distance-learning masters program designed to help people continue their education while remaining on the field. I also learned to have a life of my own. I vowed never again to allow the mission to absorb all of who and what I am. To serve Jesus is not equivalent to serving my mission organization.

5. Relate. The fifth step is to commit yourself to developing personal relationships that will help you in your process of recovery. I was privileged to find a few people who knew how to mix encouragement and confrontation. It is entirely possible to continue ministering to people even when one is rapidly moving down the road toward burnout. It takes someone with great gifts of observation to notice what is happening and great courage to confront. Finding an accountability partner is vital to recovery from burnout.

If you suspect your missionary may be experiencing burnout, don’t leave him or her to sort it out on his or her own. Sometimes, the difference between giving up and moving forward is simply the presence of someone who can provide that special mixture of encouragement and direction, someone who is willing to say, “God is with you, but you really should take steps to become restored.”


Dr. Gregory S. Waddell is director of institutional learning at Mid-South Christian College in Memphis, Tennessee. From 1982-2004 he was a missionary church planter in Uruguay and Argentina; he later served as executive director for Envoy Christian Mission.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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