Avoiding Ministry Burnout: Establishing Personal Priorities in Missions

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In a family, decisions are made with how we use our time, how we spend our money, and how we rank our priorities. Do we buy braces today and defer the purchase of a second car, or do we take a much-needed vacation and defer an accelerated mortgage payment? In the work of missions, one also tries to make the best use of resources, whether they be time, money and priorities. A key question is:“How do we order them?”

Our family used to live in one of the least developed capital cities on the planet. It was located in a country that ranked very poorly on an index of corruption and ranked equally poorly on the UN development index that examined life expectancies, infant mortality, and the like. All around us were corrupt systems, poor infrastructure, and a seemingly endless stream of instances of human suffering due to dysentery, corrupt doctors, malaria, and even more corrupt policemen.

We knew that in this post-colonial context, the nationals had a love-hate relationship with expatriates. On the one hand, they loved the jobs and opportunities they provided and at another level, they felt like these people reminded them of some of their colonial over-bearers who essentially conveyed the patronizing message, “You are underdeveloped people who need our brains, our technology, and our money. Let us do your thinking for you.”

We also saw that some missionaries had adopted a ‘God-complex’ and had the idea that somehow that they would be the saviors of the nationals.

In this context, we moved into a house on a corner lot in one of the city’s neighborhoods close to our children’s school. The missionary family who occupied the house before us solved most requests for help with dispensing cash. Every day they had a long line at the door. Immediately, we were faced with the question, how will you allocate your resources as an ambassador of Jesus Christ, a member of a mission team, and as a member of the global Body of Christ?

Fortunately, we had very wise team leaders who gave us the following advice, via a short parable. They said, “There are those missionaries who work night and day and give their body to be burned, as it were, and they leave burned out after less than a couple of years, and there are others who take a siesta in the afternoon, and they stay for a long time.”

We decided to take siestas and this proved to be a great asset to coping with the tropical heat (and the fact that frequently we were awake at night because night-guards liked to show thieves that they were on guard by firing blanks into the air). How was this received? Some missionaries felt that we were a bit less than “sold out to Jesus” but we had to live with that. The reaction of some neighbors to the fact that we decided to turn off the money faucet was also a challenge to deal with.

The way we came to this position was that we made a decision to give of ourselves, share some of our food and medicinal plants, and spend time with people in place of dispensing cash. The initial reaction was, “You are rich white people, and you are too cheap to share with us" or “You are less than real Christians.”

This guilt came in spoken and unspoken ways. It might be as a comment such as “the last missionaries really loved us” or a dis-invitation to a social event in the neighborhood, or even some tension due to different philosophies of approach on our larger mission team.

It was not that long, however, before we began to know when one of our neighbors had malaria. We had trees with leaves and bark with properties that relieved some of the symptoms of malaria, and so prevented the dangerous dehydration that naturally comes with it. Knocks at the door by somewhat desperate mothers who needed some malaria relief were common. Our over-ten-year-old Land Cruiser became a taxi, a funeral hearse, and a tow-truck. My wife would have "girls only" times of jumping on our olympic-sized trampoline, which gave everyone times of fun and laughter: something that was often missing in a place where life was tough.

 After much engagement with our neighbors, considerable reflection, and wise counsel, we adopted the following working principle for setting our family’s priorities:  concentrate on making the most investment in those things that death cannot take away.

Practically speaking what did that mean?

  • We would not be content only doing ‘deed’ ministry, as important as that was. We were convinced the Good News of the Gospel, by virtue of being news, must be told.
  • We were not content to share only the Good News, as important as it is, but like the jeweler who displays their diamonds against a dark backdrop, and highlights the diamond with strategic light, so we would also tell of the bad news. This was important in a context where the local religion focused on self-righteous activity and where people were always striving to get in the good favor of their God and each other.
  • We were not content to hide the realities of the eternal bliss of heaven, nor the eternal suffering of hell. 
  • We knew that our stay in this country was more of a marathon than a sprint. The nationals had seen many expats come and go, and many went home early due to “compassion fatigue” or the weariness that comes from what seems like never-ending and never-changing suffering. Thus we knew that setting highest priorities would help us from getting burned out.
  • We came to realize that before our arrival, and after our departure, the nationals and more so the national Christians would have ways and means to not only survive, but also to thrive in their local context. We did not want to upset that dynamic. Thus we often directed people to their local churches or religious organizations, or extended family before extending our help.
  • We were prepared for subtle or not so subtle criticism due to our choices. We knew that the hardest criticism to deal with could come from missionaries on our team, other missionaries, and local Christians. We prayed for great grace to deal with differing philosophies of ministry.
  • We were glad that our regional leader did not buy into pressuring us to apply mission strategies that would produce rapid results. In the context of this country with its majority religion, the work was mostly slow and often two steps forward and three steps back, and this caused some missionaries to sacrifice their personal convictions to make it look like they were successful. Quickly we learned that “nice Christians” could be had quite easily, but it was more of a charade than a fruit of solid evangelism and discipleship strategies.
  • Rather than positioning ourselves as the saviors of the nationals, we constantly pointed them to the all-sufficient Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. We knew He could come through for them 24/7, would never leave the country, nor get burned out.

As we reflect back at 11 precious years of ministry in what some people pejoratively called the place the “armpit of ________” we saw that it was the very best of times and the closest awareness of God’s presence that we had ever experienced. We pray that some of these reflections might help other ambassadors for Christ run the marathon of Christian service, point people away from themselves and to Jesus, and to finish well.

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Excellent article, was just thinking about this yesterday with my wife. We see a lot of missionaries who we admire, people who sacrifice their time and comfort to serve, but then we see them get burned out and go home. Many try to do too much, too fast, without taking time to settle in, go slow, learn, listen, set boundaries, and not try to solve every problem.