Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

Stress: too much and too little – Part One

Is stress, even cross-cultural stress, always a bad thing?

Too much stress is not good.   More than 4 years ago on this blog, I mentioned a book by Dr. Richard Swenson on the topic of “Margin” – Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives.   I had read the book and was recommending it because I recognized that many of our missionaries were subject to overload and consequent burn-out.   (See another recommendation on our SEND U wiki.)

What is margin?  Swenson writes:

Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating. Margin is the opposite of overload. If we are overloaded we have no margin. (pp. 69-70). Kindle Edition. 

Swenson argues that we need to make sure that we don’t exhaust our emotional, physical, financial and time resources so that we have no reserve for the expected opportunities and crises that come our way.   Since so much of missionary life and ministry is not scheduled, particularly in cultures that are not as structured and time-oriented as the West, we would be wise to build these buffers into our lives. Since living cross-culturally is stressful and often exhausting, we must make sure that we do not set unrealistic expectations of ourselves.  In fact, creating these margins is essential for long-term fruitful service.

Jesus encouraged his disciples to take a break from their busy pace of ministry and get some rest.

Mark 6:31 – Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

This morning, I was reading about the conclusion of Paul’s first missionary journey.  The trip had been fruitful with several churches established, but had also been very stressful, resulting in Paul being stoned, and he and his team driven out of town a number of times.  Acts 14:27-28 says that after the trip, Paul and Barnabas spent an extended time at “home” in Antioch, among friends, in a less stressful ministry context.   They took the opportunity for some “down time” before they started planning for their next missionary journey.

Those of us who firmly believe in the value of margins are learning to say “no” to ministry opportunities that we feel we cannot add to our already busy schedules.   We have emphasized the importance of Sabbaths and vacation time and family times.   We make sure that there is “white space” in our weekly calendars.   We have even given ourselves permission to occasionally take naps in the middle of the day.  For me, that was not altogether unfamiliar since we were introduced to the concept of “siesta time” in the Philippines.

But upon further reflection, I have come to believe that holding these margins too rigidly can actually have negative impact on our growth and development – and in the long run prevent my capacity from expanding.   For our own good, it seems to me that we need to plan to push ourselves to use that reserve every once in a while.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I still believe it is wise and important to make sure we have time for rest, Sabbath, and our families.  But we must not avoid all stress at all costs.   I am afraid that far too often I say “no” to an opportunity simply because it will stretch me beyond my comfort zone.   I need to be stretched if I am to grow.

Just read the following verses from the Apostle Paul:

1 Corinthians 9:24–27 – Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.  No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

2 Corinthians 1:8–9 – We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.   Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.

2 Corinthians 11:23–28 – Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.  Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.

Can there be any question about whether Paul was stretched well beyond his comfort zone in preaching the Gospel?  It seems apparent that he thought that stress would be a normal part of the Christian life and ministry.   Paul actually points to his weaknesses, sufferings and hard work (ie. stress) as proof that he was a genuine apostle.   Sometimes, this stress was inflicted upon him by those who opposed the Gospel, but often he subjected himself to this stress.   He chose to make tents and support himself rather than taking payment from those to whom he preached.  As a result, he laboured and toiled and often went without sleep (2 Cor 11:27).  He seems to have regularly used up his margin in preaching the Gospel to the unreached.

So how do we reconcile the idea of “maintaining margin” and the value of “stretching ourselves beyond our comfort zones”?   More on this question in our next blog post.


Why should I leave?


Stress: too much and too little – Part Two


  1. I appreciate your thoughts, Ken. Paul's life certainly does reflect the fact that God likes to stretch us! One of my favorite passages is “For You light my lamp! The Lord my God illumines my darkness. For by You I can run upon a troop, I can leap over the wall. As for God His way is perfect! The word of the Lord is tried, He's a shield to all who take refuge in Him.” (Ps. 118:28-30) It speaks of doing great feats for God by His strength. It also speaks of God's being a refuge for and shield for us who hide in Him. It also speaks of His ways being perfect! So I'm inclined to believe–and my experience bears this out–that as we walk with God, He gives us rest and strength, He gives us inner margin, even when we are under pressure. I think one answer to your question would be:
    1) we need faith to walk in obedience to God when He calls us beyond our comfort zone;
    2) because it's all about Jesus, not about us;
    3) while margins are definitely wise, if we are walking with Jesus, He'll take care of us when we must use up those margins!

    Thanks for the challenge! Can retired missionaries stay in the loop?

  2. I appreciate your thoughts, Ruth. I want to do some more thinking about the idea of “inner margin” when we are under pressure.
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