You love Jesus. You’ve dedicated your life to serving him. You’re loyal, diligent, and you work hard. It’s not unusual for you to check your email after hours, and you’re even willing to work on your day off, if necessary. Lately, it seems like it’s necessary a lot.
You’ve been known to sacrifice for the good of the team, and you often give up time with family or friends to tend to others in need. You’re usually willing to take on extra projects. Sleep is a luxury. Exhaustion is a constant companion, and you can’t remember the last time you took a vacation that didn’t involve a visit with a supporter.
You know you’ve been called to this work. You wish more people were called—the team seems to be shrinking while the work is expanding. There’s so much to do, and there aren’t enough hours in the day. Life is overwhelming. It feels like things are slipping away and spiraling out of control. You begin to wonder if you’re just tired or if you’re inadequate to the task.
You used to have time to exercise, to meet with the Lord daily, and to eat a decent meal. Not anymore. Now you rush through your days, eating poorly, sometimes living badly in other ways, too. You used to feel full. Now you feel empty with nothing to give. Your joy is gone—replaced with feelings you don’t want to explore. And it’s really hard to pray when it feels like God isn’t paying attention.
Though the work used to be exciting, the stress is starting to wear on you. You’re easily frustrated and disappointed in yourself and others. Then one day you wake up and realize you don’t want to get out of bed. You didn’t sleep well because you couldn’t shut off your mind. And you’re worried—about a lot of things. You’re often angry, and you’re beginning to think about how to escape.
You’re afraid to seek help because you don’t want others to think you’re weak. Or selfish. Or possibly even crazy. How will you explain your lack of enthusiasm, the way your brain frequently fritzes out, or the cynicism that permeates your soul? Can you even describe how your body is rebelling, how your head hurts, and how your heart feels like it’s being squeezed in a vise? What if they laugh and brush you off? Think you’re a failure? Suggest you leave the field?
Does that last thought terrify and appeal to you at the same time? Do some of the symptoms described above mirror your current experience? If so, you might be suffering from burnout. It’s more common than you think but is often overlooked—and possibly underreported—due to the prevailing attitude of many missionaries toward burnout and their subsequent refusal to admit to suffering from it. Regardless of what we wish to call it, the symptoms listed above can be devastating to one’s soul, family, and team. They need to be addressed for long-term health.
What can we do about burnout? The first step toward a cure can be found in recognizing the condition. Burnout can affect us physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and many people suffer in all three areas (see the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 18:1-19:21 for an example of this). While there is no one cure that will work for everyone—most will benefit from utilizing the suggestions given below.
Manage your Stress
A primary cause of burnout is stress. While most everyone today suffers from some level of stress, a prolonged period of heavy stress will take its toll. The difficulty factor increases when the stressors come from multiple sources.
My anecdotal observations (based on more than seven years at SEND and hundreds of hours of conversations with SEND members) indicate that almost all aspects of missionary life can cause stress. Stressors include partner development, an unstable income stream, job change, separation from family, culture shock, language learning, constant transition, difficult living conditions, multi-cultural teams, illness, tragedy, trauma, workload, unmet expectations, spiritual warfare, conflict, competition, persecution, isolation, loneliness, rejection, and social, governmental, or organizational turmoil. The problem is exacerbated for most missionaries because many of these aspects are not temporary. They are constant companions.
Effective stress management often requires a reduction in role and/or workload. This can include something as simple as delegating work to another person. This is what Moses did, based on the advice from his father-in-law, Jethro (Exod. 18:1-27). Eliminating unnecessary work may also help. In some cases, a complete job change may be required. In addition, there are things we can add to our lives to help reduce our stress level. They include eating and sleeping well, praying, reading Scripture, journaling, engaging in Christian meditation, laughing, playing, exercising, singing, relaxing, resting, napping, and spending time with God, friends, and a mentor.
When was the last time you played? What do you do to relax? How often do you allow yourself to take a nap? Have you considered how much stress you put on yourself to produce, perform, or compete with others? Have you discussed with your supervisor the possible need for a role/workload reduction? Who serves as your mentor, counselor, or fellow pilgrim? What could you add to, or subtract from, your life that would reduce your level of stress?
Manage your Expectations
Unmet expectations are another major cause of burnout. While most people can survive the occasional disappointment, repeated unfulfilled expectations can lead to anger and bitterness—two other frequent underlying causes of burnout.
One of the best ways to manage our expectations is to meet regularly with someone who can do the following: 1) listen; 2) provide comfort and encouragement; 3) provide wisdom; and 4) speak truth to us. Some of our expectations are valid, and it can help to share our concerns and disappointments with another person and hear words of comfort in return. However, often our expectations are not realistic, and we need someone to provide godly wisdom and to help us see the truth about our situation. Jesus spent a significant part of his time on earth speaking truth to his disciples in order to help them rightly align their expectations. God’s Word and God’s people can do that for us, too.
Can you distinguish between the expectations you place on yourself and the expectations of others? Do you have a person in whom you can confide who will lovingly help you consider the expectations you face? Is there someone who can provide a listening ear along with the appropriate comfort, wisdom, and truth?
Manage your Calendar
Lack of space in our calendars is a huge source of burnout. Sometimes we really do have too much to do and not enough time or person-power to do it all. Scripture does say that “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Luke 10:2). At other times, the problem is one of our own making. Some reasons for this include workaholism, perfectionism, guilt, fear, conscientiousness, competition, inability to properly gauge our limits, and lack of margin.
One of my favorite Proverbs says: “The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it” (Prov. 27:12). Another is Proverbs 19:3, which says, “A man’s own folly ruins his life, yet his heart rages against the LORD.” These are hard words. They place the responsibility for our actions squarely on us. The truth is, we are ultimately in charge of our own schedules. We’re the ones who decide what we will or will not do each day. If we’re overbooked and overworked, we ultimately have only ourselves to blame.
One place we can take refuge is in our calling. If we can articulate our priorities based on our calling, we can evaluate each possible activity in light of how it will help us achieve our stated purpose. This will require us to learn to say, “No,” to some things. Jesus exemplifies one who knew his calling and who purposed his life based on it.
Why do you do the things you do? Do you prioritize your activities based on your calling? Is there someone with whom you can discuss your daily and weekly priorities? Who could hold you accountable to maintain a reasonable schedule?
Manage your Thoughts
The foundation of many causes of burnout is inaccurate or unbiblical thinking. In reality, our beliefs inform our actions. What we think about ourselves and God shapes who we are and what we do. This is why spending time in God’s Word is a non-negotiable activity for a believer. In order to avoid—or recover from—burnout, it’s absolutely imperative that we engage in right thinking (see Pss. 1:1-3, 19:7-11, 119:9-16, 97-104, 105, 130; Matt. 4:4; John 17:17; Prov. 4:20-23; Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:22-24; Phil. 4:6-8; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Heb. 4:12).
From where do you get the information that guides your life? What shapes your identity? What are the prevailing thoughts that crowd your mind and motivate you to action? How often do you infuse your mind with the Word of God? Are you able to act on what you know is true? With whom do you meet to talk and pray about what you’re learning and thinking?
Whether your goal is preventing or recovering from burnout, your best option is living a disciplined life, one that utilizes the spiritual formation tools God provides including time alone with God, prayer, Bible reading, obedience, fellowship, resting, and accountability. While that may sound too simple, the truth is—the extent to which we ignore these simple means of grace determines the extent of our risk for—and vulnerability in—burnout. It’s instructive that some of the help God sent to Elijah after his meltdown consisted of simple food, water, and rest (1 Kings 19:1-9).
It isn’t wise to walk the path of burnout alone. Sharing with a friend, pastor, counselor, mentor, or spiritual director how the burdens of stress, unmet expectations, overwork, and unbiblical thinking are affecting us is a great way to begin the journey back to health. It also may be helpful to read a book or two about burnout. See the books listed in the footnotes to go deeper.
If there is no one in your organization with whom you wish to share, please consider contacting Barnabas International, an organization dedicated to providing care for global workers. Barnabas International has access to a network of pastors, counselors, spiritual directors, and retired missionaries willing to journey with those in need of care.
Last, but certainly not least, be sure to pour out your heart to God. He knows and understands. He loves you with an everlasting love. He knows what you need. He cares about your heart, your world, and your calling. And he stands ready to help.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
“Be still, and know that I am God;”
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
1 Peter 5:7
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition,
with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,
which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—
think about such things.
NOTE: Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™
 Eenigenburg, Sue, and Robynn Bliss, Expectations and Burnout (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2010), 13.
 Minirth, Frank, et al., How to Beat Burnout (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 16. See also, Eenigenburg, Sue, and Robynn Bliss, 171.
 Swenson, Richard, Margin (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1992), 68-70. See also, Minirth, Frank, et al., How to Beat Burnout, 15.
 Minirth, Frank, et al., How to Beat Burnout, 15.
 Swenson, Richard, 71-72. See also, Minirth, Frank, et al., How to Beat Burnout, 103-107. See also, Bloecher, Detlef, “Caring for Those on the Journey,” in Spirituality in Mission, Edited by John Amalraj, Geoffrey W. Hahn, and Willim D. Taylor (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2018), 317-329.
 Minirth, Frank, et al., How to Beat Burnout, 39. See also, Eenigenburg, Sue, and Robynn Bliss, 191.
 Minirth, Frank, et al., How to Beat Burnout, 48, 56. See also, Swenson, Richard, 68-69.
 Minirth, Frank, et al., How to Beat Burnout, 59-80. See also, Swenson, Richard, 73-88.
 Cloud, Henry, and John Townsend, Boundaries. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 198-199.
 Minerth, Frank, et al., Before Burnout, in Beating Burnout (New York: Inspirational Press, 1997), 299-311.
 Donnelly, Jenny, 2020, Still (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2020), 108.
 Murray, David, ReSet (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 106.
 Fernando, Ajith, “Joy and Sacrifice in the Lord,” in Doing Member Care Well. Edited by Kelly O’Donnell. (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2002), 230-231.
 Please note that the author of this article does not necessarily agree with all that is written in each book cited. One must run all things through the grid of Scripture.