Should missionaries work long hours?
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Should missionaries work long hours?

I have observed that missionaries are no longer quite as willing to talk about how many hours we are working. Have you noticed the difference as well? I used to see it as a badge of honor that I had worked more than 60 hours in the past week. I am not so sure that I would admit that today. Would my colleagues see me as a workaholic or unbalanced in my priorities?

I also must acknowledge that I don’t have the same level of energy as I did 30 years ago. My work weeks rarely if ever exceed sixty hours these days, whereas when I was a first-term missionary, they were commonplace.

As missionaries, we still like to say that we are busy. But in contrast to what I remember from 30 years ago, we are now much more likely to think that something is wrong with us or our assignment if we end up working a 12-hour day.

The importance of sabbath and vacation

We are also more free to talk about the importance of sabbath and taking vacations. SEND developed a sabbatical policy in 2016. I have been amazed at how many SEND staff have already taken a sabbatical since then. I am one of them. These are good developments, I believe. Weekly sabbaths, vacations and sabbaticals are necessary and helpful. By incorporating these into our lives, we acknowledge that we are not God and that we are not indispensable to the work.

As Mark Buchanan reminds us, taking a sabbath is not a reward for having completed our work.

 The lie the taskmasters want you to swallow is that you cannot rest until your work’s all done, and done better than you’re currently doing it.  But the truth is, the work’s never done, and never done right.   It’s always more than you can finish and less than you had hoped for. 

So what?  Get this straight: The rest of God — the rest God gladly gives so that we might discover that part of God we’re missing — is not a reward for finishing.  It’s not a bonus for work well done. 

It’s sheer gift.  It is a stop-work order in the midst of the work that’s never complete, never polished.   Sabbath is not the break we’re allotted at the tail end of completing all our tasks and chores, the fulfillment of all our obligations.  It’s the rest we take smack-dab in the middle of them, without apology, without guilt, and for no better reason than God told us we could.

The rest of God, Mark Buchanan, p. 93.

Recognizing the truth of what Buchanan says so eloquently, I talk about the need to practice sabbath in every pre-field training. We promote retreats like Breathe for the purpose of rest and restoration. We take vacations regularly. Many (maybe the majority) of us have been on vacation in the past month.

Paul’s strange words

So, the other day as I was on vacation (!), I noted how strange Paul’s words in his first letter to the Thessalonians sound in our mission sub-culture.

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.

1 Thess 2:8-9

In talking about working night and day, likely the apostle is referring to his practice of making tents to support himself while he was preaching the Gospel. Rather than looking for a wealthy patron that would support him, Paul plied his trade as a leather worker. Apparently this was hard manual labor, for which there was much disdain in the Greek world of his day.

His preaching platform was his workshop. He proclaimed the Good News to his customers and anyone who stopped by to listen. I can only imagine that stopping to talk to all these people created a lot of interruptions in Paul’s day. This is a likely the explanation for his statement that he “worked night and day”. All these interruptions required Paul to start his tentmaking early in the morning before his customers arrived and to continue after they left in the evening. His tents didn’t get ready for market by themselves.

His hard work was an example to follow

But Paul did not apologize for his manual toil nor his long hours. Instead he pointed to his toil as clear evidence of his concern for the new Thessalonian believers. As we see in his second letter to the Thessalonian church, he presents himself as an example to emulate.

For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you.

2 Thess 3:7-8.

In 2 Corinthians, we see further evidence that Paul viewed his hard work as a badge of honor for himself as an apostle.

Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses;  in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger;

2 Cor. 6:4-5

As I have explained in another blog post, Paul called attention to his hardships and his hard work. For him, they were clear indicators of God’s approval of his apostolic ministry. His hard work differentiated him from the false apostles who were misleading the Corinthian church.

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.

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.

2 Cor. 11:23, 27

At the same time, we need to be clear that Paul was not solely focused on “the task.” The apostle was still highly relational even as he talked about how hard he worked (see 1 Thess. 2:8, 11-12). He worked hard caring for people. He worked such long hours because during the day, he prioritized people’s spiritual needs, and then worked at night to earn enough to feed himself.

What do we do with Paul’s words about hard work?

So what do we do with Paul’s words in light of our own emphasis on balance and rest and sabbath? Was Paul’s life out of balance? Was he a workaholic? Can those of us who are married and have children safely set them aside? Paul obviously did not have the same family obligations as we do. Or do Paul’s words not apply to those of us who raise our full financial support? After all, we don’t need to “burn the midnight oil” in order to put food on our table.

On the other hand, could Paul be saying something fundamental about the place of hard work and long hours in our life and ministry as a disciple of Jesus? Could long hours be part of what it means to take up one’s cross and follow him (Luke 9:23)?

By no means am I advocating that we should get rid of sabbaths, vacations or sabbaticals. These are important counterbalances to the Western emphasis on the task and getting things done. But has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction? Can we honor and respect both those who work hard and long hours and also those who step away for extended periods of rest and reflection? Can we combine both in a balanced life, pleasing to our Lord?

I admit that I have more questions than answers. Do you think we should follow Paul’s example of hard work and long hours? If so, in what way?

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