What word comes to mind when you hear the following comments:
“We don’t have enough help, why can’t they send us more workers?”
“I don’t care if it falls apart, let someone else fix it, plus I make things worse.”
“It’s only 10AM and I am already exhausted!”
“I’m not going to the team party or the beach day next week.”
“I can’t do this much longer- there’s a limit to everything.”
“I always thought God would show up in our darkest times.”
“Since no one is caring for me, why should I care about others?”
These remarks all spell one word… B-U-R-N-O-U-T. Ladies have you ever uttered such comments? Perhaps silently in your heart of hearts. Burnout is a physical, emotional, and spiritual condition which happens to many people in helping, giving career fields. It is a point of breaking in which joy and satisfaction, as well as productivity of labor begins to diminish. It never occurs suddenly but over a period of time with consistent, accumulated negative attitudes and behaviors. A long nap, a weekend away, or a calming dip in the local Turkish hot springs will not cure this condition. Serious and intentional care must be given to treat burnout.
The above comments suggest burnout factors such as; feeling overwhelmed by needs, unable to help, isolating self from people, cynical, distrusting, blaming others, feelings of incompetence, compassion fatigue, self pity, emotional exhaustion, detachment, irritable, frustrated, spiritual confusion, trapped with no end in sight, critical spirit upon self and others, despair and hopelessness. Why do we as cross-cultural workers have a higher possibility for burnout? There are certainly numerous reasons but generally there has been a compromise in three major areas when struggling with burnout; relationships, resources, and rest.
First, many of us women are excellent givers, but often poor receivers. When we are not relationally replenishing or refilling what we are continually giving out, burnout can begin. All leaders and missionaries need an underlying framework of relational support to keep them free of burnout, suggests counselor John Townsend. On the field, these consistent and adequate “refilling stations” are often scarce; a local church, pastoral care, worship in ones heart-language, a community of “familiar faces”, individuals who can provide accountability, girlfriends to share and socialize with, a local supervisor to discuss with, or extended family and relatives to enjoy.
Second, often on the field our responsibilities outweigh the resources; especially in pioneering contexts. Tasks and job assignments need to equal the resources supplied; personnel, funds, materials, energy, time, supervision, and more. When the inequity continues for extended periods of time burnout eventually occurs. One myth we often believe as women is that if we are more disciplined, more spiritual, pray more fervently, rise up earlier, and work more diligently, than surely we will be able to prevent burnout. But an unrealistic work load with limited resources and support will never thwart burnout.
Finally, the issue of rest needs to be a priority for us on the field but is often the immediate area of neglect due to no relational accountability and too much work. Work-life balance is so necessary and so challenging to obtain for many of us. But repeatedly when weekly Sabbath rest, leisure time, family activities, date nights, and extended holidays or vacation are forgotten, burnout is soon to follow. Did you savor your Sabbath rest this week? When was your last fun night with your roommates, children, or spouse?
Besides the emotional and attitudinal warning comments and signs, often there are physical manifestations of burnout. Ladies, are you frequently experiencing trouble sleeping, headaches or migraines, chronic hives, constant fatigue even after resting, excessive weight loss or gain, abnormal monthly cycles, anxiety attacks, distressing dreams or nightmares, tremors, dependence on over the counter drugs or possible alcohol dependence?
The wonderful news about burnout is that there are cures and remedies. We do not have to remain in this miserable and dangerous state. A wise and godly plan can restore any broken and discouraged servant. The Lord even graciously gives a beautiful example in the Scriptures of a burned out servant who recovers and continues in faithful service; Elijah’s story can be read in I Kings 19.
There are many suggestions to bring prevention and cure to the misfortune of burnout. Physical, emotional, and spiritual areas need to be targeted for renewal and recovery. First we must literally stop our current work and enter into a period of rest and renewal of the body; sleeping, proper exercise, good nutrition, walks in nature, a doctor’s visit if necessary, visiting a new place for a change of scenery, and developing a hobby or interest that is not ministry related.
Second a reflection and evaluation time is necessary. Can you find or approach a good supervisor, a mentor, a long time godly friend back home, or a professional counselor that could be beneficial to ask good review questions of an emotional and practical nature? They can help you discover what “went wrong.” After a season of reflection and emotional stability, you can set realistic goals, rework job descriptions and daily calendars, set boundaries, acknowledge weaknesses and areas of temptation to overwork, schedule in Sabbaths, days off and holidays, and find an accountability friend to hold you to your new plan. This is also a good time to join a small group or women’s prayer group and simply reconstruct your relational support system; both with nationals, colleagues, your mission agency, and your friend’s community back home.
Finally a fresh spiritual framework must be created when we are burned out. Perhaps you can attend a conference or seminar, practice new spiritual disciplines, enjoy extended times of prayer and silence, try a prayer retreat, read devotional classics, start a focused Scripture study, journal, memorize favorite scriptures, and simply… sit and enjoy the sweet and healing presence of Christ. Ladies you are too worthy and valuable to burnout, check your hearts and bodies for what they need from you!
Nairy has been involved in cross cultural service for the last 23 years. For 18 years she served university students & pioneered student works in Armenia and Turkey. Currently she serves as a cross cultural pastoral counselor with Barnabas International.