The Bible makes it very clear that when we become followers of Christ we are to go and make disciples of all nations, that we are called to be image bearers of Him and that we are to become missionaries sharing the gospel.
What the Bible doesn’t say is that we should stay within our comfort zones.
While there is a need for Christ in all the places it’s pretty likely that we’ll be called to places that make us uncomfortable whether that’s your work place, another country or an urban neighborhood that looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
For me it was the latter – the place that I had never really experienced before. What I had experienced and what I believe God was preparing me for long before I even knew who he was, was the poverty, the drugs ripping apart families, the Daddy who was in and out of jail, drunk and high all the time, abusive, and the Mama who left the family when she left Daddy and Grandma had to step in.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the smell of gunpowder never leaving the air, the sight of police tape hanging from the stop sign at the corner because another person I love or am somehow connected too has lost his or her life. What I wasn’t prepared for was the blood stains that would never quite wash away, the kids who would make my kitchen table their second home or having to become a mom overnight to a teenager who became an orphan overnight.
I’ll never forget the first time I witnessed a shooting. It was of a 5-year-old girl that I loved dearly. I’ll also never forget that same year, some months later, watching a teenager beaten to death (the first time I watched someone get killed) outside the front door of the church I was working at.
I’ll never forget the morning that my house was raided by the police because my address was being used illegally, or when I was falsely accused of being a snitch and lived in fear for weeks. These things I will never forget, and these things I did NOT think I was prepared for. But guess what? I was prepared.
Here’s the thing about all of that: I didn’t think I was prepared to handle any of them, but the reality is that God calls us where He desires us and equips us perfectly for the job He’s so eloquently designed for each of us. For some of us, it’s full time ministry living in a vulnerable neighborhood, and for others it’s going to work daily in corporate America and being image bearers of Him for our co-workers.
I am nearly 14 years into my uncomfortable calling – the one I didn’t think I was prepared for – and most days I wonder how I handle all the tragedy that happens. But I also thank God every day for the gifts He has given me to do what I do. What I wasn’t actually prepared for was the feelings that would overcome me just a few days after this past Thanksgiving. They were feelings of depression, feelings of being overwhelmed and not really sure if this was my calling anymore. It turns out that I wasn’t prepared to experience burnout.
I didn’t know how to explain to those around me what was happening. I didn’t know how to ask for help, and it turns out that they didn’t know how to help me. So here, I offer a few suggestions for how you might love the person you support in ministry through a season of burnout.
It’s hard to ask for help when you aren’t even sure what you need or you’re already so overwhelmed, the thought of making decisions that aren’t required is exhausting. The greatest things my group of friends and people who love me did during my time of burnout, was show up.
Honestly, some of them didn’t even call. They just dropped off dinner for us, and they came and sat next to me while I read a book, watched television or cried. They pulled my favorite board games off the shelf or pulled out a puzzle and sat at my table with me for hours doing things I loved. They cleaned and did laundry; they drove my son to activities and took him out so I could have time alone. They reminded me that self-care isn’t an option. It’s a requirement to continue the life of ministry God has called me too.
One of the most important things they did for me was pray, rally others to pray and remind me that even in this moment I am still loved, I am still called and still equipped. They reminded me of scripture that affirmed the calling God has placed on me. They reminded me of scripture that affirmed I was still valuable and worthy even in those moments of being in the valley. They became the hands and feet of Jesus that I needed in my life.
As I did my research and talked with others who have experienced ministry burnout, I began to realize that it doesn’t matter if you’re a pastor, a missionary in a foreign country, an urban environment or corporate America, burnout is real. We’re all susceptible to it, and it can happen to anyone of us at any moment.
I learned that sometimes it takes days, weeks, months or even years to pick yourself up and keep going. What I truly believe about the few months of burnout I was experiencing is that it didn’t last longer than it did because of the support I had around me, because at the end of every day I was reminded that I was serving a God who loved me, who already knew what I would experience and already knew that I would be back ready to serve Him.
I had people around me willing to do the hard work of loving me back to a healthy place that I allowed me to resume ministry.
I encourage you to not only be prepared to love your people in their season of burnout, but to love them well all the time so that burnout can be avoided. Remind them through phone calls, emails and text messages that they are loved. Drop a meal off at their house occasionally so they can take a time out with their family and not have to make dinner. Send a gift card to their favorite coffee shop, nail salon or restaurant and remind them that in their act of loving others they need to take time out to love themselves.
Pray over and for them, read them scripture and affirm them in their calling. I know that I have learned not only the value of self-care but also the value of surrounding yourself with a good support system. I’m praying for you as friends, partners and churches as you figure out the best way to love and serve your missionaries.
Missionaries, I’m praying for you, because I can imagine you’re a lot like me, and as an empath, you don’t always know how to stop loving others and love yourselves or allow yourselves to be loved and cared for.