Summary: A personal testimony of one missionary’s struggle with burnout and how he found relief.
MISSIONARY BURNOUT: CAUSES & CURES
BY GREG WADDELL
"WHO IS EQUAL TO SUCH A TASK?"
My wife and I have been missionaries for 18 years. In 1982, with $150 of monthly support coming in, we hit the road with our one-year-old daughter to raise funds so we could be missionaries to Uruguay.
We had the privilege of being a part of the first team of missionaries from the Churches of Christ & Christian Churches to serve in that country. In 1991, we crossed the river to begin a new work in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
We started out in a tent. Today, there is a congregation with an average attendance of 80. We have also started a Bible institute, a leadership training center, a youth activity center and a soup kitchen ministry. After 11 years in Argentina, we feel as though we have only begun to understand the subtle nuances of their culture and to find that combination of processes, methods and principles that is effective for this particular place and time.
B. Introduce the Subject
When I was a boy, I had the experience of going on a trip to the Cumberland Caverns. I can remember crawling on all fours, straddling deep canyons and sliding down slippery rock formations. I have always wanted to go back and revisit the caves. So, my daughter Leah and I planned this furlough to do the Wild Cave Tour at Mammoth Cave national park in Kentucky. This is a tour that takes you to many places where normal tours do not.
In one section of this tour, we entered a fairly wide hallway with a ceiling about four feet from the floor. We could walk, but we had to stoop. Gradually the ceiling came closer to the floor. Soon I was crawling on all fours. Then I was flat on my stomach, pulling myself forward by my elbows. Soon after that, the passage was so narrow, I could not put my boots in a horizontal position, and then I could not put my helmet in a horizontal position. A little beyond that I found myself securely wedged into the 9-inch space that remained between the ceiling and the floor.
I began to feel a sensation of panic. I felt as though I might be truly stuck with no possibility of going forward or backward. Someone said to push off the hands of the person behind me. I tried that and gained six inches, six inches further into a vice grip of solid rock. I could not move and, to make things worse, I couldn’t even see in front of me.
This experience illustrates how many missionaries feel. They feel trapped as though in a vice, from which they can neither retreat nor move forward. I have felt that way and I want to talk to you about that this evening.
II. JOURNEY TOWARD THE PRECIPICE OF BURNOUT
I have often run across people who view missionaries as a special breed. Perhaps it is true that God gives us an extra dose of the adventurous temperament, but, other than that, I don’t see missionaries as being any different than other Christians. We have the same weaknesses, motivations and drives.
We go to the mission field with a view to conquer ... to plant indigenous, self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating churches. We arrive knowing what we want and what the people need.
We come with plans, strategies, objectives and goals. In some of our early publicity, we even used the phrase: "Target Argentina." Argentina was my TARGET, my point of conquest. Without even knowing it, I had joined the long string of "conquistadores" that had arrived down through the centuries to the Latin American continent. I was going to be a blessing to the people. I was going to give them what they needed.
In reality, I was out to achieve MY objectives: to dominate, to master--not so much to master the people, but to master this project that I had set out to accomplish.
B. People Are Uncooperative
There was one major problem with this approach: God has created mankind to be free moral agents. There is this thing called "free will" that causes people to do what they want and not what I want. I had my plans and objectives, but people just didn’t cooperate.
It seemed that, no matter how hard we tried, no matter how innovative our methods, no matter how detailed our strategies, NOTHING WORKED.
It was like plodding through a dense muddy forest, always seeing just enough light ahead to keep my hope from totally dying out, yet never seeming to draw any nearer to that open place, never reaching the goal.
That deep suffocating sense of frustration led me to a state of anger. The people were not cooperating with my plans. It was all their fault. And, believe me, I could enumerate a multitude of their flaws, inconsistencies and failings.