Welcome to Part Four of our Goer Essentials Series, where we’ve asked Goers to sound off on the essentials to thriving in life overseas. In today’s article, we cover ministry burnout and the spiritual practices Goers have discovered to fight against it.
GOER ESSENTIALS: 10 ESSENTIALS TO THRIVING IN LIFE OVERSEAS
For this Goer Essential series, we surveyed 25 Goers who are serving two-year global placements in 10 different countries on 4 continents. These articles are your chance to hear directly from Goers as they share their triumphs, best practices, amusing gaffes, and deep experiences of learning to live, thrive, and make an impact while immersed in a new culture!
About the author: David Gee served for two years in a GoCorps placement in North Africa serving refugees from across the middle east. In this Goer Essential series, he shares his own experiences alongside the stories and lessons learned of Goers serving all over the world using their unique skillsets and training to fight injustice, serve the oppressed and share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
PART 4: Battling Burnout
Ever gone for a long run somewhere completely foreign? It’s one of my favorite things to do, it can be exhilarating. I love stepping out into crisp morning air and feeling my lungs come alive with the temperature change while my heart drums an intro beat in my ears. Even if you’re not a runner, imagine you’re doing the same thing.
You do some stretches, tighten your laces, lean forward, and off you go. Maybe you’re running through a new city, an arid plain, or a mountain village. What started as exercise turns into exploration and you suddenly begin to notice all the cracks in the pavement, sleepy bakeries, and early birds that you would usually take for granted if you were running the same old paths you normally do back home.
However, this exploration takes its toll on you, and soon you realize the novelty of this new route pulled a veil over your eyes and took you further and faster than you intended to go. By the time you realize your lungs are heaving and your legs are screaming for respite, you’re miles away from your starting point with nothing left to be done but turn around and commence a long, hard slog back home.
What I described above is burnout, the physical kind where you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and exhaust yourself running, biking, or doing some other physical activity. Spiritual burnout is similar. It happens when you’ve simply served too much or too long without being replenished yourself. The result is spiritual and physical exhaustion coupled with apathy.
Burnout is all too common when starting a new ministry placement overseas, so we reached out to our Goers to hear how they’ve been experiencing burnout in their own lives and ministries, and what spiritual disciplines they’re using to combat it. Here’s what they had to say!
SILENCE & SOLITUDE
“This has been the biggest area of learning for me in the last two years. I'm learning to create a "rule of life" for spiritual health. This means meeting with God for a short period of time each day, consistently each week (ie Sabbath), and for a longer period a few times a year. Intentional times of solitude are another practice that has been an incredible blessing. Disconnecting from ministry is probably the single most important practice for sustainability.”
“Sitting in silence — I'm no expert, but I encourage you to fight for this discipline. A lie I've had to confront is that my quiet times are about doing something good for the Lord, or about being a "good Christian," or *gag* a "good missionary." The reality is that I need to have quiet time with the Lord away from distractions because it sustains me. It draws me into His presence. It refreshes me and keeps my mind from going the way of my flesh.”
“Going to a team retreat or event before you get burned out helps. Also try to develop at least one friend/church group outside of your team that you can get away with.”
Dallas Willard once said, “Hurry is violence to the soul.” I couldn’t agree more. Especially when ministering in chaotic, urban environments, we can hurry ourselves into spiritual oblivion. But those moments of silence and solitude when we slow down, sit still, and be quiet before the Lord, are opportunities for the ever important reminder that he holds the world AND sustains our ministries.
He holds the world AND sustains our ministries
In addition to being silent and seeking retreats of solitude, many of our Goers sounded off on rest as a key component to avoiding burnout. But, it turns out rest is a bit more nuanced than we thought. This is what they had to say:
“Rest is more than just sleep or Netflix, though these also do have their place. Do things you love, be creative. Find ways to do them in your new context-- it can be a challenge but it's important.”
“This is something I'm glad I learned in college: naps.”
-Samuel, East Asia
“Something I've tried to pay attention to in my time here is engaging with pro-active rest rather than reactive. Often, the relaxing things I turn to when I'm already tired out, are less honestly restful. Trying to take times of rest more rhythmically and before exhaustion actually hits has been significant for me.”
Rest isn't always passive.
The key component, that rest isn’t always passive, as Maggie said, but is an active choice to do things that refill your tank, can’t be overstated. This might be writing poetry, going for a walk, or actively choosing to lay down and take a nap. Either way, fighting burnout takes thought and action.
Moving and using our bodies is an often overlooked component to battling burnout. We assume movement leads to exhaustion, but as our Goers observed, this isn’t always the case.
“I've found it very helpful to be sure you're regularly engaging with your body, whether that's through exercise or intentional awareness practices. Especially if your placement is mostly sedentary or hiking/exploring is not permissible, it's really easy to slip into a rhythm and feel fine with just resting and eating well. But I feel so much better if I take time to engage myself physically as well as mentally--it helps me be aware of what my body needs & keeps me physically healthy.”
-Samuel, East Asia
“Make sure you get in daily exercise! I live in quite literally the hottest county on Earth with terrible internet at my house. BUT, I have found that an hour a day of exercise seriously changes my mood and interactions. Find a youtube channel you like or get in the habit of daily walks or runs (if its safe). I have a couple youtube channels I love that help me get a good bodyweight workout in!”
-Liz, North Africa
MORE OF JESUS
Finally, after all is said and done with exercise, rest, and solitude, the key to combatting burnout is ultimately more of Jesus. I don’t mean this in a churchy band-aid kind of way, but if there’s anything I learned in my time overseas it’s that my need for Jesus was far greater than I ever realized. All of our Goers echoed this sentiment, but I love the way Elisa, our Goer serving in Colombia, hit the nail on the head with her reflections. I would like to send you off with her thoughts:
“Leaders are going to be hard to follow, and even hurtful. Friends will be hard to make, language barriers will make you feel stupid and frustrated all the time. Your vision for what you thought you'd be doing abroad will look different than it actually ends up being. People will expect a lot from you and you'll get overwhelmed with the work. All of these factors lead to disappointment and wanting to escape. The thing that has been my anchor is Jesus. I have fallen more deeply in love with Jesus in the last 2 years than ever before. He is so good, so beautiful. My intimate relationship with Him must come before anything else in order for me to actually be useful. Otherwise, we invest our time and energy into something that might be "good", but it might not have even been something God asked us to do! The most healthy thing you can do for yourself is hide in Him, worship Him, and take every single situation to Him FIRST!”
Amen and amen. Whether you’re currently serving overseas or are preparing to be a Goer, we hope some of the practices and spiritual disciplines outlined above can keep you rooted and refreshed in Jesus, the author and sustainer of our lives and ministry.
- Burnout is common but it doesn't have to be inevitable
- Times of retreat, silence, and solitude are crucial
- Rest is an active choice, not a passive activity
- Move your body! It helps.
- Jesus, it all comes back to Him.
- My Letter to Future Goers - Elisa, Colombia
- The Gift of Rest pt. 2 - Leah, Southeast Asia
- What is Sabbath - Hannah, Zambia