My husband Lowell and I served for thirteen years as a couple in South Asia. We labored hard and long. We poured out our lives. We took up our cross. We put our hands to the plow. None of the New Testament metaphors were lost on us. We did them all—whole-heartedly, without abandon. And somewhere in all of that laboring, pouring, taking up, laying down, putting to, somewhere in all of that, we came to our end. We burned out. We were hard pressed, crushed, perplexed and in despair. We felt abandoned and struck down. We felt destroyed.
To this day, when I look back on it, I’m not entirely sure where we went wrong. Lowell is a visionary and an activist. He changes the world. Deliberately. Passionately. I want everyone in the world to be okay—the world Lowell’s changing-and in my own little world too. I take responsibility for people. I want them to be happy. I do whatever that takes. We were aware, even then, how disastrous that combination might be so we planned and executed regular days off. We took vacations seriously. Lowell and I both counseled many to be rigorous in their self and soul care and we took it to heart ourselves.
Somewhere in all of that cross-culturaling I think it was actually our theology that killed us. We had role confusion. We took on jobs that are God’s. Lowell was committed to building Christ’s church and the gates of Hell would not prevail against him. Not if Lowell had anything to say about it. And I, bless my heart, I was inviting people to come to me if they were burdened and heavy laden and I would do my darndest to give them rest. I would look after them. I would make it all better.
It’s a recipe for burnout for sure. It’s also heresy.
In 2007 we returned to Kansas for an extended furlough. We took a Sabbatical. During that time we prayed for a fresh calling. Lowell began to hear from God something that turned my world upside down. I was sure he wasn’t hearing properly. Lowell needed spiritual hearing aids. Perhaps I could help him. Of course God wanted us back in India. I had my people to care for. Our marriage got messy. Our hearts hardened a little toward one another. We started saying hurtful, hateful things.
Looking back on it now, I can honestly say that burnout is the best thing that ever happened to me. Through burnout (and the counseling that ensued and the healing that came slowly) I came to recognize the fundamental fact: I am not God. I am not responsible for the world. I can’t be. I’m too small, too weak, too frail, too human. Burnout taught me that God loves me too. I matter to him. My pain matters to him. He sees the sacrifices I’ve made and they signify.
Don’t misunderstand, burnout was not an entirely pleasant experience! It also humbled me. I felt demoted. We went from On-The-Field-Front-Lines-Creative-Access-Living-In-An-Intense-City-For-The-Sake-Of-The-Kingdom lives to quiet Little (Trailer) House on the Prairie lives. It was shocking. It was disconcerting. It was embarrassing and humiliating.
Burnout changed me. It burned out some of my “fuses”. In South Asia we hosted countless guests: both the pop in for tea variety and the settle into our guest room for seven weeks kind. I loved it. Some days we had up to 35 people in and out of our home. Burnout robbed me of hospitality. For the first seven years we were back we hosted only a scattering of friends for meals and even fewer overnight guests. I just couldn’t do it any more.
Recently the desire and joy in hosting friends for a meal has returned. It was gone for so long I feared it would never return. Having it back seems like a miracle of unusual size! It signifies healing and restoration of my self. I’m slowly coming home to me!
I don’t necessarily recommend burnout. It’s certainly not the path I would have chosen for Lowell and me. However, neither was it the end of the world. Burnout is part of our story but it’s not enmeshed in who we are. Burnout didn’t change our identities. In fact, in some ways, burnout helped us see who we really were all the time: beloved and fragile children of the Most High God!
Where has your theology been shown to be a bit faulty and in need of being changed? How have you experienced healing and growth in your theology?
Want to hear more of Robynn’s story? Join us for book club as we dive into the book Robynn co-authored, “Expectations & Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission.” We start with easy-to-read chapters 1-2 tomorrow.