A year ago anxiety consumed me. All of the stress and miscommunication and underlying tension of the past year and a half on the field were peaking. Burnout was no longer a matter of if but when. As I immersed myself in Scripture and sought counsel, the anxiety eased. However, the circumstances didn’t change. My voice wasn’t being heard; my tasks weren’t keeping me busy; my relationships with teammates were deteriorating. At the beginning of 2015 I was faced with a decision – ignore the warning signs and “grin and bear it” through another year or heed the warning signs and leave the field early.
Heeding the warning signs of burnout resulted in the hardest decision in my career as a cross-cultural worker – leave the field. Leave the country I anticipated spending at least three years or more serving in. Leave the adventure of living in Europe with its history and landscape and buildings. Leave friendships which were beginning to deepen. The country, the adventure, the friendships – none were enough to ward off impending burnout. Despite knowing I was making a wise decision, the months leading up to the decision were filled with pressure.
Pressure to push through the warning signs.
Pressure to fix myself with more alone time and other outlets for ministry.
Pressure to be a good cross-cultural worker and not “give up.”
Pressure to make the financial investment of others worth it.
Pressure to find ways to work through issues which weren’t going to be resolved.
Pressure to become someone else because that’s who others expected me to be.
Pressure to pretend everything was okay when it wasn’t.
When I spoke with my administrator, I told him I felt if I pushed through another year I would return to the US emotionally and spiritually unhealthy. Ignoring the pressure to stay and heeding the warning signs meant I returned home before I reached the point of burnout. Being emotionally and spiritually healthy was more important than proving something to myself or to others.
Most of my anxiety, which is my primary warning sign, stemmed from an unhealthy team dynamic. To battle this anxiety I prioritized spending time in prayer and in the Word; I exercised regularly; I Skyped with family and friends; I blocked off days in my calendar to spend time alone; I visited close friends in country; I read books about peacemaking. I heeded the initial warning signs and did my absolute best to make the anxiety vanish. What I couldn’t do, however, was change the situation. The warning sign was simply a symptom of a deeper issue, one which I came to realize wasn’t going to change.
While I was attempting to remove the anxiety from my life, other warning signs were popping up – a lack of desire to serve and build relationships, an attitude of frustration, a longing for home. Striving to remove or even diminish all of the warning signs was a losing battle. The circumstances continued to overwhelm me. However, my efforts to battle through the warning signs resulted in tremendous spiritual and personal growth. The time in the Word and in prayer, the additional reading, the counsel from friends – all of these pushed me closer to the Father. Yes, staying longer would not have been healthy. And yet staying as long as I did allowed me to become even more like Him. To love others in spite of our differences. To guard my mind and tongue each moment. To trust God’s plan, not mine.
This mindset – making emotional and spiritual health a priority – isn’t always accepted or understood in our circles. And while I’m not advocating leaving the field every time life is difficult (because we all know if that were the case, some of us would never make it out of airport once we arrived!), I am advocating paying attention to the warning signs in your life and ministry. Are you always anxious? Are you overworked or underworked? Is your health deteriorating? Do you feel disconnected from teammates? Is there underlying frustration with or lack of respect for leadership? If so, I urge you to pray through these warning signs, to talk to a trusted family member or friend about your struggles, to make time for soul care and stress relieving activities. God uses the warning signs in our lives to slow us down, to make us more like Him, and at times to point us in a new direction. Let’s heed the warning signs and watch God work through them in our lives.
If you’re staring down the warning signs of burnout, I’d love to pray for you. Please leave a comment below, and I will pray for you.