Ignore or Heed?

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.

Photo Credit: dlg_images via Compfight cc

29 Comments

  1. Wesley October 4, 2015

    Laura,

    One again your story has me exhaling deeply and thinking “me, too.” Thank you for opening up and sharing. It took me 18 months to put into concrete examples the underlying dysfunctions of my team – and another six to decide to leave the field. My last 3-6 months were spent speaking up about some of the unhealthy situations, with the realization that my words would do nothing, yet hoping that God might intervene in that time. In the end, the question came down to whether I would compromise my convictions and stay, be asked to leave, or choose to resign. I chose to leave and had less than two weeks to say some incomplete goodbyes – a further manifestation of the dysfunction.

    I fully agree that leaving is not an option every time, yet I look back at my journals and marvel over how many times I thought about resigning. Is it healthy that almost a week didn’t go by where I considered leaving? Like you, I have delighted in the closeness to God over these months, and the ways He has molded and refined me through difficult circumstances. Though it was agonizing, unjust, and many other things, He was near and speaking through His Word in ways I have never before experienced.

    One thing that stands out from my situation is the absolute importance of seeking counsel from outside people. Teams can become incredibly insular. If they are the only people you are processing with, it is so much easier to become programmed to believe that the warning signs are normal or acceptable. In the midst of these situations, we need perspective to help orient our thinking.

    Sorry for the long rambling! Your writing brought up lots of things to reflect on : )

    1. Emily Smith October 5, 2015

      Yes! Your comment about outside perspective. Yes, yes, yes. I thought I was going crazy until I talked with trusted people outside the situation who had known me for years. They were spread across five continents and all said the same thing. They gently told me I wasn’t going crazy, but I was unhealthy. My concerns were legitimate and my warning signs concerning. Outside people were able to give much needed perspective.

      I commend you for speaking up during your last months. I know those words came at a huge personal cost. It is even more challenging when you know it will change nothing (at least not immediately). Yet staying silent doesn’t give others any chance to change.

      I pray you are able to find healing and this time will become one that you don’t think back on with the sting of pain or shame but rather as one of your touchstone stories recounting God’s faithfulness. I know the road won’t be easy, but I also know it is possible.

       

      1. Wesley October 5, 2015

        I had some great friends within the team who “got it,” too. But we were all in it together. When I started sharing just a hint of things with people outside, it surprised me how quickly they saw the dysfunction. Now I realize it doesn’t take a genius – just someone removed!

        Thanks for your prayers. Some weeks its fine, and others its so hard to carry the weight of what I know and find rest in God as the only one who can change it. I am thankful for how this story is interwoven with Him.

    2. Laura October 5, 2015

      Wesley,

      Praying for you as you continue to process and reflect on your time overseas. Outside counsel is such a blessing, and I’m thankful you were able to receive some. What a blessing to be able to look back through your journals and see how God was working. I’ve also been able to do that and have found it has allowed me to explain to people that the leaving process/decision wasn’t sudden but was God at work in my heart for an extended period of time.

  2. Anonymous October 4, 2015

    In the last few months we’ve come to the same conclusion that you did, and for many of the same reasons. I read your post out loud to my husband and he asked, “Did you write that?”

    1. Laura October 5, 2015

      Praying for you and your husband as you walk through this time.

  3. Emily Smith October 5, 2015

    “Yes, staying longer would not have been healthy. And yet staying as long as I did allowed me to become even more like him.”

    I love this. I’ve been asked the questions “why did you leave so quickly?” And “what made you stay as long as you did?” This explains the balance. It wasn’t about staying or leaving. Coming or going. It is about becoming like Him.

    Beautifully written. Thank you.

    1. Laura October 5, 2015

      Emily,

      Thank you for sharing and for reading. Yes, the balance between those two questions isn’t about timing; it’s about growing.

  4. Danielle Wheeler October 5, 2015

    So much wisdom here, Laura.  I love how beautifully you capture the balance — that it’s not throwing our hands up and hightailing it out of there in the face of difficulty, but neither is it ignoring the warning signs and pressing on until you’re defeated.

  5. Rachel October 5, 2015

    My husband and I plan to complete a 3 year term this coming summer.  We are in a discernment process, trying to figure out whether we will return for another term or not.  We’ve been sensing that yeah, we’ll probably come back…

    But the thing we’re battling with is our exhaustion.  Being at a place in our lives where spiritual attacks are often, we are tired in body, and aren’t doing so “hot” spiritually…  Stress has been high with team mates, though we think we can live with certain things…then some days I’m not sure!  We share with our close support from back home, but instead of a lot of advice, we receive – You need to know for yourselves.  We know something needs to change if we’re to continue, but right now we have no clue what/how/when!!  Definitely covet prayers!

    1. Laura October 5, 2015

      Rachel,

      Praying for you and your husband – for wisdom and clarity as you make your decision. Praying specifically that you would see signs of change in your situation and relief from your exhaustion.

  6. Jan M October 5, 2015

    It is difficult to accept that sometimes our timing isn’t the same as His timing. Nobody wants to slink out of their assignment with their tails between their legs, feeling like a failure for leaving early due to personal reasons. For those of us who stay on the field, we need to remember to send people off with joy and victory no matter the circumstances.

    Once,we had to leave a country due to a terrible and untrue accusation that put our lives in danger. I felt like I was letting everyone down and was choosing our departure to define me instead of the many positive things that happened over those three years.

    I would encourage those who do leave to focus on the fruits of their time in the field, not their failures. And for those who see them off to do the same.

    1. Wesley October 5, 2015

      I appreciate the balance you speak of – that both those who leave and those who stay need to choose where they focus. So hard, too. Even if there are differences, can we choose to see what has been fruitful and celebrate those areas?

    2. Laura October 5, 2015

      Jan,

      Thank you for the reminder to focus on the fruit, not the failures. I have struggled to do this at times, and it makes a world of difference when I focus on what God did in and through me, instead of my struggles.

      1. Jan M October 6, 2015

        I can tell you guys that it was very very hard for me to focus on the fruits for quite a while. Several years later, the Lord provided me the opportunity to go back to that country and visit my old overseas field. It was so incredibly healing. I was shaking and a nervous wreck when we landed, but during my time there I actually got to see fruits of seeds planted many years before and it was so healing. It reminded me of that Psalm 126:5  “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.”

        1. Laura October 7, 2015

          Jan,

          Thank you for the reminder from Psalm 126:5!

  7. Laura October 5, 2015

    Thank you for sharing this honest and relevant article!  “This mindset – making emotional and spiritual health a priority – isn’t always accepted or understood in our circles.”  Wow!

    1. Laura October 5, 2015

      Laura,

      You’re welcome, and thanks for reading.

  8. Anon October 6, 2015

    Thank you, Laura, for sharing your story, and some hard truths. Reading this article validated so many of the choices I have made over the past year. I’ve had some similar experiences and some different which led me to choose to leave after many years on a field. God assured me that I have not chosen a lesser path, just a different one. I may never completely understand what happened there, or exactly why it became so unhealthy for me. It was a painful process, and still is, although I have more support than many in similar shoes.

    Again, thank you for speaking truth from your pain and from the comfort you have received.

    1. Laura October 7, 2015

      Not lesser but different – what a great way to put it. Praying for you as you walk this new and different path.

  9. Katie October 9, 2015

    Thank you for sharing your story!  My husband and I are facing similar circumstances and decisions.  Thank you for validating our struggle and especially for sharing how you tried so many different things to treat the symptoms, but that ultimately, the underlying issues weren’t being resolved.  We can relate to so much of what you wrote, and we too are grateful for outside perspective, both of well-known confidants and also from VA bloggers 🙂  You were brave to make the decision you made!  Thank you for inspiring courage in us, too!

    1. Laura October 10, 2015

      Katie,

      Praying for you and your husband as you walk this journey.

  10. Emily Smith October 9, 2015

    As I keep reading these comments, something in me is saddened. I wrote my own story of choosing to leave and the agonizing battle with guilt a few months ago. The responses to that post were so similar to this. Leaving because of painful circumstances is just that…painful. Yet, it also feels so taboo to discuss.

    I know there are many reasons, warning signs, and motivations for leaving. One huge one is team conflict. So many times in conversations and comments it is eluded to or briefly said.

    How much would change if the church started to accept conflict as a part of life and deal with it? It wasn’t the conflict itself that was hardest for me, it was not having a forum for resolution. Speaking about the conflict was seen as worse than the issues at hand. It was as if we so wanted to protect the idea that we are only ever filled with grace and peace and wonderfulness, the warning signs were ignored by the collective group. If we just closed our eyes and prayed a little harder, maybe it would go away…instead it grew, and festered, and nearly exploded.

    I’m not exactly sure where I am going with all of this. Only to say it is heartbreaking. In many ways there is comfort in saying “me, too.” In this instance, I would rather be an anomaly and stand alone. I would rather stand as a warning to others, not join the ranks of the walking wounded.

  11. Laura October 10, 2015

    Emily,

    Thank you for sharing more of your thoughts. Team conflict is heartbreaking, and, yes, resolution can be a struggle.

  12. sally dharminder October 12, 2015

    Thank you for these wonderfully open and honest responses. There is such liberation when we can just say it. When God asked Adam ‘Where are you?’ or when He asked Elijah ‘what are you doing here?’ [sorry for the male examples], He was opening a platform for HIs children to share their hearts. And yet the practise of our faith today is eclipsing the very essence of truth in our inner beings…

    Laura, please pray for me. I am still recovering from a bout of exhaustion (over a task that took 10 years to complete), and I am also very concerned for both my husband and sister who are at exhaustion levels in their lives.

    Thanks again for the sharing here. It is a sure, safe space that can bring healing. God bless you all.

     

    1. Laura October 13, 2015

      Sally,

      Praying for you!

  13. Marie October 12, 2015

    Wow, Laura. I read this just a few minutes ago. I am both grateful that SOMEONE dared to tackle this topic as openly as you have … AND … wishing I had read it a year ago, when I was working through my anger with a very similar situation on my field! Yes, anger is my first warning sign. It began years ago as a controlled and abused child. I do have a story to share, but I can’t share it right this minute. I just wanted to say, THANK YOU, and you will be hearing from me! I am praying for you as I send this off … that your transition back to the U.S. will be a season of even more closeness with our Jesus. Can I say, “I love you!” even if we have never, ever met? =) Thank you, again. Your writing has given me the courage to share my story, perhaps sooner than I had anticipated. We’ll see what God says!

    1. Laura October 13, 2015

      Marie,

      Thank you for commenting. Praying you will have courage and wisdom as look ahead at sharing your story.

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