Tuesday, January 1, 2019

the real reason missionaries don't stop

I lay flat on my back, unwilling to disrupt the IV awkwardly placed in the crook of my left arm. I inhaled – slow and intentional – a barely-there blood pressure not allowing for much vigor. I stared vaguely at the ceiling – white particle boards stained by drip spots. I closed my eyes and let go the words: “this is so nice.”

I caught that thought mid air before it had a chance to float very far. Then, talking back to myself, a revealing conversation followed.

Me: I’m sorry… what? Sickly in a third-world hospital, in no way classifies as “nice.”

Also me: Yeah, but no one is expecting me to do anything other than breathe. And that feels so good.


Also me: Dear God, how did I get here.

I would spend the next six weeks in recovery: physical, mental and emotional. My goals were getting my organs back into the range of “alive” and psychologically unpacking the twisted relief I had clearly found in hospitalization.

The lead up to the breakdown should have been predictable.

We’d been on the field for three and a half years without a meaningful break. We were trying to adopt: a logistical and emotional battle we never foresaw. We were expanding our ministry: a spiritual and mental battle we foresaw, but still. Three kids, two in diapers: enough said. Malaria: times seven. A season of grueling meetings with no conclusions. Midnight wake up calls. Other people’s needs. Mom guilt. Bureaucracy. Police Corruption. Loneliness. Exhaustion.

Despite being a recipe more obvious than a pb&j, it still caught me by surprise. After all, burnout is something that happens to other people. And yet I was apparently oblivious to the dwindling fire within. I kept putting on my brave face, telling myself and others , Yes this is hard. But it’s a season. I can do anything for a season. So I kept going. Always ramping up. Never letting down… But the season wore on, and my humanity –  ie the part that can’t lie – ran out of flame.

In my weeks of recovery, I accepted responsibility for my self-care failure. I was clearly beyond tired – which only happens to those who never stop. But why, exactly, had I failed to stop? I honestly didn’t know.

I set my mind to unpacking my mess. The habit of rest hinges on conviction, doesn’t it? I had solid theology on this point: God gives sleep to those He loves, and the Sabbath earned a spot in the Top Ten for a reason. Furthermore, I had read and accepted the research that proves that setting aside work and recharging properly improves not only happiness but also work performance. And yet… a stumbling block in the way of life-giving rest clearly remained.

After my discharge from the hospital, Jeremy, in his good-husbandness, packed up our family and took us to the capital so that I could get some advanced medical care and heal in a place where no one was demanding my participation. During that time, we received a call from one of the pastors in Mansa who was checking in on my progress. He said to Jeremy, “Tell Bethany not to even think about us. She needs to be well.” And as I heard his voice through the phone at Jeremy’s ear, the dammed up tears of a decade forced their escape. While Jeremy hung up and pulled me in for the hug, I found the words that explained my emotion: he gave me permission.

Permission to stop. Permission to withdraw. Permission to let go completely.

That phone call revealed a crucial felt need. Pastor Bwalya’s words were a healing balm on a wound that’s been festering for a third of my life – as long as I’ve been in Africa. And finally I realized more clearly that, even as I receive permission to rest from God above, and hold tight to self-granted permission within, I still consistently struggle with the lack of permission from a very important third party: other people, and specifically, “the donors.” 

Be gentle with my soul as I bare it for you here, dear friends. For those of you reading this who support missions – and in particular, support us – this is neither a guilt trip nor an accusation. It is purely honest. You need to know that I’m coming out of a very crowded missionary closet when I confess that there is a tension between finding the rest that we need and meeting the expectations of our donors.

My burnout story is not unique – which is part of what makes it so important to tell. There is a legitimate crisis in our modern missions culture as defined by missionaries who do not feel free to retreat from their work for the purpose of self-care without judgment and or financial consequence from those we depend on. 

The tricky thing about this topic is that any descent Christian would encourage their missionaries in keeping the Sabbath – so long as it’s not more than one day and it’s not away from home – ie, it doesn’t look like vacation. I’ve talked with our missionary friends about what this means in reality - how the implied constraints on Sabbath rest are so destructive that “Sabbath” often ceases to be Sabbath at all.

To give you an idea, Jeremy and I Sabbath at home weekly. It usually looks like a “peaceful” day starting with pancakes, followed by a three hour church service in a foreign language in 90 degree heat, followed by a late lunch with overly-exhausted kids who eventually will snap-and-nap (bless it), at which point the adults might try and relax by reading a book or watching a movie, during which we will  be interrupted a mere sixty-seven times by neighbor boys wanting to borrow a soccer ball, pregnant women wanting a baby hat, someone with a nasty wound needing a bandage and young men looking for work. The evening will be spent solving the crises that only happen after dark and apparently can’t wait 12 more hours. Throughout this day, shutting the phone off and closing the door is out of the question. The callers will always send a child to ask us in person why our phone is off and if we try and ignore him, said child will stand outside and yell our names until we open the door. (Record yelling time: 37 minutes. Not one thing will dissuade the child who knows you're in there, my friends.) We try and hurry these interruptions along so we can get back to our peace, but alas: African time. And so, most Sabbath days, we can’t wait to go to bed so that we can rest from our rest. Lovely.   

Certainly, different missionaries have different living and working situations, allowing for different amounts of “closing out work” for the sake of rest and proper self-care. But a significant portion of missionaries around the globe have determined through trial and error (and hospitalization) that the only way to truly recharge in a way that is healthy and holy is to literally LEAVE  which is a scenario most Americans have a hard time relating to. The idea that “home” would be anything but a haven sounds unnatural.

It's the lack of division between work and life for missionaries that makes “Sabbath on the field” extremely difficult to achieve. Our proximity to the pressing needs, the interruptions at the door and phone calls reminding us of the problems we have not yet solved – even  sights and sounds themselves that keep the mind in the “on” position. For many, Sabbath in the village – or island/jungle/city/wherever they serve – isn’t Sabbath.

It just isn't.

Some missionaries have explained that expecting them to “stay home and rest” feels kind of like expecting a surgeon to Sabbath in the waiting room of the ER. It’s like asking a factory worker to heal without stepping away from the assembly line. It’s telling a soldier to take a nap in the middle of the battle field.

And so the word to the wise is that sometimes you have to get away… which unfortunately to outsiders looks an awful lot like a vacation.

church meme committee nailed it

We know missionaries who are criticized for Sabbathing at a “resort” because that’s literally the only place to go where the water won’t kill them… Missionaries drawing heat for flying somewhere to Sabbath because the country next door is cheaper…. And all African missionaries’ personal favorite, the subtly snarky: “Gee, I wish I could go on safari for my Sabbath.” (Side note: You can, America. It’s called the zoo.) The fact of the matter is that many missionaries have figured out exactly what it takes for them to find real rest, but it’s the negative feedback that keeps many from even bothering to try.

To be fair, opinions on how missionaries should use their time and money is absolutely a spectrum with as much diversity as my six year old's style.

But disapproval of missionaries resting away from home squarely rests at the top of the opinion bell curve. This is one of those “off the record” covos your missionary friends are having amongst themselves. Precious few have been bold enough to pull back the curtain and reveal their own journey but if you read those who have, you’ll notice a common theme: their words feel risky – scandalous even – as they share their stories. The pieces I've appreciated include:

There’s not a ton of published material on this topic - compliments of its taboo status. And in case you can’t blog hop right now, I’ll share a handful of comments we’ve either heard said to others or personally received over the years.

“We don’t pay you to go on vacation. We pay you to do ministry.”
 “I don’t think its right for you to go on vacation if we can’t afford to.”
 “You’re going on vacation? Maybe don’t tell anyone.”
 “We thought our missionaries were responsible... until we found out they went on vacation!”

Depending on how you personally feel about missionaries taking vacation, you’re probably either saying “amen” or “ouch” or “wowza” but let me reiterate that these are typical sentiments driving missionary families either to the brink of exhaustion or into actual hiding… and the results are not something to be proud of. Do a little research on missionary burnout, trauma in missions, mental health and missionaries or other related topics and you’ll quickly see how deep this rabbit hole goes. (I recommend getting lost for a while on Sarita Hartz's blog for some of the most thoughtful pieces in this genre.)

I believe that most mission supporters have strong feelings about this topic because it wrangles not one but two of America’s most precious commodities – time and money. Particularly in white American culture, it is not acceptable to waste either. Giving money to support church planting, clean water or outreach to children will make many a donor-heart sing, while funding the missionaries to sit on a beach and watch the lapping waves produces frowns. But missionary care is never a waste, and this is where a shift in missions culture needs to happen.

Wayne Muller in his book, Sabbath exposes the negative impact of serving apart from Sabbath rest. “We are a nation of hectic healers, refusing to stop,” Muller writes. “Our drive to do better faster, to develop social programs more rapidly, to create helpful agencies more quickly can create a sea of frantic busyness with negligible, even questionable results. In our passionate rush to be helpful, we miss things that are sacred, subtle and important.”

The western church-missions culture would benefit substantially from appreciating that when funds are responsibly used for the sake of missionary R&R, it has the effect of amplifying effectiveness in literally every other realm. Spend some to get much more is not waste – it’s wise. The economics of human resources decrees that we need to keep our people in tip-top shape in order to achieve maximum output.

I can hear a distant amen from my missionary friends across the web. We know experientially that busy, fatigued, harried service does not draw out our best. We know – even intuitively – that if we could just step out of it all for a time, we’d be able to come back and serve better, which is our hearts desire.

While Muller speaks exhortation to those who refuse to stop, I feel a great sympathy for all of the missionaries who simply fear to. Many are afraid because they experienced the push back once and vowed never to do it again. Others are afraid simply by the perceived disapproval that seems to float in the air. Regardless, I believe that it is vitally important for both the senders and the goers to join hearts and commit to self-care, soul-care and Sabbath rest.

We, the missionaries, need to stop sheltering our supporters from important truths about our work environment, the pressures, and our need for release. We need to stop our work – and leave home if need be – not hiding our actions in the closet thereby perpetuating the myth of the super hero missionary who never takes a break. 

And as for the broader church culture, we need to stop praising missionaries who over-produce, and we certainly need to stop leveraging financial power to reward those who never stop while withdrawing support from those who do.

When we get this right, I have a feeling that kingdom efforts the world over will find for themselves eagles wings.