Burnout: Ouch, it hurts!

by Rev Steve Bagi
Posted on 1st June 2009

A couple of years ago I went through burnout. After 17 years as a pastor and 5 years as a missionary it all caught up with me. Burnout is a very unpleasant experience which can seriously impact your ministry and life. I had to have a year off to recover. During that time I wrote the book "pastorpain" as I wanted to let people know what the experience is like and how they could help people in ministry to stay in the race. The book talks about the stresses in pastoral ministry and how people who are experiencing burnout can find their way out of the dark forest which I have called "pastorpain". Although missionaries face similar stresses and challenges as pastors, there are also some added stresses and challenges that come as a result of being involved in cross cultural ministry.

We were missionaries in Hungary for 5 years after the fall of communism. It was an amazing experience but also quite stressful. Any type of ministry can be stressful, but cross-cultural work can bring its own extra set of issues. Can you relate to these ones?

higher highs and lower lows

In my experience working as a cross cultural missionary, I definitely experienced higher mountain tops and lower valleys than I did while working back home in Australia. Some of the things that God did through us were amazing and extremely rewarding. I never would have been able to do those things or meet those amazing people if I had stayed at home. On the flip side, the low times and feelings of intense stress were also much more profound and long-lasting than I would have experienced back home. It is sometimes these extremes which can wear missionaries out emotionally and spiritually.

little things are big things
When we arrived in Hungary it was just changing from the previous government system and it was a real hassle to get anything done that concerned visas, residency, health or anything that involved paperwork and the government. Things which, at home, could be done quickly and painlessly would become long term, unpleasant and stressful marathons. Even things like the weather sometimes became a burden. We had come from the Gold Coast in Australia which had the motto "beautiful one day, perfect the next". It was a real shock to the system to go through month after month after month of a cold and hard European winter. It got so cold that we had to huddle around the fridge to keep warm.

feeling useless
I am fortunate to have a Hungarian background so I could already speak the language, but I know that the communication struggle that missionaries face can be a very stressful and disorienting thing. People who could talk about anything to anyone back home can end up feeling useless and frustrated as they try to stumble their way through the simplest of conversations. This is fun when you are on holidays but not when it's your new life.

It is natural to miss the family and friends back home. It's not just the people but the sense of comfort in the home culture. Although missios have support and new friends sometimes they can still feel very alone and not really understood.

Sometimes on the field missionaries struggle to see what real and lasting impact they are making

seeing the fruit?
It is always hard to accurately gauge the fruit of our ministry. Sometimes on the field missionaries struggle to see what real and lasting impact they are making.

used tea bags
When I was in Theological College there used to be a table where people had given old clothes that they wouldn't wear anymore. They were all spread out on the table for us to choose from, for free...wow... thanks!! Thankfully the days of sending missios used tea bags and broken toys has passed. However, many missionaries are still under-funded, under-resourced and under-valued.

effects on the family
Our kids are pk's and mk's and I know that living overseas has had both postive and negative effects on them. They are citizens of the world and are very comfortable travelling and spending time with people from different cultures. Living overseas has deepened them, however, they did find it difficult to fit back in and relate to the kids back home.

As there are many other stressful things happening on the field it is vital to:

  • stay healthy spiritually and physically
  • strengthen your marriage and family relationships
  • balance ministry and home life
  • keep a check on your stress levels and make sure that you have enough time off each week and have refreshing holidays
  • have someone with whom you can talk with openly and honestly
  • not be embarrassed to come back if things aren't working out as it's not worth ruining your health and family relationships to maintain the image
  • seek professional help if you are really struggling
  • appreciate that it's not an easy life, but that the rewards of sharing the gospel are eternal

Rev Steve Bagi spent 22 years in pastoral and missionary work. Based in Australia, he now works as an organisational psychologist in the area of leadership development, staff team building, and coaching those who have been made redundant.