What do we mean by burnout and resilience?
Burnout: Exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation. (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 10th ed.)
Resilience: A process of positive change in and through adversity, relying on God’s power at work within us to fulfil his calling. (Author’s definition)
The apostle Paul said, “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed . . .” (2 Cor 4:7, 8 NIV). This must be our starting point when thinking about building resilience. Hard times will come, but ultimately God’s power will triumph. Resilience is not just about our personal adaptability and perseverance; it is also about God’s power working in and through us. Thus, the question before us as missionaries to Japan is how, by God’s grace and power, can we help ourselves and one another to block burnout and build resilience?
Things that can deplete resilience
Before answering that question, it’s valuable to consider factors that can contribute to burnout or lower our resilience if not handled well.
- Stress. Stress is part of everyone’s life, but often for missionaries different stressors accumulate faster than we can adapt to them.
- Physical and emotional distance from key relationships. Most missionaries live apart from family and close friends. This can lower our resilience if these relationships are not carefully maintained and if they are not supplemented by other relationships wherever we minister.
- Threat of natural disasters. Earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, and mudslides occur in Japan. Anxiety over these possibilities can lower resilience.
- Lack of ministry results. Japan is considered a hard field for evangelism—more sowing seeds than reaping. This can lead to apathy, low expectations, and low resilience.
- Overwork. Missionaries’ strong work ethic coupled with Japan’s culture of extreme overwork can lead to an unhealthy work-life balance, which in turn lowers resilience.
- Language. Learning and continuing to learn and use Japanese can cause long-term stress, and lower resilience.
- Culture. Japan’s high-context culture1 means communication occurs through body language, status, and tone of voice, in addition to verbal language. Many missionaries face cultural guesswork frequently and this erodes resilience.
- Expectations. Unrealistic and unfulfilled expectations (whether from the missionary or their leaders, family, friends, and churches) can seriously dent resilience.
- Loss. Many missionaries struggle with constant loss, living away from their families and with colleagues departing frequently.
- Lack of community. Japanese people are extremely courteous, but it can be challenging to build deep friendships with them. Missionaries may also be separated from one another by distance or time, so building community among themselves can be difficult.
- Financial pressure. This causes strain and leads to lowered resilience.
- Spiritual warfare. Repeated spiritual attacks also wear down resilience.
That’s an awful lot of risk factors! How can we build resilience for ministry by God’s grace?
Building up resilience
As writer Al Siebert puts it, “Just as we would . . . take lessons and practice to become musicians or artists, we have to work at learning how to handle pressure, difficult people, negative situations, and disruptive change.”2
- Individual and corporate soul care. “Soul care is a lifestyle of regular ongoing . . . activity that promotes growth and development of the whole person.”3 Soul care involves our relationship with God as well as self-care and care from others. It is the primary means of developing resilience. How can you re-energise your devotional and personal life? You may consider daily devotions, conferences, spiritual retreats, intercessory prayer, fellowship, Bible study with others, going for a holiday, days off, etc.
- Develop healthy support systems with sending partners. “Relational support systems . . . will nurture your spiritual, emotional, physical and psychological health while serving in another culture.”4 This means setting aside regular time to maintain links, for example, by regularly Skyping churches or supporters and encouraging appropriate field visits.
- Build community. “[It] is strongly recommended that social networks be established well before they are needed. Distressed, depressed and burned-out people have very little capacity for building healthy interpersonal relationships” (emphasis added).5 How can you intentionally build community for yourself and for others? Can you arrange small groups in person or online for Bible study, fellowship, prayer, social events, or practical help?
- Get training in self-care. Training in self-care should be ongoing, in areas like character development and self-awareness, interpersonal skills, time management and margins, stress management, conflict management, team building, physical health, and dealing with grief and expectations. Fawcett comments; “In the heat of the moment . . . everyone appears indispensable. A few years down the track, would a few days off . . . have made a significant difference to the final outcome?”6
- Have good administration and support structures. Reasonable working conditions and policies, job descriptions, routine debriefing, and crisis management are vital. Missions need to maintain a healthy work environment with clear, life-giving structures and consultative leadership. Meanwhile, missionaries need to know what these structures are.
- Focus on your family. Missionary work can lead us to over-emphasise the needs of others. The need for quality time in missionary families and marriages cannot be overestimated. How can you safeguard family life through taking days off and vacations? Do you need coaching in parenting or marriage enrichment, or to consider what it means to live as a single missionary? If families break up, ministry is torpedoed and resilience hits rock bottom.
- Do high-quality language and culture training. These are vital for fulfilling the missionary call and promoting resilience. Yet don’t let language and culture training become your “god”—soul care must take priority.
- Develop a sound theology of suffering. This process can begin at Bible college, but it must be ongoing. How can you develop your understanding biblically and personally?
- Partner with field mentors or coaches. Those with field experience are especially helpful for missionaries who are new or changing location or role. Can you partner with senior missionaries or pastors to share your struggles and learn from them? Experienced missionaries, will you take time to help those newer to Japan?
- Take care of your health. Ongoing medical support can help build resilience and may prevent you from leaving the field for an extended period. When was the last time you had a check-up, both physical and emotional?
Which of these factors and building blocks do you need to concentrate on now to strengthen yourself for ministry in Japan for the sake of God’s kingdom?
“We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us” (Col. 1:11-12 MSG).
2. Al Siebert, “The Survivor Personality: Chapter One,” Practical Psychology Press (accessed 27 July 2017), https://practicalpsychologypress.com/resources/survivor-personality-chapter-one/
3. Dan and Sue Wicher, “Enhancing Character Development through Soul Care,” The Exchange with Ed Stetzer (accessed 14 Aug 2018), https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2017/august/missions-sunday-enhancing-character-development-through-sou.html
4. Steve Hoke and Bill Taylor, Global Mission Handbook: A Guide for Cross-cultural Service (Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 97.
5. John Fawcett, ed. Stress and Trauma Handbook: Strategies for Flourishing in Demanding Environments (World Vision Intl, 2003), 128.
6. Ibid., 165.
Much of this article is based on the author’s M.A. studies in member care for missionaries.
Janet Dallman is OMF Japan’s pastoral and spiritual care coordinator. She’s been ministering in Japan with OMF International since 1998.