Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. –Galatians 6: 9, 10
It was the natural optimist who, when he fell from the window of his office on the 13th floor, as he passed the 10th floor was heard to say, “Well, so far so good!”
It was the burned-out natural optimist who, when he fell from the window of his office on the 13th floor, as he passed the 10th floor was heard to say, “Well, however this turns out, at least I’ll get a break!”
People usually want to talk about issues that concern themselves personally. This is axiomatic. This is not only true of private conversations but carries over into public forums. Preachers preach about, public speakers speak about, bloggers blog about what they are struggling with personally. Maybe you have noticed the same thing.
So let me admit right up front that I have a vested interest in what I am considering here: “growing weary in well doing,” or in more modern English, “burning out”—specifically, burning out in ministry and service. I’m writing about burnout. And I’m writing about burnout because it concerns me. It concerns me, in part, because there might be some people close to me who walk along the edge of that abyss. I might own real estate on the edge of that abyss myself. But, more importantly, it concerns me because it concerns the state of my master’s house and His people.
“Burnout” has clearly been an issue for millennia. Remember it was 50 AD when the Apostle Paul wrote to encourage the church at Galatia to (literally translated), “not become despondent in doing the noble” (as concise a description of burnout as you’ll find). But it was an American Psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger, in the 1970s who first coined the term “burnout” to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “the helping professions” (specifically Nurses and Physicians working in clinics for the poor).
In the 1980s, Christina Maslach (and Susan E. Jackson), by far the most quoted authors on the subject, broadened the scope and refined the definition as a psychological syndrome involving emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a diminished sense of personal accomplishment that occurred among various professionals who work with other people in challenging situations. More simply still, burnout emerges when the demands of a job outstrip a person’s ability to cope with the stress.
What’s the big deal about burnout? Well, for one thing, a lot of you adult American workers experience it (at least 1/3 of the workforce by most surveys). Some professions have a decidedly higher burnout rate (roughly 2/3rds of pastors). And it is a well-recognized occupational hazard for missionaries, often discussed with hard to pin down statistical claims thrown around such as “80 % of missionaries burn out and don’t finish their term.” The exact statistics and the research methods are contestable, but the broader picture is evident. Burnout is a big problem in life in the developed world, in the service professions preponderantly, and in foreign mission service specifically. Its causes are dissected and studied and reported upon ad infinitum. And its negative effects range across a broad spectrum, from significant resultant health problems to an ineffective and toxic workplace environment to an epidemic of attrition from the mission field.
So burnout in the modern world, and even more so in missions, is a big deal; it’s a real problem. But what to do about it… “That is the question.” There are reams of papers, discussions, websites and blog posts on the subject of what to do about it. People hold regular conferences about it, organize .orgs around it, even make careers out of it (many of them being missionaries who left the field because of burnout). But I have yet to find one paper, discussion, website, or blog giving voice to the thoughts of a missionary who hasn’t left the field because of burnout… certainly not a toasted missionary who stayed.
When I began to consider writing an essay on this subject, I thought I might not have much to say and that unless I had something new to say I should just keep quiet. Yet I found that after more than 18 years of wrestling with burnout on the mission field, I had picked up a few things (I’m kind of a slow learner). I also realized that most of what I had learned of value, I had learned from others–from campesinos, patients, co-workers and countrymen–validating what was already plainly placed in the Word. Surprisingly not surprisingly, Christ Jesus most clearly dealt with burnout. We don’t have to imagine “What would Jesus do?” For in the scriptures we have a clear record of What did Jesus do? What did Jesus say?
What I find there is balance–neither a single-answer doctrine of self-indulgence, nor a dictate to march until you drop, but a balance of heart principles. What follows, then, are principles I’ve painfully learned on the field, from co-workers and countrymen, and from watching Christ Jesus deal with growing weary in well doing. I offer them remembering that I’m never more than a few steps away from being utterly done, nothing left, staring off into the jungle with only the desperate resolve of Peter ringing in my ears: “To whom else can we go?”
As I put thoughts down on a document, it also slowly dawned on me that this document was quickly becoming like a fistful of rice. You add a little water, and pretty soon you better get another bowl. Market research has shown that of the half of you who are nice enough to even open this newsletter when it arrives, only half are still reading at 1000 words, and by the time you cross the threshold of 2000 words, only my sainted Mother is left feigning interest. (I just made those numbers up, though I’m pretty sure my Mother does read it through to the end.)
The point is that I’m going to have to break this essay into two parts. After this (admittedly) protracted wind-up, the pitch is pretty straight forward, but it will take some words to lay it down. There are 10 principles, each with a little explanation, some with an illustrating story from Loma de Luz. What follows, then, are 3 of the 10 Principles and a story–straight from the Gospel Primer of What did Jesus Do? and rigorously field tested on the edge of burnout.
1.) We are not made to work constantly. Sabbath was made for man
Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” –Mark 2:27
…But the news about Jesus spread all the more, and great crowds came to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses. Yet He frequently withdrew to the wilderness to pray. –Luke: 15,16
There is a reason God ordained a routine time of rest. We are not made to work constantly. And, even the Master needed time off duty, time to rest and regroup.
2.) Recognize burnout (preferably proactively) and do something about it.
Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” –Mark 6:31
Jesus recognized the overwhelming nature of what He and His disciples were involved in, and He took steps to do something about it. What He frequently did about it was to go to a quiet place, “far from the madding crowd.” He often went alone. But He also recognized when those close to Him were in need.
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. –Matthew 14:13,14
What had happened in the gospel narrative here, was that Jesus had just heard about the beheading of his cousin, John Baptizer. He recognized that He needed to get away and process. But still moved with compassion for the large crowd, He healed their sick, then fed the 5,000 (plus women and children)… well, he actually fed 5012 men, for the “twelve baskets” of fragments which he had his disciples gather after the multitude was fed, in the original Greek…those baskets were “kofinous,” the kind of basket used specifically for carrying your lunch to work. He had not overlooked the needs of his 12 closest disciples, those who had served the multitude.
People need purpose, but they also need food, rest, time away, appreciation and loyalty, someone recognizing that they’ve done well, and watching their back because they do.
3.) Bear another person’s burdens:
Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. –Galatians 6:2
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. —Matthew 11: 28-30
Bear ye one another’s burdens
So about a month ago on a routine day at the hospital, Rosanne was in the midst of her routine job as Nurse Anesthetist and went down the corridor to one of the in-patient wards to do the pre-op evaluation of the next patient for surgery. That patient was Doña Julia, an 87 year old woman who had fallen and broken her hip. She was scheduled for hip-pinning later in the day. Lying next to her on the ward was Doña Conchetina, a 63 year old woman who had just come in through the Emergency Department, with a gangrenous foot from complications of her uncontrolled Diabetes. Conchetina needed an amputation, and we were looking for a way to work her into the operative schedule later in the day and mentioned to Doña Conchetina (and the neighbors who had brought her in) that we would do her surgery when we could. Still, Rosanne spent most of her time “pre-op’ing” Doña Julia since she was previously scheduled. (Pre-op is to prepare the patient for surgery, getting a medical history, checking the chart, explaining about the surgery, and praying with the patient.)
Doña Julia had only met her roommate an hour or two earlier, but after the prayer, Julia’s only comment or question, other than a loud “Amen,” was “Well, what about her? She needs the operation; maybe she should could take my place today.”
An 87 year old poor country woman in pain for days with a broken hip, knowing she needs surgery to fix it, has taken on the burden of her just-met roommate to the degree that she is naturally more concerned about her neighbor’s wellbeing than her own . . . . Kind of humbling, isn’t it.
We have so often seen the poor in great need show grace in sharing their neighbors’ burdens that we can say that just being around it resets your perspective for the day. It re-balances the demand/reward equation by taking the focus off of yourself. And not grow weary in well doing is more about balance than resolve. These are the first 3 principles. The rest may get harder.
But, we just reached 1946 words with 2000 straight ahead. So, Mother, if you are still reading, the rest of the principles and the stories will have to wait for the next newsletter.
Jefferson McKenney, M. D.
News and Needs:
Communications and social media—We need a full-time communications and social media missionary. Please pray for just the right person for this position to hear the Lord’s call.
Solar Power—We have recently finished the solar power project and are very happy to say that the solar panels (they have been installed on the roof of the “Joe’s Place” Apartments) are working well. They can generate ~25 – 30 KW and during peak hours will reduce our grid power costs by ~20 %. We are very grateful to all those who gave so generously for this project.
Expansion in many areas—There are currently 17 active construction sites. More Samaritan’s rooms (casitas for patients needing intermediate care, etc.) have recently been finished, with more well under way. Within the hospital we are working on phased expansion beginning with adding a new Surgical sterilization room and instrument storage. When that is finished, we will continue by steps over the next year with the end goal being: 4 Operating Rooms, a new and larger L & D, an ICU, and expanded ward space. The bilingual school has new bathrooms (the prettiest ones in Colon), and the construction of a new laundry and additional missionary housing for the Children’s Sanctuary Center is under way, as well as a new section there specifically for babies. There are other projects planned or under way, as well as the busy work of repairs and remodels. Pray for refreshing for Mike Yost who has been heading up so much this summer.
Personnel for the School and Children’s Center—We continue to need Teachers and Childcare Workers. Please pray.
Joe Brewer—Joe Brewer was one of the early Cornerstone Board Members and the leader of many, construction brigades during those earlier years (including the Joe’s Place Apartments mentioned above). He was gravely injured in an accident while directing post Katrina relief and reconstruction 13 years ago now. We just heard that he has been placed in hospice care. Please pray for him. We are truly thankful for the person he is as well as the life he lived.
Please pray for wisdom, safety, refreshing, and vision in all areas of the Lord’s work in Northern Honduras.
Thank God seriously for the Doña Julias in your life (there probably are some—keep your eyes open).
–Sally Mahoney for Cornerstone Foundation
Solar Panels at Loma de Luz
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