I was startled awake several times last night and had a hard time going back to sleep. Was I worried about thieves or how we’ll pay our bills? Did I have too much coffee before bed? None of the above. Just a simple tension over a difference in values between me and another missionary.
But do missionaries experience stress? Just as surely as we are human, we succumb to the stress of internal and external pressures just like others.
My husband and I presently live in simple comfort; I make my own schedule and have a wonderful coworker – my husband. And we work with missionaries who are totally sold out to serving God. Stress? You bet.
I took a few minutes to identify my three main sources of stress. First, I am basically my own boss, but from all my years of work experience, I can say that I’m my own worse boss. I’m pretty hard on myself. I’m driven to get things done and have a hard time shutting down. I have to admit after all these years, that I am desperately poor at estimating how long things will take to complete and regularly overestimate my ability to finish. And I am a perfectionist. I’ve created my own chaotic work world.
In missions, as in many church settings, the need is endless. So much needs to get done. People need a word of encouragement; people are waiting to hear from me; people are waiting for a visit. How do I say “no” when my heart cries out to respond, “Yes, I’m coming. I really care about you.” My stress flares as I struggle to slow down and say “no.”
My second source of stress is conflict. Surprised? Even missionaries struggle to resolve conflict when they clash over values and opinions, and because of our high expectations as Christians, we are very hard on ourselves when we do struggle. I tell myself, “You know better, couldn’t you have prevented this? You shouldn’t be so upset that he disagrees with you. You know how to respond!” Now, I not only have external stress in the form of thoughtless words, but I have the internal stress of guilt and condemnation! So there you have it. Stress.
And finally, there’s the stress of traveling. Traveling is at the heart of our ministry of encouraging and strengthening isolated missionary teams. But isn’t traveling romantic? Well, yes and…. no. I love traveling and being out there connecting with the missionaries. I thrive on teaching and seeing people dialogue around new understanding. I love seeing parts of Africa that some people pay to see on travel channels! But constantly sleeping in different locations, constantly engaging in intentional conversations, and being available twelve or more hours a day is demanding. Yes, stressful.
So that’s my personal story of missionary stress. My own humanness as I grapple with stress enables me to be more compassionate in helping other missionaries wrestle with their own stress. My intentional effort to respond biblically carves out pathways along which I can lead others. Paul often referred to his own stressful challenges as he served, but could knowledgeably instruct his disciples, “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer…And the peace of God…shall keep your hearts…” We can’t avoid stress, but we can learn to respond biblically and offer hope to other stress stragglers.
• What are your personal sources of internal or external stress?
• What biblical ways are you responding to cope with stress?
• What hope can you pass on to other stress stragglers?