The Reality of Missionary Burnout

The Reality of Missionary Burnout

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matthew 11:28-30 (MSG)

I’ve always loved the way the Message paraphrase of the Bible puts those well-known verses – come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

Rest is something we sorely need right now, because, to be brutally honest and frank with you, we are feeling burned out.

That’s something quite difficult for a missionary to admit. Both of us felt called to this life, and fully believe that Liberia was the place God wanted us to be, so why aren’t we imbued with a supernatural strength that allows us to cope with the hardships and strains? Why are there days when it’s all we can do to keep going?

And why is it that, despite it all, we can’t imagine doing anything else, even if it feels a bit like this life is leaving us beaten and battered?

It’s two and a half years now since we moved to West Africa, and it was just over half a year after that when Dave was rushed to hospital with appendicitis. We’d certainly felt the strain of life in a very different country and culture up until that point, but that felt like the pebble that started the avalanche. After a probably not long enough recovery time, Dave was back at work and doing an avionics installation, then we were flying to America for exams and engineering license conversion, and then it was back to Liberia, to assist with swapping the programme from operating on the Ugandan Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA) system to America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A process that would normally take years was completed in six months, with more overtime than we like to think about, and the very real possibility that flight operations would need to halt if the work couldn’t be finished in that time.

With no real time to recover, the normal work of running three aeroplanes across two countries in West Africa continued, with chronic understaffing (an industry wide issue), made worse at the start of 2024 when the only other engineer, albeit a parttime one, left the country. Our last home assignment ‘break’ involved over twenty engagements at different churches and groups across the south of the UK, and we returned to Liberia as exhausted, if not more so, than when we left. It’s been nonstop for the last two years.

It is virtually impossible to find rest within the country we live in. There are very few places to go and stay, and those there are cost a considerable amount of money. The constant humidity is draining, but running air conditioning is expensive. Even on a rest day, sealing ourselves into the office with some precious cooling air circulating around us, we’ll be disturbed by incessant knocking from the front door – someone selling some fruit perhaps. We could ignore it, but then we’d have to go to the market, battling through the heat and difficulties in understanding what the Liberians know as English, but which sounds very little like what we would know it as. We’ll undoubtedly be asked for money too, and face the daily overwhelming reality of how incredibly rich we are compared to virtually everyone within this country, and yet battling with the dilemma of when helping hurts, and where and when we can legitimately assist the people we encounter.

It’s a lot. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I could ramble on about the traffic, the corrosion, the inevitable failing of anything held together by glue (like shoes), the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, the insane cost of groceries in the small supermarkets we have access to. The list goes on and on.

It all sounds very negative, and that’s hard for us too, because we are both positive people and we always like to share the best of what is going on. We still love the work of MAF, we are still thrilled to be a part of it, to know that our being here is allowing flights that are, quite literally, lifesaving. We love our daily walks on the beach, even if we find ourselves dodging rubbish including syringes, needles and other medical waste some days. Not to mention the jellyfish washing up now we’re approaching the rainy season here – they have a potent sting!

So why are we sharing this at all? Because it is important to remember that though life sometimes feels hard, the promises of God remain. That in those moments we feel we have nothing left to bring, we can lean on our Father in Heaven all the more. That when we are weak, then we are strong.

Regardless of who you are, where in the world you are living, what you may be doing, there will be times like this, moments of exhaustion and stress where everything feels too much. We are not exempt because we are missionaries, nor are any people involved in any area of ministry, nor are any of God’s children.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

There’s no promise in the Bible that things will be easy. Quite the opposite. And yet, the biggest problems, the most painful pressures, they are as nothing, compared to the eternal glory won for us at the cross.

It doesn’t mean the pain vanishes, but as we turn our eyes upon Jesus, as we fix our gaze on the unseen, the eternal, we remember that our future involves no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain. It means an eternity where God himself will be with us, and be our God.

That is worth remembering.

It’s part of the reason we can still find a smile, even in the midst of the madness.

Dave Waterman - MAF Missionary
Becky Waterman - MAF Missionary

And yet, here and now, we are living with those symptoms of burnout. We find ourselves feeling apathetic and overwhelmed and exhausted, lacking in enthusiasm, and feeling physical symptoms of the weight of it all. We are tired. We are worn out. We’re not entirely sure how to fix it, and we know full well that without your ongoing prayers, we would not be here. You are keeping us going right now.

In May we will be taking a four week break out of Liberia, which is our attempt to have some rest and recovery time. We will be attending a spiritual retreat, spending some time with family to celebrate some big dates, and we’ve raided our savings to book a one-week cruise to Norway. We hope it will bring some restoration to our energy levels, some time to learn those unforced rhythms of grace once again.

Please do continue to pray for us. There is positive change coming – more engineers are enroute to Liberia, albeit not until later in the year, and we hope to take a second break later in the year too, to give us another chance to rest and unwind. Right now though, the load feels heavy, and being able to share a bit of it with you, knowing you are keeping us in thought and mind and praying for us when we struggle to find the words to do so ourselves, means more than we can possibly say.

Thank you, for being with us.

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