Get a Life! Steering Clear of Burnout on Mission

Be the Interesting Person God Made You to Be

“We need to remember Step 0,” I said, as I stepped up to the whiteboard in the campus ministry conference room and used the last functional dry erase marker to write a “0” in blue. This was not the first time my team discussed how we could “share life” with the students on our campus. It was, however, the first time I understood how to articulate the solution to the real problem: “Before we can invite people into our lives, we first need to HAVE a life to invite them into!”

If this statement seems obvious, kudos! This post might not be for you. For every missionary disciple out there who understands well how to share life in a way that continues to give them life, there are ten more who are struggling with how to make time to do things that bring them joy and help them to recharge. It is a common pitfall of mission to live a life centered around only doing things that other people want to do; and if that is something you struggle with, I invite you to consider that there is another, more sustainable way to live mission.

To be clear, I am not attempting to diminish the grace and life that are attained through our prayer and sacramental life. These are the lifeblood of our union with our Lord on this earth, and their importance cannot be overstated. It is important to note, however, that what we do between and around our sacramental and spiritual life can either foster or destroy our ability to remain on fire for fulfilling His Great Commission. It is this problem that has prompted me to share my experience.

Summer Projects Men on a Camping Trip

Connect With Others Through What We Love

The concept of “sharing life” with others is an oft-used phrase that has deep meaning behind it. It can and should include both the ordinary parts of our lives and the larger cultural and religious traditions by which we create and maintain the communities where we live. To become evangelists that live lives worthy of imitation, we need to be people who have hobbies and interests that connect us with our humanity and the world around us: activities that encapsulate all five senses; recreation that gets our body moving and places us in and around nature, where we were created to be (instead of inside a building with electric lighting twenty-four hours a day); undertakings that pique your curiosity and make you contemplate what is true, beautiful and good.

A friend of mine was recently looking for a way to connect with his daughter. She revealed she had things she wanted to share with her dad but that she did not know how to talk about them. He asked if she would feel better about writing to him, to which she responded, “Yes!” This was a beautiful example of remaining attentive and understanding of the needs of his child, but what he did next is what struck me.

Her father is a woodworker in his spare time, and he invited her to create a special wooden box with him that they would place in their house where she could leave him letters whenever she felt the need to do so. They chose the wood, carefully measured and cut the pieces together and fit them such that the box was both beautiful and functional.

There are countless ways the father could have tried to “solve” the problem that his daughter was going through. In this case, though, he chose not only to provide a thoughtful solution, but he did so in a way that brought her into his life in a deep and meaningful way that was only made possible by the years of time, practice and money that he had invested in his own interest and hobby.

The way he shared an interest and bonded over building something together only came about because of the time the father had invested learning the craft of woodworking. A question I often ask myself is: Am I making time to learn about, practice and invest my energy and resources in the things that will enable me to use my God-given talents and interests to bring Him glory in my life? And when appropriate, am I looking for opportunities to share them with others?

How much more special and loved will his daughter feel placing her concerns and questions in that box? Through her father’s invitation to enter into his lifelong hobby, she can now share herself with him in a new way that she is more comfortable with, and she can remember how they created something beautiful together every time she does.

Kids Jumping on a Trampoline

Take Your Mental Health as Seriously as Your Physical and Spiritual Health

During my time on campus, one of my teammates made it a point, whenever she felt like the timing was right, to encourage the students she knew to get a (professional) counselor. How she spoke of our need to have healing brought into our lives from the wounds receive in life completely reframed how I thought about and cared for the students with whom I worked. I have since adopted a similar mindset that we all go through seasons in life where we need a professional to help us sort through the wounds, traumas and difficulties we have experienced in our lives.

I am not an expert on “holy leisure,” but I do know that a lot of missionary-minded individuals who have the greatest of intentions to love others and share the Gospel with them live their lives “for others” to a degree that leads to burnout, frustration and the feeling that they have no identity outside of how well they are connecting with the interests of others.

One of the symptoms of major depression is that you no longer enjoy doing things that you regularly do (or once did). If a person is struggling with anxiety, it makes it really difficult to draw proper boundaries when planning one’s week or choosing what activities to participate in with friends and family. If you are experiencing a lack of joy in what you’re doing on mission, or if you’re feeling anxious or stressed about things that don’t seem to cause those around you the same level of difficulty, I would encourage you to talk to someone you trust about finding a professional counselor who can help get you on the path to healing. In the same way that God does not want us limping through life with broken legs without medical attention, He also does not want us “pushing through” in our work, school and mission-related activities when we are in need of healing of the mental health issues that are plaguing us. Healing is possible!

Take an Interest in What Others Around You Enjoy

You might be asking: “But aren’t you telling us to find what interests us, regardless of what interests those around us?”

Yes, and one way to find those things is to pay attention to what gives joy to those that you look up to in your life! Whether with the friends I made in college, in my time being on a team of missionaries on campus or in my family life, it is necessary and good to try things we have never done before. It also is necessary make sacrifices to do things that we wouldn’t choose to do otherwise. Many people have written about how to take an interest in what others love on mission; so while that is an important aspect in the life of a missionary disciple, I will focus on how doing this can help us find the interests and hobbies that can truly help us come alive.

USC Men Hiking

If you are the sort of person who hasn’t spent a lot of time figuring out what you really like to do with your time, just trying a lot of different things and what your friends and family are interested in can be a great place to start! There is no “wrong way” to go about getting started in “having a life.” It’s not about finding the one thing, or the only thing, and it is certainly not about finding it the first time (or the second, or third, for that matter) of trying something out. The key is to do a good job discerning in the moment and after the fact. Does this make me feel more alive? Utilize my God given gifts and talents? Challenge me in a way that I know I need to grow to become the saint I’m called to be?

I’ll be the first to admit I would much prefer to spend time with someone who really loved doing something and wanted to share that with me then with a person who only ever wants to do what I want to do. We have to be careful not to adapt ourselves to the lives of those around us to the point where we don’t have time for interests and hobbies of our own.

In sum, as missionary disciples, we need to have interests we can invite others into in addition to doing things solely for the sake of others. If you’re someone who tends to fill your schedule with more things that others want to do than things that you like to do, please do you and your mission-related endeavors a favor and take some time to think about the particular gifts and interests that our Lord has given to you. The Church needs men and women who are fully alive in their faith and who are living life to the full, which of course brings us back to where we began: we all need to get a life!

P.S. Please pass this on to someone you know who needs to hear these words. The harvest is abundant, and the laborers are few (cf. Mt 9:37). Encouragement and “rethinking” how we choose to go about fulfilling the Great Commission is a constant task that we need to help one another with. Tell your friends when you think they’re doing too much for others and not enough for themselves!

Andrew DeCelle
Andrew DeCelle is a missionary on the Digital Outreach Team, serving The College of William & Mary. Born and raised in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, he has a heart for mission, a passion for sports, and a desire to help others understand how they can change the world for Jesus Christ and His Church. This is his 7th year with FOCUS and he lives with his wife and four children in Blacksburg, VA.

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