Why talk about missionary stress?

(Especially when others are talking about it)


Good question. While stress is a factor in missionary longevity and resilience, I often wonder if we haven’t over emphasized an inevitable fact of life? Granted, on a common scale used for measuring stress “… cross-cultural workers experience about 600 points of stress per year. The level may peak as high as 1500 points in some circumstances, and drop merely to ‘normal’ for people who are in long-term, stable situations.”‡ And why is that significant, you might ask? Note the chart below:


According to stress research, scores over 200 are more likely susceptible to long-term health problems. Anything over 300 is considered dangerous and the person is at high risk. “The amazing fact is that most missionaries DO adapt and work effectively in spite of killing levels of stress.”


Your-struggle-is-part-of-your-story-550x550Struggle is a part of life. For the missionary, factors including cultural adjustment, financial pressure, loneliness, spiritual dryness, separation from family, unusual illnesses, and apparent limited job success contribute to a higher sense of stress than the average person. Missionary stressors also come in the guise of language learning, loss of the familiar, climate changes, and family problems. Another researcher adds culture shock, discouragement, burnout, and depression. Actually the list goes on: natural disasters, life endangerment, news of injury/death, and serious accidents, broken relationships on and off the field, constant demand on one’s time, inadequate medical care, overwhelming work load, pressure to be a good Christian both on and off the field, confusion over one’s role, a lack of privacy, and infrequent breaks from the 24/7 job.


PTSDThe data of greater concern for many researchers is the cross-cultural worker’s susceptibility to secondary posttraumatic stress as well as those who already show symptoms of PTSD.[1] For others, myself included, while the numbers are alarming, effective service is a far more important concern. Back in 1983, Myron Loss estimated that only one in four cross-cultural workers function at a level one would call normal. He indicates that the factors that cause one in four to leave the field prematurely also cause as additional two out of four to limp at a reduced efficiency.[2] Though significantly old by research standards, I think Loss’s research appropriately raises the question whether research hasn’t focused on the wrong group. Only recently (relatively speaking) has any research thought been given to those who remain in their field of service, whether flourishing or floundering.[3]

What’s the Problem?

The problem, as I see it, is not stress, culture shock, or even eventual burnout. When the cross-cultural worker becomes overly focused on ministry and enculturation demands, they tend to neglect their intra and inter-personal spiritual formation. The result of such neglect is a lack of purpose, vitality, endurance, effectiveness, and in some cases, the worker leaves the field altogether. In order to thrive and succeed, on-the-field workers need to take responsibility in facilitating mutual growth amongst themselves—both personal and spiritual.


What can be done about it?

The problem facing every cross-cultural agency has been variously defined. Mine is one of many. Member care, as a growing discipline, has been attempting to address the dilemma in its multi-faceted expanse. As a discipline, member care is the on-going investment of resources by agencies, churches, and service agencies for the nurture and development of cross-cultural workers. And because the goal is overall nurture and development of the workers, key players in the member care field agree that it is the responsibility of everyone in cross-cultural work to participate in cultivating godly character, inner strength, and developing the necessary skills for the worker to remain effective in their work.[4] In other words, care is everyone’s responsibility (more on this in a later post).

team-network2Kelly & Michele O’Donnell suggest four basic approaches to member care that agencies can provide:

  1. Prevention. Prevention seeks to decrease the incidence of potential stressors. The goal is to eliminate problems before they arise. For example, making sure of a good fit between the person and his or her field assignment is likely to decrease work frustrations.
  2. Development. Development helps missionaries to acquire and improve certain essential skills so they can better cope with the demands of missionary life. For instance, training in conflict resolution will help team members to work through the inevitable tensions that arise from working together. Or, pre-field training in language-learning techniques will help them more readily to master the new language and thus reduce their stress.
  3. Support. Support means direct involvement with people undergoing stress. One example is the group discussion we had with our Amsterdam team. They talked about their struggles and some of their strategies for managing stress. This mutual care giving helped them to affirm each other and to know that they were not alone.
  4. Restoration. Restoration reduces the effects of stress and consequent problems. This would mean, for example, sending a crisis intervention team to places where missionaries need immediate care. The team may not be able to undo damage already done, but it could limit the effects of any remaining problems.[5]


‡Note per the Dodd’s citation: The original study revealed that 200 points of stressful life events caused 50% of people to become seriously ill (cancer, heart attack, etc.) within the subsequent two years of the stressful situation. With 300 points, 90% became ill.

[1] Robert W. Bagley, “Trauma and Traumatic Stress among Missionaries,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 31, no. 2 (2003).

[2] Myron Loss, Culture Shock: Dealing with Stress in Cross-Cultural Living (Middleburg, PA: M. Loss, 1983)

[3] William D. Taylor, “Revisiting a Provocative Theme: The Attrition of Longer-Term Missionaries,” Missiology 30, no. 1 (2002): 79.

[4] See Kelly O’Donnell, “Member Care on the Field: Taking the Longer Road,” in Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, ed. William David Taylor (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1997), 287

[5] O’Donnell, Kelly and Michele O’Donnell. “Stress Can Be Managed.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 27, no. 1 (1991): 40-45.