Just how Stressed are Missionaries (and what can we do about it)?

by Jim on 7 March 2012

I was just reading about stress levels in missionary life.  Now, you may have heard of the Holmes-Rahe Scale, which is one way health professionals measure stress in people’s lives.  The idea is that a certain number of life events can build up the level of stress until it gets dangerous.

Some of these might be the death of a family member, a child leaving home, trouble with the boss, change in social activities, a vacation, or marriage.

I’m not going to analyze the pros and cons of the scale, but it does say something about our lives and our ability to cope and react to change.

Back in 1999, Drs Lois and Larry Dodds (of Heartstream Resources) were studying the levels of stress on the mission field, using a modified version of the Holmes-Rahe Scale.

In Holmes and Rahe’s original study, they found that if you reached a level of 200 on the scale in a year, the cumulative stress would have consequences for some time to come.  In fact, they found that 50% of those who reached this level were hospitalized within two years.  The reasons included heart attack, diabetes, cancer, and other severe illness.

If ever the level reached 300, the person was almost certain to end up in the hospital within two years.

So frankly, you don’t want to have that much change and transition in your life.

So, the Dodds wanted to find out what the typical missionary went through.  As you might have guessed, the news wasn’t good.

The typical missionary had not just peaking levels above 300 – they had sustained levels over 300 – – – year after year.

The typical missionary, in fact, had double that level – 600 on the scale!

Admittedly, the missionaries in the original study were Americans in Latin America, so we’re not in the category.  Well, not exactly.

Stress Level Scale

The other bad news was that missionaries in their first term had levels that peaked at 900.

These numbers are truly mind-boggling.

The recommendations of the Dodds?  Here’s a summary.

  • First, be very serious about selection, training, and placement of missionaries.
  • Second, missions should think twice about sending first term missionaries into especially isolated situations.
  • Third, they should think twice about sending missionaries with young children into isolated situations.
  • Fourth, provide people trained in member care who can provide continuous support to missionaries.

What about those of us who are friends or supporters of missionaries?  (Yes, I know we’re missionaries ourselves – but we’re also friends of missionaries!)

Well, here are some ideas, just off the top of my head.

  • Pray for them:  Pray that they would find support and friendship on the field (coworkers, national believers – and even unbelievers).  Pray for God’s grace in their lives, for times of rest and refreshment, for wisdom.
  • Encourage them:  Letters, calls, surprises, financial support (not just normal support – but maybe a gift for the kids or a bit for a holiday/vacation), visits, help when they’re in your area…
  • Be informed:  What does the mission do to ensure missionaries are being taken care of?  How do they decide how missionaries are placed?
  • Show grace:  Missionaries need to be accountable to their supporters.  But this has to be done with grace.  Recognize that missionaries are not miracle workers who can transform the world on their own; they’re not super-humans (or Vulcans) who can never be disturbed by the realities of life.  When people say to us "I could never do what you do" we often reply,"neither can we".  Missionaries will get frustrated, depressed, confused and they will fail.  Give them grace and support, and don’t be too shocked if they even take a week off now and then.
  • Don’t Pretend to Completely Understand:  We never know, really, what someone else is going through.  This applies to a death in the family, an illness, a divorce, a problem at work – no matter what it is, we can only understand to a point.  The same goes for cross cultural work.  If you want to offer help, advice, criticism, ideas, whatever it is – do it with grace and humility.  Hopefully the missionary will take it the same way.
  • Be a part of sending more missionaries:  Why in the world would I add this to the list?  Why would we want to send more people into such a stressful situation?  Because in the end, God has sent us into the world, and He has the grace to sustain us.  Suffering is a reality of life.  And God uses it in our lives.  The work must continue.  If we can be excited about the work, support it, and encourage it, that will go a long way.  It’s wonderful to know that people believe in the Great Commission and that we’re working as a part of a worldwide team.
  • Realize it’s not hopeless:  No, not all missionaries need to burn out or be completely depressed all the time.  While we recognize that suffering is a part of the missionary life, it is still possible for missionaries to serve long term with joy.  We just need to allow God to use us to help one another.

In the end, it’s worth the stress.  This rescue-mission that we’re on is more important than personal comfort.

But that’s not to say that we should ignore the issue – instead, we should minimize the problem as much as we can, so that missionaries can be more effective in their ministries.

And we as missionaries – we should not be using some stress scale as an excuse.  But again, we should be aware of the challenges, and ask God for wisdom as we try to balance our lives.

As I look around at other people here, it’s hard to feel too hard done by.  Our friends have challenges that we can only imagine, and we are humbled by their faith (if they are believers).  Though there are challenges, and we must be careful to run the marathon with patience, we know that our sacrifice is really a small one when you look at the big picture.

Yes, the work must go on.

via Laura Parker

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Grandma C, March 7, 2012 at 11:30 pm

Jim: Well expressed, from my point of view. More supporters, family members and friends need access to this information. Although, as you say, no one else (but God) can truly understand all the pressures you, as individual missionaries, face.

Maybe we can at least relay this to our congregation.

Thanks for writing this.

Britney March 9, 2012 at 6:47 am

This is very interesting. Where can I find the original article?

Jim March 9, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Hi Britney,

This information was based on more than one study. The missionary study was, as I mentioned, based on missionaries from the USA in Latin America. The next missionary study was more universal – missionaries from various countries to various countries.

Heartstream resources has a summary of the information after the second study here (pdf file). Their website contains other related resources.

Hope that’s a help!


Foibled March 10, 2012 at 2:43 am

I was surprised not to see listed Jesus’ tactic for dealing with stress – getting away for a while. New missionaries especially need breaks from the stresses of working cross culturally.

Jim March 10, 2012 at 11:26 am

“Getting away for a while” wasn’t mentioned, because I was more talking about the strategies of mission agencies and missionary supporters. I would hope that this strategy would be a part of the training that missionaries receive.

I can’t tell you how often I think about this strategy of Jesus – times away, nights of prayer, times with His close friends – and so many more things we can learn from His life.

Shari Cottrill March 11, 2012 at 8:10 pm

This is such an interesting bit of research…thanks for your additional comments and insight! I have an amazing hubby who writes amazing blog posts!

Foibled March 12, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Jim, fair enough. But getting away does cost money for missionary supporters and they need to understand when the getting away is part of a report of what the missionary did. Also, mission agencies need to authorize it, if not insist on it, and supervisors need to be supportive of it. I think that pushing the responsibility down to the level of the missionary will not result is enough times away, or perhaps in a missionary who feels guilty about times away.

Grandma C. March 12, 2012 at 3:33 pm

Shari: You are so right!!

Jim March 27, 2012 at 7:03 am

I think you make a good point, Foibled. Maybe it’s time we not just suggest a maximum holiday/vacation time, but a minimum…

Karl Dahlfred December 2, 2014 at 9:46 am

Thanks for posting. Being a missionary certainly adds more stress although if it were really true that critical health issues result from running at more than 300 stress points, none of the long term missionaries would be here. The stress might be great, but God’s strength in weakness is greater.

On the one hand, I appreciate pointing out the special circumstances under which missionaries labor. But at the same time, there is the danger of unwittingly communicating to churches back home, “We have it harder than you” and appearing as if we are holding it up as a badge of superior spirituality. I think most people on the home side understand that living abroad would bring extra stresses but there will always be a contingent of folks who’s first reaction, “Yeah, well you don’t know how tough I have it!” and resent any talk of missionaries undergoing more than normal stress

Jim December 2, 2014 at 1:16 pm

Thanks for the comment!

I agree with your comment. I think there’s a very difficult balance here.

I would hope that the average believer we talk to back in our passport country knows that I have a great deal of respect for them, and in many cases couldn’t do what they do (humanly speaking). I don’t subscribe to a belief in “classes” of Christians, where the “super-spiritual” are the missionaries and pastors.

At the same time, I think we need to recognize that full time cross-cultural missionaries have challenges that others don’t have. Yes, the Christian plumber has challenges that cross-cultural missionaries don’t have! So I tend to think that we need to recognize those special and unique challenges that full time cross-cultural workers have, without minimizing the challenges of others. In other words, we can argue about who has more “stress” and why, but the reality is that we all have special challenges, and we need to help one another to fight through them to live a holy life.

Karl Dahlfred December 3, 2014 at 2:24 am

Hi Jim,
Do you know if there is an online version of the modified version of the stress test done up by Dodds? I found online what I think is the unmodified version (http://www.actsweb.org/stress_test.php) and I scored a 51. However, I think I probably have quite a bit more stress than that, but the questions that would zero in on it aren’t on the test. If you know of an online version of it (or one that could be turned into an online version), let me know. Thanks.

Karl Dahlfred December 3, 2014 at 2:29 am

I also want to add that some missionaries set themselves up for additional stress by failing to learn the language properly. Functioning at a lower level of language over the long haul means more misunderstanding, more frustration, and shallower relationships (not to mention less effective ministry) as compared to a missionary who has put in the hard effort in their first term to learn language well. It is a sad situation because this is a type of (culture) stress that can be avoided (or drastically reduced) be long-term planning and a priority on language.

Jim December 3, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Excellent point about the language. Preparation in general is so important. I get the feeling many missionaries get to the field really not understanding what they will face when it comes to culture, language, spiritual struggles, etc.

Good question about the stress scale. One newer scale is the Psychiatric Epidemiology Research Interview Life Events Scale (pdf). There is also a list of newer questionnaires here. If you find anything interesting, let me know. 🙂

Lisa January 5, 2015 at 12:25 am

The hard part about this test is that it’s couple/family oriented and does not list the separate stresses for a single. But this is a good article to raise awareness for others so that they have a slight idea of the struggles.

And while I’m a full advocate for learning the local language well, this last assignment has taught me that sometimes you travel so much that it’s nigh impossible since you’re rarely in the host country and constantly switching languages as it is.

And sometimes getting away can mean staying at home and not working if you can’t get out of country/town…

Jim January 5, 2015 at 6:31 pm

Thanks for your comment, Lisa!

I agree, it would be great to see some follow-up studies to this one. Different demographics – missionaries coming on the field as a “second career”, missionaries with young families, singles, male/female – each have their unique challenges and temptations.

Of course if you’re not long in a country, learning a language deeply is not possible. However, learning a few words is a help, and I recommend it even to those on a trip for only a few days.

Still, that won’t really solve the problem we were talking about above. I would hope that if you’re travelling a lot that your mission would allow you significant time to stay connected to your home church, for example. It’s not healthy or wise to be constantly on the road, and I think we see even from the lives of the Apostles that they took significant time either at certain locations or else to reconnect with supporting churches.

As you say – yay for the “STAY-cation”! 🙂

Grandma C. January 5, 2015 at 11:06 pm

Excellent discussion going on here!

Good replies to comments, Jim.

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