When you are in doubt, reach out
“The way God will keep me to the end is through the wise counsel and correction of others who know me well.” (Ken, a pastor & missionary in Japan)
“Prior to my departure, during missionary training, we were taught a variety of methods related to self-care and stress management.” Satō* confided, “However, under my breath I whispered to myself, ‘I don’t need this! I am OK! I have faith, and it should be enough!’” But one night on the mission field, “my heart suddenly collapsed. The fear, anxiety, and a great sense of despair hit me all at once. Yes, I had heard the term ‘burnout’ before. But I’d never thought that it would ever happen to me.”
When vulnerability leads to empowerment
In general, the pressures of Christian ministry are real. But for those who cross international boundaries, the challenges are even greater. The stress of adjusting to a foreign culture—its values, customs, language, environmental and relational systems—can never be underestimated. Those who respond to God’s call for ministry are often those who are the most passionate, diligent, and courageous. And yet we also can be the most prone to disappointment, discouragement, and burnout. It’s also very common that the higher our level of leadership/authority position is, the harder it is to be real and vulnerable with others. The more “spiritually mature” we think we are (or think we are perceived to be), the greater the hindrance is to reach out for guidance or support.
As Christians, we are often more prepared to share the testimony of our victories in ministry than our fears, doubts, and setbacks. Pastors often feel that they should present the ideal image of spiritual maturity, so they don’t think it is appropriate to share their own personal struggles with anyone, especially with those whom they associate and lead. Missionaries fear they will disappoint their mission organization and supporters if they were truly candid about their debilitating anxiety, depression, or other mental health/family-related issues. It’s also not that uncommon for God’s workers to be caught in a loop—feeling an unbelievable amount of pressure to perform, while trapped in a deep sense of loneliness and disconnectedness. Others are bogged down with helplessness and even hopelessness due to grief from loss; unresolved emotional injuries; and lack of practical guidance, skills, and empowerment.
We all want meaningful connection. However, not all of us are willing to be vulnerable with others. As a result, we deprive ourselves of what we actually need the most: safe, trusting, and empowering relationships which can result in revelation, growth, and healing.
Tarō, a Japanese missionary who serves overseas, said, “I had previously served [God] with a lot of zeal as his servant because he is Holy God. But before serving him, I needed to let Jesus love me (I needed to receive and embrace his love), minister to me, and give me rest.” He said his counselor, “was easy to talk to, caring, and professional, and most of all he was a committed Christian—which gave me comfort and peace. I somehow immediately knew it was safe for me to open up.”
The importance of member care ministry
Behind the scenes ministry, such as counseling/coaching or member care-related ministry, is an integral component of ministry. Anyone in ministry can benefit from this essential resource. We all need a trusted confidant, don’t we? We need those who can listen to the cry of our hearts, to discern and to guide, to keep us accountable, and to continue to propel us forward toward the Lord’s calling for our lives. Ecclesiastes 4:12 says, “By yourself you’re unprotected. With a friend you can face the worst. Can you round up a third? A three-stranded rope isn’t easily snapped” (The Message).
In Japan, there still are misperceptions and unspoken stigmas related to counseling or getting mental health care—even among Christians. Some believe that God is the only answer to their problems. Although it is true that God is the ultimate source of everything, he also provides people like Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy for the journey.
Competent helpers or professional counselors help validate one’s experience but also provide clarity and assist us to reframe our thoughts; they also can equip workers with practical skills. As Christian counselors, we position ourselves differently than the secular ones because we are committed to support in ways that are “Christ-centered, Biblically-based while being discerning and obedient to the gentle leading of the Holy Spirit.”1
Tarō reflected on the counseling he’d received: “I realize some of my thinking and default mind-set was twisted and unhealthy. I needed to renew my mind.” He said his counselor had helped him through the sessions “to observe myself, my thinking patterns, and my situations from new and different perspectives. With his precise and spot-on advice, I knew where to start in order to be healed. I needed to start with God, but not in a way I had always done.”
How do I know when I need to reach out for help?
Each person’s experience is unique. What counts as serious threats to one’s well-being is different for different people. However, there are some warning signs that deserve special attention:
1. Being emotionally challenged. Emotions fluctuate. However, when your emotions become highly reactive (dysregulated) or under-responsive, it’s important to assess if there are core issues that you need to address. Notable emotions that deserve prompt action include: increasing irritability, fear, and anxiety; extended sadness; numbness and despondency; an unexplainable sense of guilt and shame; and feeling worthless, helpless, or hopeless.
2. Increasing maladaptive and obsessive thoughts. Thoughts powerfully influence emotions and behaviors. When you notice your thoughts are too preoccupied with either the things of the past or the concerns of the future, and you struggle to get yourself “unstuck,” you will want to seek a fresh perspective. Maladaptive and obsessive thoughts can potentially distort how you see yourself and how you think others perceive you, as well as your perception of what could be the solutions to your existing concerns.
3. Debilitating physical symptoms. When we internalize our stressors, there will likely be physical manifestations. Signs of depleted energy, decreased or insatiable appetite, insomnia or hypersomnia, headaches, muscle pain, skin rash, and gastrointestinal complaints (e.g. ulcer, abdominal pain, etc.) are common physical symptoms of internalized stressors. Thus, it’s important to listen to these signs. Frequently, they are our most obvious indicators for considering assistance.
4. Social withdrawal or interpersonal deterioration. When one experiences the symptoms cited above, he/she will start noticing the breakdown of interpersonal relationships. One may show lack of energy and decreased interest in investing in relationship with others. Although it may not be obvious in the beginning, it will become more noticeable as thought patterns worsen and emotions feel unbearable.
5. Being doubtful, conflicted, and/or discouraged spiritually. When we encounter personal struggles—such as chronic pain, addiction, depression, or betrayal—we may pause and wonder why. We may have dialogues with God about our concerns, but we also may be reluctant to engage in a candid conversation with others. We hold on to the belief that “God has to do this or that in order for me to carry on his work.” But then, when God does not intervene in ways that we had hoped, we may get confused and discouraged spiritually. We may start questioning the vision and the calling God has for our lives. When you find yourselves in a situation like this—feeling doubtful, having “lost track,” and are spiritually discouraged—do not wait any longer, reach out.
After his recovery from depression, Satō shared, “Christian ministers, such as pastors and missionaries, tend to be lonely ‘supermen.’ Upon deeper contemplation I realize that the ‘ordinary person’ whose life relies solely on God and simply being a transparent human is actually stronger than the superman? I want to be that ordinary person as I serve the Lord!”
Ken, reflecting upon his journey, said, “Having a professional, Christian, third-party (non-coworker) counselor who can give insight into some of the most turbulent areas of my life as well as tools for managing difficulties has equipped me to love my family, co-workers, and others I minister to in ways that would not have happened otherwise. I am indebted to this ministry.”
Tarō said, “I am not 100% healed or recovered yet, and I no longer have confidence in myself (my flesh), but my conviction of my calling is stronger than ever! My counselor said to me, ‘You are on the front line (in the mission) and I am in the back!’” Tarō reflected, “With such an encouragement, I do have full confidence in the Lord, and I feel I can get back up and serve God and people again.”
The “impossibility” begins with courage, humility, and surrender. Thus, when you are in doubt, reach out!
* Names in this article have been changed.
1. Siang-Yang Tan, Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2011), 325-360.