Single Missionaries and Burnout

Feb 16, 2016 | Missionary Care, Personal Issues, Suffering, Thriving

Burnout |noun|:  The condition of someone who has become physically and emotionally exhausted after doing a difficult job for a long time or as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.

Burnout is a subject that has long been discussed in missionary circles. The need to find effective strategies to prevent it remains as critical now as ever. Many prospective missionaries are told about the difficulties they will face in their future ministries and those who are wise develop good preventative strategies. However, even those are not a sure inoculation against burnout. Unfortunately no one can really predict how they will respond to the pressure-cooker environment of overseas Christian ministry.

But what if there were some things that we could predict? What if we knew ahead of time which people might be more susceptible to burnout and we adapted our care accordingly? I’d like to suggest one demographic that is more susceptible to burnout than most – singles.

If close, deep relationships are what missionaries need in order to thrive, then single missionaries are at a distinct disadvantage.

Not having a family may have an upside when it comes to devoting time to ministry, but it has a downside in terms of a missionary’s emotional wellbeing. In his book, Missions Unmasked, Adam Mosley speaks of the missionary’s need for supportive relationships.

“In fact, what is sorely needed within the missionary community is something all of us need, no matter our location or life situation, but which missionary partners and supporters half a world away simply can’t provide. Missionaries need relationships—real, deep, personal relationships. They need other people who are hands-on in their lives, in their ministries, and in their stories.”

If close, deep relationships are what missionaries need in order to thrive, then single missionaries are at a distinct disadvantage. I’m not talking about a college student who returns home for the holidays or phones home when her car won’t start. I’m talking about people who aren’t even on the same continent as their family. Going home for an occasional holiday may be an option for some, but more often than not, “home for the holidays” is not a destination within the missionary’s budget.

Here are some conundrums, based on my experiences, that a single missionary might face:

  • Who do I spend Christmas with? Do I ask to spend Christmas with someone or just hope to be invited?
  • Where/how can I get away from my ministry and relax? (Traveling alone in a foreign country poses significant problems for single women.)
  • Who can I talk to about a big decision that I am making?
  • Is there a safe person that can be a sounding board when my emotions are running high and need a release?

These are needs that are usually not a problem for missionary couples because they have each other. But for singles, figuring out how to meet these needs is a stressor that is piled on top of an already stressful, and often isolated, lifestyle.

If you are supporting a single missionary, keep a close eye on them. Don’t just ask them how they are doing. If you ask vague questions, you’ll get vague answers. Do the hard work of getting to know them and asking the deep questions. Inquire about their friendships, their co-workers, and their family. Have them do a self-evaluation of their relational and emotional wellbeing. Is their tank on full or is it nearly empty?

If deep, personal relationships are a single missionary’s greatest need, then your connection to them could be the key component in preventing them from burning out. For more insight on single missionaries and their needs, read this article by Michele Phoenix.

Stay tuned next week to hear about a second demographic that I believe is at an even higher risk of succumbing to burnout.

(Written by Lori Morley)


  1. bes

    true, true, true!  Even when there is a great team to work with, there are hard decisions and relationships to make.  It is hard to become close to those you are working with, so we look for someone outside our organization. Yet there is such a turnaround on the mission field and thus we lose those we are close to.  We eventually stop trying to be close to anyone.

  2. Lori

    Yes, there are multiple reasons why we might decide that the effort we make to invest in relationships is not worth the return and we stop trying. Accumulated loss is one of those reasons. Thank you for pointing that out. For singles, finding ways to have our relational needs met in an overseas missionary environment is one of our greatest challenges.

  3. Anna

    Another great article!  I think this is something important for the whole mission team to realize.  One thing that I have noticed is that singles are sometimes put last and shuffled from place to place- “because they are single.”  There are some people who thrive on change and adventure, but many who don’t.  Also, in some cultures, they are at more of a disadvantage when they don’t have a man to “protect” them or speak up for them.  (And in a few unfortunate situations, they need to be protected from another ex-pat or teammate.)  It’s something that the team should be aware of, and extend protection and care to them.

  4. Lori

    That is so precious to me that you understand some of the needs of single women. I sometimes hesitate to talk about some of the difficulties because I don’t want to sound like I’m having a pity party. I didn’t experience being shuffled around but I did feel at a disadvantage as a single female because of not having a man at my side. There are things that I doubt would have happened if I had been a married woman with a man to speak for me or if I had been a man. I experienced that in a more personal and hostile way from ex-pats than from the citizens of the country where I was working.

    Thank you for pointing some of those things out.